“I’m giving birth to triplets,” I told one of my dearest friends in November 2020. “At the age of eighty-one it’s not something I’d really recommend … Working twenty-four seven through that heatwave nearly finished me off. My ankles still look like tree trunks.”
My friend expressed amazement and immediate concern. “Have you any idea what colour they will be?” he asked.
“Of course.” My answer was confident and accurate. “One is black, one is brown, and the third is whiter than white.”
“I’d love to read them,” he said. “When are they due?”
“The announcement of their birth will probably be posted outside Buckingham Palace in the good old tried and tested fashion.”
“But,” my friend asked, his voice shaking with anticipation. “This might be tabloid material. The story of the century and beyond. Who is the multi-racial father?”
“My website,” I told him proudly. “That’s where my love affair began.”
* * *
I shall always remember that morning in March 2020. I turned on my computer to check a detail on my website. In a flash I realised it looked old-fashioned, cluttered and boring. My brilliant designer, Paul Downes, and I had first created it together seven years before.
“Time for a completely fresh look?” I suggested. With relief and enthusiasm, Paul agreed.
Over the next few months we gave the dusty site a total spring clean. Floor to ceiling, attic to cellar, cupboard under the stairs. Out went the garbage. In came new front covers, short spell-binding blurbs and a whole new sparkling Dior look. Such total renovations don’t come cheap. But boy! They’re worth every penny – and they pay off.
Our backs breaking, our heads throbbing, our eyes sore with checking, on Thursday 16 July 2020 Paul and I were ready to go live. I circulated the result to my special network.
Early next morning I received two life-changing emails: one from Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, and one from Nigel Fisher, Conservator of Wytham Woods. “Congratulations,” they wrote. “Love the new site.”
I paced around my cottage all that Friday. I knew the website had a fatal flaw. Only one of my major titles for the adult marketplace actually existed in the real world: Larkswood had been reprinted for the eleventh time. I’d only just begun to write its sequel, Flight of the Lark. The other three titles needed to be hatched – and fast. At the age of eighty, I didn’t have time to faff around. There’s no point having a sumptuous-looking website if your readers can’t buy from it. Your site must be a major selling tool as well as a sight to behold.
The next morning I sat up in bed, spark awake at 5.00 am. Four words echoed in my head:
“GO FOR IT BABY.”
So I did.
It was Saturday 18 July 2020. I decided to publish all three titles in one fell swoop on Valentine’s Day 2021 under my own imprint VMBooks.
I consulted my diaries. There wasn’t a moment to lose.
* * *
Giving birth to the Memoir, Finding My Voice, now published in its second edition as Not Only But Also, was the most complicated of the triplets. Although my Editor, the brilliant children’s writer Steve Cole, loved both its structure and contents, literary agents up and down the United Kingdom disagreed. All thirty-five of them. Mind you, sixteen of the said thirty-five never bothered to reply. That was in March 2019. Perhaps some of the silent ones are just getting round to reading it.
All the others had the same cast-iron-rejection excuses.
“You’re not a famous footballer,” I was told. It was news to me. “We either want enormous fame and fortune or total misery … Your lifelong struggles with addiction to ginger cake would be wonderful, for example. Your black depressions? Or drugs? We always do well with drug addicts who enjoy slitting their wrists every afternoon. Or … let’s see now. Ah, yes! What about giving us an enormous family bust-up? Your hatred of Hollywood … Something the Sunday tabloids can slobber over … How you get on with your famous daughters-in-law? … Did you ever shut yourself in your garden shed because your class mates called you a silly little dunce … No? Oh, well, then, sadly we’re afraid it’s toodleoo.”
The pick of my veritable pile of rejections, if you asked me to choose, came from an Irish agent. He sent me an email which read, “And finally, at the very bottom of this terribly disappointing heap, is something called Finding My Voice. There’s absolutely no market for it. Love you, my darling. Kiss, kiss.” Ten minutes later he sent me a second message. “Sorry. That was meant for my wife.”
Beatrice and Alexander sailed through the birth canal without even a hint of morning sickness. Years of solid work and dedicated research had gone into her. Written with the American market firmly in mind, she’s deliberately short and bitter-sweet, filled with characters I know and love like the backs of my elderly hands. I only sent her to one Literary Agent. She read the first eighty pages overnight. “I simply love it,” she told me. Then her enthusiasm rapidly waned. She refused to meet me. Christmas intervened. We signed a contract. Covid-19 emerged. Before the birth was terminated, I pulled my beloved embryo out of the morass.
Daddy’s Girl had given birth before, bruised, battered and potentially still-born beneath brutal anonymous editorial track-changes. Once in the Mendes Washing Machine, she lost more than forty pages of excess flab, remembered who she was and gave deep gasps of refreshing dawn air. Six solid weeks was a very long wash. It needed to be sustained around the clock lest in the process her heart became dislocated and stopped beating altogether.
* * *
So here I had what the former managing director of Orion told me I needed as the essential ingredient to any successful enterprise:
I had it three times over, ready and waiting, so off we went.
The experience was potentially dangerous, very demanding and totally thrilling. Team Mendes achieved in six months what the normal publishing process would have staggered around with for two years. Because my designer and beloved printer, Darren Millward, were joined by Andrew Chapman, who runs his own company Preparetopublish.com in Charlbury.
Andrew knows everything there is to know about High Tech Hill. About opening accounts with Amazon and also “going wide” with IngramSpark. About making sure my ISBNs were properly purchased and deployed. About the tiny details that turn terror into confidence.
Best of all, for the first time in my long publishing life I could talk to a typesetter about how I wanted my books to look. We chose a typeface and fleurons, the weight and colour of paper, the size and shape of the entire brand. An edited manuscript I sent to Andrew would be back with me as a typeset document within the week. I sent it by email straight to Mail Boxes Etc in Oxford’s Summertown for them to copy on to good old paper. Twenty-four hours later, the special delivery was on my Woodstock desk. Three careful days later, I’d checked it and sent it back to Andrew for corrections. By the following week, I’d passed it for press.
Were there hiccups along the way? But of course. This was Real Modern Publishing, not Singing in the Rain. But I had my crucial link in the high-tech publishing chain. James Marshall of Oxfordshire Digital runs a shop and office across the road. If my computer froze from overwork, James came to my rescue: brilliant, bright as a whistle and twice as clever.
So: time and tide, you have finally swung my way. Exhausted but triumphant, on Valentine’s Day 2021, in the coolness of the wind and rain, I walked alone in Blenheim’s gardens to celebrate. No sand between my toes exactly. No Caribbean sun. No luxury yacht.
But who needs them, I ask myself, if I have my English skies, my garden robins, my wondrous Woodstock cottage – and more ideas for Flight of the Lark than I’d ever have imagined.