An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Toby Faber
Faber & Faber: The Untold Story (Faber & Faber, 13 August 2019)
“The persistence of Faber & Faber, which is now celebrating ninety years as an independent publisher, makes for a remarkable case study…. The Faber story certainly speaks volumes about the mix of passion, shrewdness, and luck that it takes to keep such an operation afloat.” ―The New Yorker
AUTHORLINK: Mr. Faber, thank you so very much for your time today. We really enjoyed your book about your grandfather’s publishing house, Faber and Faber and some of the fascinating stories of its history. It’s a reverent commemoration to publishing and literature alike.
There was always the temptation to write a book about this grand publishing house and in January 2017, you decided to pitch the idea to none other than, Faber and Faber. They said yes, not surprisingly!
You sat at the treasured octagonal table of the Faber archives room – where your grandfather, Sir Geoffrey Cust Faber used to chair the book committee every Wednesdays – looking through files and illustrations leading up to the firm’s 90th anniversary.
Corporate histories can sometimes be tedious, but your approach for this book was refreshingly different. As much as possible, you tried to tell the story through the words contained in the diaries, letters, memoranda, reports, minutes, catalogues and even financial spreadsheets of the people working with and at Faber over a 90-year time period. In this way, you built up the story of how Faber and Faber became what it is today, a truly remarkable and iconic publishing house.
We understand you came across a short and sweet poem from the American poet, T. S. Eliot, the first poetry editor at Faber, that had never been seen before. Can you describe what that felt like; what the circumstances surrounding the poem were, and the poem itself? Can you share any other hidden gems that you discovered in the paperwork of your research, not featured in your book?
FABER: Yes. That was amazing. It was in a file that was I think called ‘Sales Director’ from the summer of 1933, which no one had ever imagined might contain correspondence with TS Eliot. There was a whole funny story, which I’ve only been able to mention in passing in the book, where the sales director, ‘Pat’ Paterson, is unable to come through on a promise to buy shares from George Blake, who has resigned as a director and needs the money rather badly. It’s because Pat’s father has ‘married a barmaid’ and refuses to release the money he needs. Pat feels so bad about this that he offers to resign. My grandfather knows that he can’t accept a resignation for this reason but does rather want Pat to resign anyway (the firm needs a different approach to sales) and manages to achieve that as diplomatically as possible. At the same time, he needs to find another buyer for Blake’s shares and asks Eliot if he can help. Eliot has just returned to the UK from giving lectures at Harvard; he’s decided he can no longer live with his first wife Vivien and is in fact staying with another Faber director, Frank Morley, but also planning to come for a holiday with the Fabers at the house in Wales that my grandfather bought a few years earlier. So his letter in which he agrees to buy Blake’s shares ends with this little ditty about what he’s like as a guest:
My vocations are tedious and trivial.
My manners are mild and entrancing.
My tastes are compact and convivial:
- Eating, (2) Drinking, (3) Dancing.
He did come to stay and had a lovely time, returning every summer until my grandfather sold the house in the Second World War.
That was actually the second Eliot letter I found. The other was from 1927 in an even more obscure file about ‘The Nursery World’, which was a magazine my grandfather founded and was finally forced to sell. It’s also quite interesting about Eliot’s business sense but doesn’t contain poetry. In both cases I showed all the obvious people, specifically the Eliot Estate, and John Haffenden, who is editing Eliot’s letters and was himself really helpful to my project.
I shared most other gems in the book. I don’t claim to have discovered the memo about Ted Hughes on which Eliot has written ‘I think we should take this man now’ or the letter from William Golding offering the book that would become Lord of the Flies, on which the Faber reader has written ‘Rubbish and Dull. Pointless. Reject’ (luckily it was saved by the brilliance of another Faber editor, Charles Monteith), or the letter in which Eliot introduces himself rather formally to my grandfather. These are foundation documents for the firm. I hope anyone reading those for the first time will feel something of a shiver up the spine.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, they certainly will. In an industry that today is comprised of so many amalgamated names herded into the ownership of a larger pen, Faber and Faber is stalwart in its long-standing independence.
The firm never needed to be bought out by a conglomerate as it is precisely half-owned by your family and half-owned by Eliot’s estate. Of course, this is not a guarantee that it will never be taken over if something goes wrong, but at least these two shareholders can cover the expense of any loss, if necessary – providing the firm remains relevant. Given Anna Burns, who wrote The Milkman (Faber & Faber, 17 May 2018) won the Man Booker Prize last year, we believe it is in the forefront of being ‘relevant’.
Describe to us what it’s like when awards are being announced in that hallowed Bloomsbury House at Russell Square? Is it as we imagine it, with staff gathered around in good cheer, nibbling hors d’oeuvres and sipping champagne after the news of yet another genius literary win? Or is it a wholly low-key and back-to-work affair?
FABER: Most awards tend to be announced at parties when people are no longer in the office. The Booker Prize is awarded at a dinner in London’s Guildhall: a very grand venue where each shortlisted author will only get one table. So the only people from Faber there will generally be the Chief Executive and the people who have worked on the book itself. On the other hand, it’s fairly traditional for all shortlisted publishers also to host a party in some other venue, where staff and friends watch the announcement together. The year Anna Burns won we did that jointly with Profile, another independent publisher whose imprint Serpents Tail published Esi Edugyan’s ‘Washington Black’, which was also shortlisted. You can imagine everyone crammed onto a tiny dancefloor straining to hear the television, and the shout when the chairman of judges made the announcement. So you’ve got this strange mixture of ecstatic Faber people (winning the Booker Prize is a huge: Milkman was the 7th Faber book to win it but the first since 2003 and Ann was our first ever female winner) and Profile employees being very gracious. Then the party started to fill up as Anna and others came on from the Guildhall and people taxied over from the other publishers’ parties, which had suddenly got rather quiet. It all went on rather late!
Of course, there was champagne at the office the next day too, I’m pretty sure.
Rather more like the scenario you imagine is when an author wins the Nobel Prize. That’s announced during the day and generally comes as a complete surprise. I remember a board meeting being interrupted one year with the news that Harold Pinter had won it. Then there was the buzz that went around the building when Kazuo Ishiguro won. That was a wonderfully joyful occasion.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you for sharing that – it’s as if we were there. We were transported by your summation (but nearly choked on our coffee at the ‘first ever female winner’ part. 😉) With leave, we will now go back to the beginning of the Faber story, and provide a short summary of its shimmering history (and please correct us if we’re wrong).
Your grandfather, Geoffrey Faber was a fellow at Old Souls at Oxford, where he met Maurice Gwyer whose wife had inherited a Scientific Press for nurses. Mr. Gwyer wished to update and diversify the press with Geoffrey’s help and so after World War I, they changed its name to Faber & Gwyer and shaped the list be more literary. In a few short years, it was well on its way with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon (Faber & Gwyer, 1928) which won both the Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
There was another literary print out at the time called The Criterion with Eliot at the helm, and it was the intention of your grandfather to get him on board at Faber & Gwyer, as well. In this, he succeeded, and the anglophile poet became an astute, courageous and unexpectedly warm editor, and even became godfather to Geoffrey’s son, your father, Tom Faber.
“Although Eliot had by this time already published much of his most celebrated poetry, including The Waste Land, I rather think Geoffrey had not heard of him.”
You say in your book, “Although Eliot had by this time already published much of his most celebrated poetry, including The Waste Land, I rather think Geoffrey had not heard of him. Nevertheless, he liked the fact that Eliot was not only a poet, editor, and critic, but also – at the time – a banker, presumably with a head for business. More important than that, the two men got on very well.”
We understand your grandfather considered Eliot quite an ‘obscure’ writer when he met him, which is rather amusing.
He then decided to buy out Gwyer, and the firm became Faber and Faber in 1929. Interestingly, there was only one ever Faber – your grandfather – and as poet and novelist, Walter de la Mare had said, “You can’t have too much of a good thing, why not call it Faber and Faber?” And they did.
By the mid-thirties, Faber and Faber had become one of London’s leading publishers, and the stamp of acceptance by Eliot came to mean that it was the home of literary Modernism. During those early years, Eliot often rejected submissions. However, he also encouraged work by poets such as W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, helping to make Faber a force in the literary world from the 1930s onwards. In this way, while Eliot was editing and writing for The Criterion and working hard on his work, Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion, and Four Quartets, he was also becoming increasingly in demand as a ‘cultural commissar’. He also produced poems about pets for children including his godson, Tom, your father, which would end up being in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, (Faber and Faber, 1939).
It’s all so interesting!
During the Second World War, business boomed for Faber and Faber, as it did for most publishers, as the ‘public still needed entertainment, and reading was one of the few pastimes compatible with the blackout’, despite paper shortages.
Afterwards, though, the company seemed to waiver and Eliot, by then in his sixties, no longer felt especially useful. Renewal arrived in the person of Charles Monteith, another fellow of Old Souls who was working (unhappily) as a barrister in London. He joined Faber and Faber in 1953 and among the writers he added to the Faber list, were William Golding, Samuel Beckett, Ted Hughes (and, posthumously, Sylvia Plath), P. D. James, and Seamus Heaney to name a few.
In 1964, the firm hired Matthew Evans, (later Baron Evans of Temple Guiting, CBE, FRSA) as an assistant who was eager to challenge the ‘self-satisfied’ Faber status quo. In 1965, he attended the Frankfurt Book Fair with another junior employee, Mary-Kay Wilmers (now the editor of the London Review of Books), and in a letter to their bosses, they wrote, “Our list, of course, is respected by everyone, but our publishing methods are not. People feel that we are smug and … don’t work to do our authors or our books justice.”
By the seventies, a possible bankruptcy was looming, and Evans was appointed Managing Director, while Monteith became Chairman. It was an era of general economic hardship in Britain. By 1980, Monteith had to admonish his colleagues that books recently published should, “render us forever on our guard against the funereal, however artistically satisfying.”
It was around this time that Robert McCrum, a fresh-faced reader, was appointed junior editor. Soon, there was a new version of the Faber influence, as McCrum went about creating the fiction brand the firm had long been lacking. Books by Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, Paul Auster and many others began to surface.
And we’re so very glad they did.
The firm had been revived once again and then even more so when Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to make a musical based on Eliot’s old poems about pets. ‘Cats’ premiered in London’s West End in May 1981 and became an overwhelming, worldwide success which financially rejuvenated the company.
Faber and Faber is a pillar of success with literary stars such as Sally Rooney and Anna Burns, (longlisted for and winner of the Man Booker Prize respectively) and in 2017, Ishiguro became the thirteenth Faber writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Now after all that, how does it feel to be the human repository of this extraordinary history and dazzling literary success? Even though you have been brought up with the knowledge of how the Faber books have influenced the landscape of global literature, do you still feel in awe of the firm’s accomplishments and your grandfather’s? If you could go back in time in a time machine, would you tamper with the Faber files?
“My grandfather may not himself have been a great publisher, but he was an entrepreneur who knew when to take risks and had a very good eye for talent…”
FABER: I feel enormously lucky. My grandfather may not himself have been a great publisher, but he was an entrepreneur who knew when to take risks and had a very good eye for talent in the people he appointed – most obviously TS Eliot and Charles Monteith – so that he made his own luck. Then my father, who was essentially a physicist, proved to be a careful steward of the firm his father had created. As a result, my siblings and I (there are 6 of us altogether) share a name to be proud of.
It would be good to go back in time and tell my grandfather that the firm he founded is still flourishing and one of the centres of literary London in the 21st century. He died before I was born so I never met him, but I’ve got to know him in the course of writing the book and I like to think that knowledge would give him pleasure.
In terms of what I’d change, well there are the famous books we lost of course. It would be good to be able tell my grandfather to go ahead and publish Ulysses, ignoring the risk of prosecution for obscenity, or to correct any of the other misses that you mention later in this article. On the other hand, the firms that did pick up all those books have all lost their independence, while Faber is still here; so I can’t be too regretful.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, it’s truly amazing. Yes, publishing has changed in an unrecognizable way in the last ten years. With the advent of self-publishing, e-readers and the conglomeration of large publishing houses, do you believe it is a better climate to be a writer, or worse? Or simply a different one? In your opinion, are editors at publishing firms as hands-on as they used to be? Do you believe they should be? Do you feel the quality of writing (grammar and content) has deteriorated? Are beautifully printed books going to one day be a thing of the past?
“…many authors outside the bestseller lists are finding things a lot tougher now than they were.”
FABER: I am writer as well as a publisher, as you know, and I think it is fair to say that many authors outside the bestseller lists are finding things a lot tougher now than they were. I was a director of an author’s organization, the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society for six years. It regularly surveys UK authors about their earnings and these have gone down markedly over the last decade.
A lot of that dates back to the collapse of the Net Book Agreement (by which publishers could set books’ retail prices) in the mid-90s. Most modern technology benefits both authors and publishers. It enables us to converse directly with readers and makes it easier to keep books in print. Self-publishing is now a really viable economic model.
Editors at Faber still try to be hands-on. In the world I have just described, publishers must justify their role. Part of that is the way the publisher’s imprint needs to be a mark of quality that readers can trust. Writers need to trust us too, and part of that is believing that Faber is helping them produce the best book they can.
Writing changes all the time. The English language is a wonderful vibrant thing and one person’s bad grammar might be another’s distinctive voice. I am quite a pedantic reader. When I come across grammar that doesn’t seem right, it can bring me up short and spoil my enjoyment of whatever I am reading, but I try to keep my mind open to writers who express themselves in unorthodox ways.
As for beautifully-printed books, well right now they are going through something of a resurgence. Partly as a response to the threat of e-books, publishers are putting a lot more effort now into making books that are beautiful objects as well as great reads. That’s not to say there aren’t threats, of course, but right now feels like quite a good time to be a publisher.
AUTHORLINK: What a wonderful answer. So good to know. We love the untold stories uncovered in your book about the hits and misses (and near-misses of the firm). This one in particular, comes to mind, about the young American author who sent Eliot a copy of his third novel and Eliot’s response to same:-
‘T. S. Eliot to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 31 December 1925
The Great Gatsby with your charming and overpowering inscription arrived the very morning that I was leaving in some haste for a sea voyage advised by my doctor. I therefore left it behind and only read it on my return a few days ago. I have, however, now read it three times. I am not in the least influenced by your remark about myself when I say that it has interested and excited me more than any new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years…May I ask you, if you have not already committed yourself to publish The Great Gatsby with some other publishing house in London, to let us take the matter up with you?’
Sadly, Fitzgerald had to reply that the book was already committed to another publishing house. What an unfortunate miss.
Another is when in 1944, Eliot wrote to George Orwell, complimenting him on Animal Farm, but at the same time rejecting it because it was ‘being rude’ about Britain’s Soviet allies. Faber also lost the chance to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses as well as Michael Bond’s, A Bear Called Paddington. Who knew? It’s incredible when you think about it.
On the other hand, not all was lost, and in fact, most decisions were outstanding ones. One hit/near-miss includes the most famous of Charles Monteith’s discoveries. Soon after he started at Faber, he came across a letter attached to a dog-eared manuscript that had already done the rounds had been rejected by many publishers.
The letter said:-
I send you the typescript of my novel, Strangers from Within, which might be defined as an allegorical interpretation of a stock situation…I hope you will be able to publish it, yours faithfully, William Golding’, (a Salisbury school teacher at the time). Not an overly inspiring introductory letter, to be sure.
Monteith noted the comments of the Faber reader written across the top of the covering letter, which stated:-
‘Time: The Future. Absurd, uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom in the colonies. A group of children who land in jungle country near New Guinea. Rubbish and dull, pointless –‘
There was also a big ‘R’ for Reject at the end of it.
Monteith read beyond these comments and gave it another chance. This eventually became Lord of the Flies (Faber and Faber, 1954), by William Golding (a Salisbury teacher at the time).
Your book is also full of colorful tidbits about the relationships between the authors and the firm; like the way Samuel Beckett regretted the modified passages in Faber’s version of Waiting for Godot; or how Lawrence Durrell complained about the covers of his books; or the way W.H. Auden got furious over his titles; and the time when Samuel Beckett contemptuously dismissed the suggestion of a memoir. We even learn about what kind of diligent employee, Pete Townshend, of The Who, was when despairing of the future of his band, he came to work for Faber and Faber in 1983.
These and other interesting perspectives give the reader a close-up view of not only the inner psychology of a successful author but the goings-on of a prolific publishing house.
However, we are curious about the following mysteries. Is there any paper-trail or word-of-mouth evidence available about the following? In brief:-
“…the picture that emerges from the editing of [William Golding’s] Lord of the Flies is of an author who happily accepted his editor’s comments and worked hard to respond to them.”
- Did Eliot ever express regret about not taking on George Orwell (twice) and what did he say? FABER: Not as far as I know, but several volumes of his correspondence are still to be published so something may yet emerge. The point to stress is that Eliot definitely liked Orwell’s writing, it’s just that he thought Down and Out in Paris and London didn’t quite work as a book and that July 1944 (when he rejected Animal Farm) was not the right time to be publishing a book criticizing our Russian allies.
- Whose idea was it to approach Samuel Beckett? FABER: I’m pretty sure that was Charles Monteith, after he saw the first London production of Waiting for Godot.
- What was the literary relationship between the Durrell brothers? FABER: The only insight I have is that Lawrence recommended Gerald to Faber (and, I assume, vice versa). It was enough for us to publish The Overloaded Ark but unfortunately, we weren’t able to hang on to Gerald Durrell for subsequent books.
- Was it difficult editing William Golding’s work given how pedantic he was? FABER: I’m not sure about Golding’s later books (I haven’t read those files) but the picture that emerges from the editing of Lord of the Flies is of an author who happily accepted his editor’s comments and worked hard to respond to them. The book had already been rejected by so many other publishers; I think he was just very happy to be published.
AUTHORLINK: Too true. The first covers of the Faber books featured illustrations by several great artists, including Edward Bawden, CBE RA and Barnett Freedman CBE, RDI. During the war, new cover designs arrived at Faber by Berthold Ludwig Wolpe, a brilliant typographer.
Tell us about the cover of your book and how it came about. Did you have a say in the design?
FABER: Faber’s in-house designer, Eleanor Crow, had the idea. She was inspired by a book called Plats du Jour published by Penguin in 1957. That has a cover by David Gentleman which features famous faces around a rectangular table. She made the table octagonal – like Faber’s old boardroom table – and populated it with some of the firm’s most famous authors. Elliot Elam had recently done the cover for Christopher Reid’s Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs (a homage to Old Possum) and seemed a natural choice as artist. We played around with it a bit. At one stage we were going to insert more Faber iconography – for example Golding was going to be holding Piggy’s glasses from Lord of the Flies – but decided in the end that less was more. I love the end result.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds like fun. It makes the book look like a real classic – which it is. You read Natural Sciences and Management Studies at Cambridge. In the late 80s, you worked for four years in corporate finance after which you joined a management consulting firm. Around the time, you were also approached by Evans, Faber’s longstanding Chairman and Managing Director, who was looking for a successor. You kept in touch for the next three years until you finally joined Faber in April 1996 as his assistant, which eventually led to you becoming the Managing Director for five years.
You are also a successful author in your own right. You have written two celebrated works of non-fiction, Stradivari’s Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection and Faberge’s Eggs: The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces that Outlived an Empire.
Your first novel, Close to the Edge (Muswell Press, 4 April 2019) was published a few months before your Faber book, which must have been a huge and heady juggling act.
We understand you were working on the thriller for ten years. What was it about this book that caused you to work on it for so long? We suppose sharing the commitment between family and work? Your Faber book was published a few months later. Can you briefly compare the process of writing the two?
In general, what compelled you to put pen to paper in the first place – other than your DNA? Have you done any writing courses – or considered doing some of the brilliant courses offered by the Faber Academy?
” Close to the Edge is my first piece of creative writing. I haven’t attended any courses but perhaps I should have done.”
FABER: If you can make a living out of being a writer then I think there is no better life. The publishing deals I got for my first two books meant I was able to do that for a few years, but I couldn’t get publishers interested in my follow-up ideas (I’ve always tried to resist forcing my books on Faber, although, as you’ve already pointed out, they couldn’t really say ‘no’ to the history). So I decided that instead of researching another speculative idea, I would instead write a novel. I certainly didn’t expect it to take ten years. All sorts of factors played a part in the delay. First, because I had no contract I had to concentrate on doing other things to earn money (or look after our children so my wife could work). I probably went about it the wrong way too: because I hadn’t really thought through the whole plot before I started, I had to go back and rewrite a lot to keep my characters believable. Drafting a new ending took over a year. Then there was the whole drawn-out process of finding a publisher. Close to the Edge is my first piece of creative writing. I haven’t attended any courses but perhaps I should have done. I imagine they would have saved me some of that wasted time.
That novel was just about finished (but still looking for a publisher) when I had the idea for a Faber history. In many ways the process couldn’t have been more different. With the Faber book, I had a very clear vision of the structure of the book and the story I wanted to tell. I also knew I was going to tell that story as much as possible from contemporary sources, rather than in my own words. So most of my job there was one of research and editing. It was all great fun. My first draft, in fact, had very little of my writing in it at all. My editor, Laura Hassan, persuaded me to put in the introductions to each chapter, and tightened things up in lots of other ways too. She was right, of course.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you for your open and frank response. We’re so glad you persisted. Can you tell us what you’re working on now? Are you perhaps writing a sequel to your first novel, Close to the Edge?
FABER: I am indeed writing a sequel to Close to the Edge, but under much the same time constraints as before. I’m not making very rapid progress, although I hope it won’t take ten years!
AUTHORLINK: Ha! No, we’re sure it won’t. We can envisage your Faber book be made into a tele-series. It would be so witty and entertaining, kind of like a mix between Mad Men and Woody Allen’s, Midnight in Paris. Have any production companies raised the possibility with you? Have you any thoughts as to who could play your grandfather, who could play Eliot?
FABER: I agree! One producer has been in touch, but I haven’t heard anything more. Clearly whoever played them would have to be VERY handsome. Even Groucho Marx complimented Eliot on his looks.
AUTHORLINK: It would be such a wonderful series! To conclude, may we ask you some light-hearted questions:-
- If you could write any three books, which would they be? FABER: Vanity Fair – for the best anti-hero(ine) in fiction; Pride & Prejudice – for the sheer perfect joy of it; and the Harry Potter series – for the way it created a generation of readers.
- If you could invite any three people, living, or dead over for dinner, who would they be? FABER: Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and David Niven. I hope they’d spark off each other and I’d hear the most wonderful stories.
- Oh imagine! What is your favorite book to movie/TV series conversion, if any? FABER: When I was growing up in the 70s the BBC used to show Sunday afternoon television series which introduced so many of the classics to me. They probably stretched over six weeks; there was no way of speeding it up and if you missed an episode that was it: no second chances except for the possibility of a repeat. David Copperfield is the one that sticks in my mind now, although I don’t know how its production values would stack up for a modern audience.
AUTHORLINK: That’s terrific. Mr. Faber, thank you so very much for your time today. It was so great talking to you! We truly wish you every success in all your endeavors and the continued success of the wonderful, extraordinary, Faber and Faber.
FABER: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.
About the Author: Over the past 90 years, Faber & Faber’s authors have included William Golding, TS Eliot, WH Auden, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Alan Bennett, PD James, John Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro, Barbara Kingsolver, Sebastian Barry and many Nobel and Booker winners.
As the grandson of Faber’s founder, Toby Faber grew up steeped in the company’s books and its stories. He was Faber’s managing director for four years and remains a non-executive director and chairman of sister company Faber Music.
He has written two celebrated works of non-fiction, Stradivarius and Faberge’s Eggs, and his first novel, Close to the Edge, was published in 2019.
Now Faber & Faber: The Untold Story was published to celebrate Faber’s 90th anniversary. Toby lives in London with his wife and two daughters.