Vale Dame AS Byatt

This morning, I woke to the news that Dame Antonia Susan Duffy DBE HonFBA, had passed away at 87. Until I’d finished this blog post, I hadn’t realised that she shaped me in a way that almost no other person has.

For a while in a previous life, I worked in a bookshop. Equal parts both bliss and fatal. I ran the children’s department after cashing up in the morning from the trading the day before. Unusually, we had two branches of the same chain in the city. One was a considerably larger shop in a shopping centre/mall that had more room for authors to do large signings in. I once saw the back of Terry Pratchett’s head.

The shop I worked in was in an old building; double-fronted, with floor-to-ceiling windows. One of which I once nearly fell out of when Colin Firth walked in on a visit to his parents, who lived in Winchester. It was nearly Christmas 2003 when Love Actually was out. We had floor-to-ceiling posters advertising the tie-in materials all over the shop. I may or may not have photocopied his till receipt with his signature on. We hosted smaller signing sessions; Isabelle Allende, Santa Montefiore and her husband, Simon Sebag Montefiore. His mother, Phyllis was regular and a hoot. She was a very proud parent, moving both Santa and Simon’s books to the front of the store every time she came in.

By the way, we also had a fantastic Oxfam second-hand bookshop in the town. I’d regularly visit, both to drop books off and to peruse their stock. After wondering around for a bit on one visit, I found a book I’d not read in ages. I brought it, opened it on the bus on the way home and found my name in it.

In early 2004, the company sponsored the Art and Mind festival in Winchester. We all took it turns to run whatever pop-up shop we needed to be at, dragging and pushing a trolley up and down kerbs. On one Saturday morning, after cashing up, I toddled up to the theatre for the back-end of Antony Gormley’s talk. That same evening, after working all afternoon, I went to a cafe for AS Byatt’s talk. I had never read any of her work, but I was being paid overtime to go. I chose it as it was smaller venue, and the event after hers didn’t include selling books. When she was done talking, I was done for the day. (Finding the program online for this; why the frick I didn’t volunteer for Brian Eno, I have no idea. This event was after Christmas Eve debacle of changing the entire shop to Boxing Day before we could go home; but before the brouhaha when Order of the Phoenix came out. I was on shift for 18 hours, had a complete sense of humour failure about the whole thing and changed jobs shortly afterwards).

Anyhoo, Antony Gormley was fabulous; answering every question about his work, and didn’t leave until after everyone had the chance to talk with him. The Angel of the North hadn’t long been in situ, my Australian/USA readers, if you’re ever in the UK, it is stunning. However, Domain Field was what he was talking about. A few years later, I was given tickets to the last weekend of Blind Light, which was one of the most disconcerting experiences of my life; but that is for another blog, for another day as I’ve gone off on enough tangents as it is.

Antonia walked in with her husband, Peter Duffy; she’d kept her previous married name to write under. Peter sat off to the side and watched her proudly as she held the room in the palm of her hand. The time flew by, I’d gone because I’d had to. I’d gone as I was being paid to sit there. Instead, I listened. She talked about how writing the perfect sentence was elusive and entirely what she sought to do each day. She thought she might have written one, once.

I see her now, practically being shoved out the door by Peter, so they didn’t miss their train, while still trying to finish her point over her shoulder. She had been gracious with her time too, and opened my eyes to what I’d been missing. Up until this point, while I’d read voraciously all my life, I’d ignored literary fiction. Other than the Classics, I avoided it.

To me, Booker Prize winner meant ‘hard work’, I didn’t want to chew through books, I wanted to fly through them. After hearing Antonia talk, I stood in front of the shelves and chose the least daunting cover of her books. I didn’t read any of the blurbs on the back of any of them to choose a story. I couldn’t, as there were no synopsis printed on them. Publishers, being told how wonderful a book is, while giving me no idea about what it’s about seriously gives me the irrits.

Consequently I went in to Possession completely cold. I read it over the course of a week, turned it around and read it again. I re-read it at least once a year, and not one person that I’ve recommended it to has ever not liked it. Which is really just as well, because if you didn’t like it, 1. I would think you’re crazy and 2. would have to reassess my opinion of you.

I am so jealous of people who have not read the book, because the world she created is stunning and it is waiting in front of you. The characters central to the book are on a collision course across time; it all starts by the chance finding of a draft of a letter, folded into a book. Two Victorian poets, Christabel LaMott and Randolph Henry Ash, who had lived relatively small, quiet lives; although his success was greater than hers (natch), are now subjected to scholars pouring over their every written word. Items of correspondence, even their families and friends’ letters and household diaries; every time pen was put to paper it is examined in detail, on both sides of the Atlantic. From the dusty shelves of a British library, where it costs you to photocopy a page; to the unlimited resources of American backers and a portable photocopier in a suitcase. That unfinished letter unfolds a mystery that had hidden in plain sight. All the scholars around the world who’d spent their academic careers pouring over every word? Everyone had missed it and everyone misunderstood.

I will be forever grateful for that time spent in her company. That one evening listening to AS Byatt talk changed my reading career. Twenty-three years ago, she gave me a gift that has been paid forward a hundred times over. I cherish that she gave me permission to try. Since then, I’ve never looked back from hard books, books that challenge me, books that make me feel deeply.

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