Australian-born Jon Appleton has had a varied career as an editor of fiction for children and young adults: most recently at Hodder, previously for Orion, A & C Black and Scholastic, with freelance spells in between and a period back in his native Sydney, working for Hachette. Over the years, authors he’s worked with include Jan Mark, Caroline Lawrence and Terry Deary (and me), and he’s a regular speaker at conferences for new writers. Now Jon has left the position of Editorial Director at Hodder he’s occupied for the last four years, and has published his first novel, Ready to Love. It’s a comedy of modern manners, based around office and family life and featuring Londoners Minna and Jeff, each looking for a relationship but tentative about approaching each other, while their circle of friends and acquaintances sometimes help but often get in the way.
Here I explore with Jon what it’s like to experience publishing for the first time from the author’s side, after years of giving detailed attention to other writers’ work.
LN: I know that you’ve been writing fiction throughout your time as an editor. As far as I know, you’ve never seen yourself as a writer for children, even though that’s been your speciality as a publisher. Was that a deliberate effort to separate work from pleasure? Or because you’ve always aspired to write for adult audiences?
Jon: I started off wanting to write for children, because I wanted to emulate the writers I loved – Margaret Mahy, Jan Mark, Joan Aiken, Susan Cooper, etc. I think graduating to Penelope Lively’s adult novels (having read her children’s books) introduced me to concerns that were more in keeping with what interested me outside of books. (Unsurprisingly, because I was an adult by then.) So it seemed natural to pursue those interests in my own writing. Then, when I started full-time work, it made sense to keep children’s books in my working life and adult writing for my spare time. But actually I think I’m better at observing adults than children. I can shepherd an author through the process of creating a five-year-old girl character but I wouldn’t – probably couldn’t – invent such a character myself.
LN: You’ve been a great admirer of Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine for many years, and I know you’re an avid reader of other crime and thriller writers. Were you tempted to head in the direction of psychological mysteries when you started to write?
Jon: Ruth Rendell has been one of the biggest influences over me as a writer: I think her books have everything a reader could want. I admired her rate of productivity, and its quality. I really did want to be her.
I spent ten years basically alternating between writing and revising two psychological thrillers. They shifted shape and direction and got stronger in some ways, but ultimately – and it took me a long time to realise it – what they lacked was suspense. More’s the pity, I realised I wasn’t particularly interested in learning how to create suspense. (By this point, Ruth Rendell’s novels had evolved into what one reviewer called ‘urban fairytales’ in which her love of detached irony was instrumental to the plot. I loved these books no less than the police procedurals, but not all readers were accommodating of the shift.)
It was a huge disappointment to realise my failure. But at least it meant I could keep reading crime fiction for pleasure, which I still do.
LN: How did you come to write Ready to Love? It strikes me as markedly different from other works-in-progress you’ve talked about – lighter, more comedic.
Jon: You could say it was born of the failure described above. However, what really happened was thinking: ‘I won’t write crime fiction. But I can’t not write. So what will I write instead?’ The answer was Ready to Love, which was deliberately lighter and more optimistic than the crime novels I’d written in which people’s relationships fell apart and buried truths were worked into the open.
I think Ready to Love is more me, and that the crime novels were born of a) my passion for reading them but also b) an observation that crime fiction sells. Before the crime novels, I’d written one or two comedies of manners. Back then, you could send them directly to editors in publishing houses. I had lovely rejections from Sceptre and Fourth Estate saying the books were well-crafted but not commercial enough. I wanted to be published, so I thought, ‘What’s commercial that I would enjoy writing because I enjoy reading it?’ Crime fiction became my answer.
I suppose I was listening more to my publishing head than my creative head – which isn’t entirely disastrous (and indeed many’s the time I’ve had to tug an author away from the creative towards the commercial because we both wanted their books to be published and sell). But I got to a point when I thought, ‘Hang it, I might as well write what I want to write – and we’ll see what happens.’
Ready to Love happened. There are other circumstances which led to that, but I’m exploring them on my blog. So let’s move on!
LN: It must have taken considerable discipline to persevere with your own writing while coping with the demands of a busy life in publishing. How did you organise your writing time?
Jon: I wrote most mornings before walking to the office, during which I switched out of my own writing and into other people’s. It worked brilliantly. I’d do the same in reverse some evenings. Weekends. Holidays. It took two and a half years to write the book, although there’d been another year of planning before that.
LN: Ready to Love has both a male and a female point of view, starting with Minna’s – a thirty-year-old single woman. Much has been written about writers taking the viewpoint of the opposite gender, though of course it’s not unusual. What attracted you to writing from Minna’s point of view?
Jon: Minna was the character who occurred to me who triggered the whole book. She isn’t based on a real person, but I know her. Anne Fine says writing in the opposite gender is a form of self-protection to prevent you from casting yourself in your novel. Perhaps she’s right. I don’t think it’s difficult, though I have observed that when women write as men, nobody notices, and when men write as women it’s viewed as a feat of divine genius - which cannot be true, of course.
LN: Which authors were your inspiration for this book?
Jon: There is definitely the spirit of Jan Mark and Anne Fine in some of the terse conversations in Ready to Love. I am a huge fan of Anne Tyler: she doesn’t so much make the mundane sparkle but she shows how acceptance or even resignation – which is the best a lot of us can hope for much of the time – can feel like an act of grace. American writers have been a huge influence lately – people like Meg Wolitzer, Emma Straub and Lorrie Moore. Here in Britain, Nick Hornby is someone I always find readable.
And, in a way, still, Ruth Rendell. Months after she died, and I finished the book, I saw a YouTube clip of an interview with her from the very early 90s. She talked about what interested her as a writer. It had nothing to do with crime. She spoke of people’s capacity for delusion or self-deception and how that can lead to extreme behaviour. Well, that’s exactly what Ready to Love is about.
LN: How did you feel about being edited?
Jon: I really enjoyed it. I love paring away and finding the ultimate shape of a story – and that’s exactly what you need an editor for. I really liked having a word questioned because it reminded me there’s always a better one – the right one, which is crucial for comedy. It’s the word that makes a funny sentence funny.
LN: From your wide experience of editing, you must have come across authors with widely differing expectations of how they want to be treated. What have you learned as an editor that helped you through the process of having your work scrutinised by someone else?
Jon: I think what my publishing experience taught me was the need to spend as long as you can with a book to make it as good as you can make it – before sending it out in the world.
Following on from that, I’m really glad that neither of those crime books was published as I think I would have got to a point where I realised, ‘I’m not a crime writer’ and that could have upset relations with publishers and readers. It’s awkward if writers change tack – people say publishers are conservative but that’s mostly because readers are. They say they want innovation but usually they don’t. That’s especially true of children. From a writer’s perspective, I think it’s essential to find out what sort of writer you want to be. And then work as hard as you can to become that writer.
As for learning from my editing experience, I think I learned not be daunted by being edited, that it isn’t a battle of wills or a power game. The editing process can be a tough one – we’ve all had difficult experiences – but the beauty is it’s mostly private. No one need know how you got to the final draft; what matters that you and your editor did.
LN: Although you have extensive inside knowledge of the industry (or perhaps because of that!) you went for independent publishing with your first book. What made you choose that route?
Jon: It was a practical decision. I couldn’t get an agent and I felt uncomfortable about submitting direct to friends in the industry. I know that many writers set out to find an audience before they seek a publisher, and the independent publishing route seemed like a good means of accomplishing that. Also, as I began planning my freelance career in which I want to help writers wherever they are and at whatever stage, it seemed that self-publishing offered freedoms – and challenges! – which complemented that other work.
LN: Congratulations, Jon, on publication, and I hope your book will find many appreciative readers!