Two of Alexandra Pringle’s authors have won major prizes in recent months. The Bloomsbury editor-in-chief tells Tim Relf about her views on prizes, her new more hands-on role – and why tortoises, rather than hares, make the best editors
Prizes can be agony, according to Alexandra Pringle.
She’s recalling the year she had three authors on the Orange Prize shortlist. Even though reaching that stage was a huge achievement, the end result was one who won and two who didn’t. "For authors and publishers, there are more disappointments than joys," she says.
Pringle’s enthusiasm for prizes remains, however. "We need prizes, just as we need promotions; we need anything that is going to help a book succeed."
While some competitions are obviously more important than others, there’s always an element of "happy-making" that comes with a victory - and so it has been this year with George Saunders and Kamila Shamsie netting the Man Booker and the Women’s Prize for Fiction respectively. These were, she says, "moments of unadulterated joy".
The Bloomsbury veteran is devoting all her energies to her list these days – having handed over responsibility for the adult trade division and staff management to Emma Hopkin, following a heart attack a couple of years ago.
Time for a change
She’d been having a breakfast meeting with a Canadian publisher in a bakery near her 50 Bedford Square office when the episode happened - and, though back at work within two weeks, it prompted her to re-evaluate her working life. "It was time to think again," she says.
Management was enjoyable and rewarding, but effectively she’d been doing two jobs. "I can do what I love most now. Now I have the time to really edit the books, nurture them and oversee their publication - do all the things that commissioning editors do that are so important."
And what a list it is, encompassing everyone from Richard Ford, Colum McCann and Ann Patchett to Elizabeth Gilbert, Esther Freud and Khaled Hosseini. "My list has always been very international. I love publishing fiction that is written in English from outside Britain, or within Britain but from immigrant communities.
"I have a real weakness for memoir and, as I’ve got older, I’ve come to love it even more. You read to understand the world you live in - and fiction does that, but memoir does it terribly well."
One of the first memoirs that came across her desk at Bloomsbury was Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. "There was anxiety that he was a chef that nobody knew in the UK - I took it home and read it and at that point in my life I didn’t cook, couldn’t cook and wasn’t interested in food, but I found it so enthralling that I thought if I still love this book then other people must."
That hit the shelves in 2000, the year after Pringle had been headhunted by Liz Calder, one of Bloomsbury’s co-founders. "I actually took four months to think about it because I knew it was the single most important decision of my life in terms of work - though I can’t imagine why I took more than four minutes now. It was - and is - a very special company."
Its independent status was a huge draw. "There’s something about an independent that means you’re entrepreneurial and you take more responsibility for the company than if you’re part of a large corporation - and you have a sense of individual mission."
Political and literary
This sense of mission also characterised her early career, when she spent 12 years with Virago Press and edited the Modern Classics series. "It was this extraordinary company that was about changing the world - changing the fortunes of women in the world. It was insane and very tough and so very exciting - a combination of being political and literary."
The fusion of the political and the literary clearly appealed to the young Pringle, who’d been brought up in a political and bookish house. Both her parents, as well as being teachers, were staunch Labour supporters (her father was a Labour councillor).
"Literature was very important to them," she recalls. "My father was an English teacher; he used to quote TS Eliot at breakfast."
After Virago - where she "began as the office slave and ended up as editorial director" came four years at Hamish Hamilton, but she soon discovered she wasn’t cut out for corporate life. "I was too old and stubborn. And for me Politics had a capital P and meant changing the world, whereas in a corporation the word politics has a small p and is about internal politics. It just didn’t suit me."
So she "reinvented" herself as an agent, spending four years with Toby Eady Associates, before the call from Calder. It was also partly, she recalls, the match between her own tastes and Bloomsbury’s list that attracted her to the job.
"Publishing is all about taste. You have other things, but at the centre of everything you do is your taste - and your trust in your taste and your judgement. I remember Dan Franklin [now associate publisher at Cape] once saying about one of his colleagues: 'He gets it right enough of a percentage of the time to be a fantastic editor.’ You fail more often than you succeed, but you have to believe in what you’re doing and you have to love what you’re doing.
"I think my taste has broadened a lot in recent years so I’ve learnt to look outwards, which has been a lot of fun. As you get older you relax a bit - you don’t feel so anxious about your tastes. I’ve discovered the humour in me more. I love books that make me laugh. I’ve got to enjoy storytelling more. In terms of going for more popular fiction, I’ve just let go a bit, I’ve just relaxed a bit."
Alongside a passion for books and the people who create them, the best editors have a highly developed sense of empathy and an enthusiasm to acquire a broad skillset, she reckons.
"It’s such a difficult job - you need to have the big picture and the detail. An editor who is just an editor thinks only about the text and creating a marvellous book and handing it over - whereas one who is also a publisher has a 360 degree view on a book and they are the engine that drives a book and they get involved in all aspects, particularly publicity. So you have to have skills in every bit of a book’s life and be there for the author as well.
"You have to be prepared to watch and listen and read and get involved and learn. You have to be very patient because it takes a long time to learn it all. The tortoises rather than the hares of the world make the best editors.
"I sometimes feel that too much is expected of younger people too quickly and that is why you get some of them burn out. Commissioning editors carry a great load. It induces neuroses in the sanest people because you feel the responsibility for whether a book works or doesn’t. Yes, there is a collective responsibility with the company, but in the end it’s you as the editor who has said: ‘I love this book and I want to publish it, I want us to publish it.’"
Back in the 70s, 80s and 90s, such pressures were often coupled with the hard living that characterised the publishing profession, meaning even more people "crashed and burned".
"They were wild times," recalls Pringle. "You worked very hard, but you also played hard. I’m very happy to have experienced it - and very happy for it to not be part of life now!"
Nowadays, her new role gives her more time to "lavish my creative and professional time and attention on my authors". Hers might be a very established list, but reading new books from existing authors is "a delight", as well as potentially discovering new talent. "Finding new voices is always exciting."
She’s also enjoying her new-found hobby - walking. Every morning since the heart attack, she gets off the bus early and walks the last half-hour between her Chelsea houseboat home - where she lives with her husband, writer Rick Stroud - and Bloomsbury HQ.
"I was told I should walk - and I love walking around London. It’s all about keeping the blood circulating."
There’s a bit of unfinished business as regards prizes, as well, when it comes to two of her authors, David Park and Tim Pears. She showers them with praise and points out how they garner fantastic reviews - but both, so far, have seen major prizes elude them.
"Before I leave publishing, my personal ambition is to have both win a big prize," she says.