Diana Athill, the editor-publisher who took on my first novel in 1953, died in January 2019 at the age of 101. In her nineties she was writing book reviews and articles, and driving her Morris Minor car about the streets of London. As far as I know, no one was injured.
My relationship with Diana was both professional and personal. I was an unknown writer who had just turned 18 when the typescript of The Room on the Roof landed on her desk at the firm of André Deutsch Ltd, where she was a junior partner. It had already been rejected by two or three well-known publishers. But Diana saw something in it – a certain youthful intensity, perhaps – and she wrote to me, saying they might be interested in publishing the novel if I were to do some more work on it.
Diana and André Deutsch took me out to lunch. Encouraged by their interest, I set to work on a second draft, writing in the evenings after returning from the office where I worked as a junior clerk.
Diana was at least fifteen years older than me, but we became good friends and she took an interest in my welfare. Sometimes she had me over at her flat in Regent’s Park, which she shared with her cousin Barbara, a journalist who would one day edit The Economist. Barbara had a boyfriend, Anthony Smith, who had written a travel book called Blind White Fish in Persia. I was now moving in literary circles, dining with writers and publishers, all of them much older than me.
The second draft led to a third, and finally, after months of effort, I signed a contract with André Deutsch and received an advance of 50 pounds, which was the standard in 1954. Another year passed and the book still hadn’t been published!
40 pounds was the cost of a passage to India on a P&O liner, and I came home wondering if my book would ever see the light of day. I made a living writing for magazines and newspapers. Then, a year after my return to India, a copy of The Room on the Roof arrived on my desk. Patience and hard work had been rewarded, and at last I was a real author!
Diana Athill was a good letter-writer, and we corresponded over the years. After some time she began writing her own books, memoirs mostly, and achieved literary success with a book called Stet, which recalled her days as an editor and had some entertaining chapters on some of the writers she had published, including VS Naipaul.
The publishing firm of André Deutsch closed down eventually, but Diana kept writing well into her nineties. And her letters were always full of delicious gossip.
Excerpted with permission from The Golden Years: The Many Joys of Living a Good Long Life, Ruskin Bond, HarperCollins India.
‘The folly of hate and the joy of living’: Ruskin Bond’s illustrated poem, with drawings by David Yambem
Excerpted with permission from Old Trees Have Secrets, Ruskin Bond, illustrated by David Yambem, Talking Cub.