The Indispensable Julian Rathbone: Transcript

Front Row, BBC Radio 4

Thursday, 24th July 2003
19:15hrs

family_tuning_radioMark Lawson interviews Julian Rathbone

INTRODUCTION

Mark Lawson:
Novelist Julian Rathbone, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, explains how his career was held back by a Prime Minister’s wife and a publisher who thought his material was too sexy.

In the history of the Booker Prize relatively few writers have been shortlisted twice, and you might think that having achieved this your literary career would been made. But Julian Rathbone, Booker listed in 1976 for King Fisher Lives and again in 1979 for Joseph, has suffered a fluctuating relationship with his publishers and readers which he charts in a new anthology of his work over forty years. Called the Indispensable Julian Rathbone it has extracts from his Booker nominees, both are historical novels, but also from his many thrillers and crime stories including Lying in State and Spy of the Old School, and journalism as well. When I met Julian Rathbone I asked him about his reaction to the experience, unusual for a writer, of being forced to look back at all his old books.

Julian Rathbone:
When this book was first proposed I thought that this was easy – all I’ve got to do was scissor out various chunks and put them together and send them off. Of course it didn’t turn out to be as easy as that. I found it difficult to make up my mind – what to put in, what to leave out.

I also had some slightly hidden agendas. I always thought I’d make a great travel writer, so the first section’s a selection of my travel writing, in the hope that someone will cotton on to this and commission me to do some travel.

Mark Lawson:
If we start with some of the highs – although some of those are complicated – the two Booker shortlistings. Now the first one, King Fisher Lives, which you had the complication that the wife of the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Mary Wilson, was on the judging panel – and this is documented by books about him as well – was horrified by the sexual content of some of the books, including yours.

Julian Rathbone:
At the actual function, when it happened, we met afterwards. I was quite surprised because she was really very charming and quite pleasant and I was expecting her to be really rather rough with me.

Mark Lawson:
But yours had, as we know, incest and cannibalism and. from the accounts we have from the time, she couldn’t believe some of the things that were written in the books.
And then – relatively few writers have been shortlisted twice – it happened again later to you with Joseph.

Julian Rathbone:
That time Asa Briggs was chair, and he, being a historian, took to the book, it being a historical novel. At that time historical novels didn’t usually figure in the Booker Prize lists. That particular year there was also The Confederates, Thomas Keneally. I think it was a fairly typical example of judges not being able to agree and coming up with a compromise. Three of them came up to me at the dinner and commiserated, saying they really wanted me to win and so on, but presumably the other three didn’t.

Mark Lawson:
One of the things that has perhaps given critics and publishers problems has been the problem of classifying you. As you say Joseph was a historical novel, but there are many crime novels there, thrillers… is that something you consciously set out to do, having these different careers, or is to do with the putting together the life of the professional writer.

Julian Rathbone:
I started definitely feeling I was going to write thrillers in 1966-67 and there was a big boom in thriller writing at the time – the time of Len Deighton and John Le Carré, very popular and getting a lot of attention. I thought, with my knowledge of Turkey, I could write thrillers set in Turkey. But I quite quickly got bored of doing just thrillers and bit by bit it grew on me that I didn’t want to write just thrillers but write all sorts of things.

Mark Lawson:
And then Spain became an important country – there in Joseph, there in Lying in State – and that became the subject.

Julian Rathbone:
Yes, the lady who later became my wife much later, went with me to Spain in 1973 and we went to live in Salamanca. I was very much taken with Spain and particularly at that time, which was the last years of Franco, it was very exciting and a moving experience to be there at that time.

Mark Lawson:
And you also picked up stories, one of which was Lying in State.

Julian Rathbone:
Yes, it came through my agent. He had been negotiating to buy the Peron tapes which Peron had made and left with a friend of his, Montian the actress. And then the deal fell through at the very last minute. He was convinced he had been used as a stalking horse by Montian to get the price up. Anyway, he gave me all that story but made it clear I mustn’t tell the story just as it was but invent something else, so out of that came Lying in State.

Mark Lawson:
Books of this kind [The Indispensable Julian Rathbone] – Americans use the term ‘reader’ for this kind of book where you get an extract – they normally are just chunks, but here we get one complete novel, Lying in State. Why that one in full?

Julian Rathbone:
Jim Driver [The Do-Not Press publisher] was modelling the concept of the book on a similar collection which somebody did about 15-20 years ago for Graham Greene. They included a complete novel in it. He asked me to choose which novel – obviously we had to choose one that was out of print and the rights had reverted, and I think the two best that I’d written were Lying in State and A Spy of the Old School and we’ve gone with this one.

Mark Lawson:
It’s interesting it’s modelled on a volume from Graham Greene because he’s a clear influence on you and, in fact, you sent him Lying in State.

Julian Rathbone:
Yes, many years ago I wrote a letter to PG Wodehouse saying how much I’d enjoyed his work, and the rest of it, and never got an answer, which I though was slightly strange because he was reputed to send answers. Then, after he died, about five or six years after he’d died, I opened my copy of the Code of the Woosters and found the letter I’d written to him unsent. And I thought, I’m not going to let this happen again, so I sent this letter to Graham Greene and said, don’t think you’ve got to read this book, but I’d just like to give you a present as a thank you for all that I’d learnt from you.

Mark Lawson:
And he answered with the very elegant phrase, “I thought your book a good one.”

Julian Rathbone:
Yes. (Laughs) He also said he found the book a bit complicated and a bit difficult to read for someone as old as he was.

Mark Lawson:
The picture of publishing that comes across is fairly astonishing. You say at one point you weren’t being put into paperback. You had a Booker shortlisted paperback, Joseph, but it wasn’t put into paperback for 21 years because one person had taken against you for reasons you will have to explain why.

Julian Rathbone:
It just seemed to me rather strange that about five books in a row didn’t get paperbacked but were sold abroad. Then, quite independently, two separate people working at Michael Joseph told me that there was someone in a senior position who didn’t like my books and was making sure they weren’t being paperbacked.

Mark Lawson:
You say in the introduction to the book, you were too sexy and too left wing for this person.

Julian Rathbone:
Well that’s what I was told, yes.

Mark Lawson:
The Indispensable Julian Rathbone, sexy and left wing as well, is published by The Do-Not Press next week.

Large format paperback £9.50 (ISBN 1904316131) and Hardback £17.99 (ISBN 1904316123)

The Indispensable Julian Rathbone page