As an editor, you get used to agentʼs submission letters. You learn to distinguish the Big Hype from the Forlorn Hope quite quickly. And – unfair as it may seem – you probably decide, within two sentences of that letter, if you are going to give the manuscript the 3 or 300 page test.
But the submission letter for The Four Streets was a bit odd. The summary of the plot made me prick up my ears. Working class 50s Irish Liverpool sounded promising. Maeve Binchy, but in Liverpool. Hmmm. I put it in the file marked ʻTo Readʼ. My cursory read of the letter had not really picked up on the author, who I had assumed to be a new saga writer. However, because I was due to go into hospital for surgery, I thought I had better return to the book sooner rather than later, although there had been no mention of an auction or a closing date. And now - reading back through the submission letter - I discovered that the author was Nadine Dorries. The agent has since told me that he deliberately buried her name. He did not want to sell this novel on the celebrity status of the author.
But there was another reason for burying Nadineʼs name. She was indeed a celebrity - but she was also marmite. Just like Jeffrey Archer at the same stage in his life – and arguably ever since – you loved her or you hated her. Here was a Conservative MP who had derided David Cameron and George Osborne as Tory posh boys – arrogant Tory posh boys. Here was a woman who volunteered to take part in Iʼm a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here and who was then subjected to night after night of revolting Bush Tucker Trials, while the public gleefully voted for her to suffer. And eventually voted her off the show - the first celebrity of that series to go.
But here, too, was one of the few politicians to be known by her first name alone. Nadine. Only Boris - her good friend and ally – could say the same. A politician whose constituents loved and trusted her and returned her to parliament again and again. " To say that I was intrigued to read her first novel is an understatement. The letter said that it was autobiographical. Good! The letter said it was all her own work. Potentially bad. Would Nadine Dorries have a clue how to write fiction? Almost certainly not. But – she was A NAME. And I was one of those who had always rather liked her. So I opened up the file.
Well now! What a surprise I got. A voice – a storytellerʼs voice – a confident, warm, real, often humorous voice spoke to me and drew me in to a novel which from first sentence to last turned out not to let me speak, eat or sleep until I had finished it. And then I got what I call Iʼll-eat-my-hat feeling – as in, Iʼll eat my hat if this isnʼt going to be a bestseller. A feeling almost immediately followed by – Iʼll die if I canʼt publish it, but everyone else in London publishing will see what I see and want it too. Can I nail this one down quick? Will the rest of HoZ like it as much as I do? Will the agent be willing?
What is it about some books which make you feel this way? It is very, very simple, really. Story and character. Thatʼs all. Story which grips you and will not let you go – even when you want it to. Characters who you care about, fear for, love-to-hate, hate-to-love. Real people, who if you lift your eyes from the page, might just walk into the room. People you donʼt want to let go of. A community which draws you in, makes you smile, makes you cry, makes you afraid. A slice of real, real life.
Well – I didnʼt have to die. The agent allowed us to pre-empt the auction and buy Nadineʼs wonderful first novel, for publication next April. Shall I have to eat my hat? No, of course not! This is going to be a bestseller, trust me. Read it and see for yourself.