I suffer from occasional attacks of chutzpah.
One of these caught up to me sometime in the mid-eighties. I was in my early twenties, trembling on the edge of a high nest with my wings outstretched trying to fledge. Naturally, the way I did this was not to wait for the right wind. I threw myself into what winds randomly swirled underneath me, closed my eyes, and hoped for the best.
Here’s what happened in real terms.
London Magazine, the grand, the venerable, had been in more-or-less constant publication for SEVERAL CENTURIES. It had a Reputation. It had a Renown.
Alan Ross Photo/Joe Waldorf
At the time it and I crossed paths, it was edited by Alan Ross, who had been at the helm for decades and was synonymous with the magazine. So we had a daunting double barrier here – a famous literary magazine which would have no real reason to deal with a wet-behind-the-ears newbie because big names were piling at their doors like driftwood and a venerable editor who’d seen plenty of knucklehead wannabes like me before and would have no reason to be anything but brusquely dismissive of them.
Of course, it was the obvious thing for me to do to pack up a short story of which I was inordinately proud and send it in for consideration – HERE. Of all places, here.
Alan Ross had a fairly odd way of responding to submissions. No rote responses for him. Every submission received a personal response… on a postcard. Not a “wish you were here” tourist snapshot of the city, either, but those quirky vintage cards with weird black-and-white obscure arty chiaroscuro motifs on them. I received one such card as a reply to my story submission. It bore, in HANDWRITING, only a few words as a response:
“Like it, but not enough background. Alan Ross“
Kids, don’t try this at home – but I was deep in the throes of that chutzpah attack. I replied,
“What kind of background would you like? I can put more of it in.”
Back came another postcard in return.
“We’ll take it. Alan Ross”
London Magazine was going to publish my story. My head felt light, light, light.
Not too long after that, another card came to query if I minded (!) if they put the story, not in the magazine itself, but in a hardcover anthology they were preparing to celebrate LM’s 30th anniversary. Head spinning still harder, I acquiesced to this. The book, called “Signals”, was published in the UK in 1991.
(And from here, it begins. On a visit to London not too long after the book’s publication, I met up with the assistant editor who had put it together. I was taken to lunch, and then, on the way out, running because it started raining and losing the combs from my hair in the process, and crawling around for one of them while being handed the other by the laughing editor. It’s a tiny disembodied gem of a memory, connecting with nothing at all, and yet somehow treasured as an instant of innocence and pure glowing joy.
This anthology editor never bought anything more from me – but he introduced me to an agent who sold “Dolphin’s Daughters” for me to Longman in 1995, and that is a slim little book which was reprinted NINE TIMES and still brings in a trickle of royalties every so often… but back to Alan Ross…)
I met Alan at London Magazine’s offices in South Kensington sometime in the early nineties.
You rang an unobtrusive little bell by the front door of an unobtrusive London townhouse; the door let you into a corridor that led you out into a back courtyard overgrown with things that really looked like they needed a careful gardener’s hand to guide them but hadn’t seen one for at least a brace of years; you went down a curved flight of stairs with an iron balustrade into a tiny paved area from which a door opened into what turned out to be a cluttered room with high and stuffed bookshelves, two desks wedged in overflowing with papers (manuscripts, artwork, galleys).
There were a couple of typewriters. No computers for Alan – not then, not, I suspect, EVER. He belonged to a different age, a slower age, a gilded age, a glowing age where he could take the time to write to his writers on the backs of old postcards and cultivate relationships rather than quickies (wham, bam, here’s your check, ma’am, next.)
He took me out for a pint to the pub round the corner. He bought a book review from me which saw the light of day in LM not too long after that.
But only a handful of years after this chance encounter with this extraordinary character, he was gone, and LM was a different animal without him. I never submitted anything there again.
There were many things about Alan Ross that I didn’t know at the time – some of them I learned only years later, like the fact that I wasn’t the only one he reached out to.
I did not know him well enough to say that I miss him today. But I miss people like him, the characters, the unique individuals whose like we will never see repeated. And yes, I miss the great editors of the past whose role was not just to buy and to send to press but to nurture, and to care, and to take young and unknown writers and shape them into something special.
Alan Ross may not have had much time for the plants in his office courtyard – but he watered and pruned and pored over his writers like the most special of orchids. The flowers that bloomed under his hand were sometimes… awe-inspiring. And some might never have bloomed at all but for his tender care of the fragile young plant.
So, then. Here’s to great editors. Raise whatever you’re drinking, and toast them all.
We writers, we shouldn’t forget what we owe them.
You can read more about Alan Ross HERE