Friday, 1 December 2017

The Paperback Fanatic interviews a cultural icon of the '70s - i.e. me

I say The Paperback Fanatic interviewed me, but it was actually an American horror fiction writer and genre historian, Grady Hendrix (whose splendid Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and'80s Horror Fiction I wrote about here). The interview, which was conducted via email, has now appeared in issue 38 of the magazine, and it's available on Amazon. In the introduction to it, Grady Hendrix was kind enough to write: "...what followed was an email correspondence that at times threatened to melt my laptop screen with its lurid stories of Grønmark’s time as a publicist at NEL." Blimey! Can't wait to read it!

Some background: NEL (or New English Library) - the result of a merger between Ace Books and Four Square - was...

...was owned by the Times Mirror Company of Los Angeles, which published the Los Angeles Times and owned New American Library, the publisher of Signet paperbacks. NEL - a bit of a cult these days, apparently - was an extraordinarily lively outfit in the late '70s and early '80s: not exactly a pariah in British publishing, but definitely not respectable. My boss at Academic Press, where I worked for six months after leaving university, used to sneer at job applicants who imagined that publishing was allabout "taking tea with Iris Murdoch." Well, unless Iris Murdoch was writing steamy sex romps, I wasn't going to meet her at NEL. As a colleague at Academic Press remarked after learning who my new employer was, “So you’ve decided to become a pornographer.”

I drone on during the extremely long interview about my writing career, but what will interest the readers of The Paperback Fanatic will be hearing what NEL was like in those days. Here's a brief extract which will either whet your appetite - or repel you:

"On a typical day at NEL I found myself simultaneously sending out review copies of a batch of fantastically expensive Abrams art books (which we distributed), listening to the author of our Skinhead paperback series, a fat little middle-aged chap called Jim Moffat, pitching me an idea for a novel in which Jesus returns to modern-day America and becomes the leader of a hippie motorbike gang (I kept explaining I wasn’t actually an editor, but Jim had evidently been round to the Printer’s Devil for a swift pint or eight before lunch), and looking at photos of naked models and trying to choose two to dress up in hunting costumes to advertise Gallery, an American girlie magazine we were doing a British edition of. NEL was a Wild West Saloon, a Damon Runyon story, a Thirties Hollywood madcap farce and a psychedelic happening all rolled into one and housed in an office in Barnard’s Inn, where Pip first rooms after arriving in London in Great Expectations...

...Not having worked in mass market publishing before, I didn’t quite realise how deranged, how utterly schizophrenic NEL was compared to other companies. In my four years there, it published achingly tasteful contemporary hardcover literary novels as well as sleazy American blockbusters. It  distributed really gorgeous Abrams Art books and Signet classics alongside Night of the Crabs and Gang Girls. We did Science Fiction Monthly and wank-fodder like Gallery.

It made no sense!  None of it! Why was a company with a reputation for churning out some of the sleaziest, most violent exploitation paperbacks on the market also producing a range of Walt Disney colouring books? How does that work? There are right-on, left-wing feminists running the editorial department and a bunch of hard-drinking, male chauvinist right-wingers pounding up and down the motorway, shifting product mainly aimed at young working class men and schoolkids. The whole thing was a mash-up of people from across the class spectrum. I think there was only one director who’d been to university, and the whole place was skewed towards its really hard-nosed sales operation, which made it refreshingly unstuffy, and gave it real energy. Everyone was so direct.

One minute I’m floating down the Cam in a punt, pretending to read Wittgenstein, the next I’m scrunched up in the front seat of a Daimler limousine with a mega-selling author stretched out in the back worrying about whether he’s picked up a social disease from a hooker. And hustling a drunk Irish writer who was getting a bit frisky in reception out of the building — he’d always announce himself with a cry of “Everybody hide! Wilfy’s here!” And explaining to a Sunday tabloid hack why the female editor of a men’s magazine isn’t really that keen on being photographed naked at her desk. One minute the noted American writer Irwin Shaw would be bellowing writing tips at me in the back of a cab - “Short, declarative sentences - that’s the secret!” - the next I’d have horror-writer Jim Herbert complaining about his agent’s understandable lack of enthusiasm over his plan to write a novel about a gay cowboy gang. One day, I’d be in a tiny bookshop for a signing session with the promising young science fiction writer Christopher Priest - the next I’d be on a podium trying to control a mob of drunk journalists hurling questions at the footballer Pelé, whose autobiography we were publishing (I’d ordered too much hard liquor and scheduled the event too late in the day). I remember asking a man dressed like Disco Stu in the Savoy Hotel suite where one of our authors was staying what he did for a living, and being told “I run a high-class whorehouse in Mayfair.” And one author proudly showing me a fountain pen with a secret compartment for his cocaine stash, supplied by his doctor in Beverly Hills..."

To read the rest, you'll have to buy the magazine.

Here's an anecdote which I didn't include,  but which in many ways sums up what made NEL both delightful and appalling: One morning, I attended a sales meeting, presided over by NEL's charismatic Managing Director, Bob Tanner. He announced that A.J. Cronin, who we published in paperback, had been gravely ill for some time. While we were all quietly reflecting on the mutability of human existence, another attendee growled, "Send him last month's sales figures. That'll polish him off."

1 comment:

  1. Scott Sharman! Great article in Paperback Fanatic! I sent you a message on Facebook, so please reply when you have a moment. Thanks! Darrin