Author Interview with Nicholas Royle

I first discovered Nicholas Royle when I began reading Best of British Short Stories, which he edited, published by SALT. I began with Best of British Short Stories 2011, and was hooked. I have a deep love of second-hand bookshops, and when I wrote a recent blog post on how people arrange their bookshelves, and he responded with a photo of his white-spined Picador books, I knew it was time for an interview.

White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector (Paperback – 15 July 2021)

A mix of memoir and narrative non-fiction, White Spines is a book about Nicholas Royle’s passion for Picador’s fiction and non-fiction publishing from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s. It explores the bookshops and charity shops, the books themselves, and the way a unique collection grew and became a literary obsession. Above all a love song to books, writers and writing.

Your latest book, White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector, has just been released. Can you tell us about your passion for second-hand books, notably, white-spined Picador books, and the inspiration behind White Spines? 

It goes back to my late teenage years. A surrealist painting on the sleeve of a single by Bauhaus. A painting by the same artist – Paul Delvaux – being used on the cover of a novel, Ice, by Anna Kavan, which was published by Picador. A wall of white-spined books – all Picadors – in a second-hand bookshop, Skoob Books, in London, where I’d moved to go to university. A Christmas present from my parents, Alberto Manguel’s Black Water: The Anthology of Fantastic Literature. That was it. I was hooked.

Do you have any favourite second-hand bookshops or charity shops? 

Skoob has to feature in that list, since they’re partly responsible. Some of my favourites are closing, or have switched to online only, which is little better than closing, like Sharston Books in Manchester. But, in or near to Manchester, we still have Greenhouse Books, Didsbury Village Bookshop, George Kelsall, Lyall’s. Barter Books in Alnwick is amazing; Leakey’s in Inverness is incredible. Church Street Bookshop in Stoke Newington, north London. Loads of great branches of Oxfam Bookshop and Oxfam Books & Music, in particular Islington, Crouch End, Herne Hill, Bold Street in Liverpool, Leeds (at Headingley). I could go on. I could fill the internet.

Having written several volumes of short fiction and edited many anthologies, I have to ask, short fiction or novels?

Short stories. Then novels. Short novels ideally.

What’s your best editing advice for authors editing their work before it reaches a professional editor? 

Read it out loud. If you wince at a word or phrase, if you just feel the tiniest doubt, whip it out, because otherwise you’ll wish you had done when it’s published. If publication is not necessarily on offer, bear in mind that editors (and agents) are not only looking for something that makes them sit up; they’re also looking for a reason to reject your work as soon as possible and move on to the next thing. So don’t give them an excuse.

What led you to set up Nightjar Press, is there a freedom in being able to hone in on one story at a time, and how do you discover stories for chapbook publication?

For many years I’ve believed that short stories are so special – the really good ones, I mean – that they need their own cover, their own artwork, maybe even their own ISBN. Short stories are worth making a fuss of, worth cherishing and treasuring, and collecting. I invite submissions, from writers who get what we’re doing, and I’m open to submissions, ideally from writers who get what we’re doing. I’m not massively keen on those submissions that come in with an email from someone, who has never ordered a Nightjar, saying, I think my 25,000-word historical fantasy set on Venus would be perfect for Nightjar.

What have you learned from being head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize and and Reader at MMU, and how quickly can you tell whether or not you will like a story?

I can tell on the first page if the writer can write. It takes longer to work out if they’ve written a good story. That’s what I’ve learned from being head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize and it’s also the answer to the final question. What I’ve learned from working with MA and MFA students at Manchester Met is that anyone can improve their writing if they want to, if they listen to feedback from peers and tutors. Obviously you have to make a judgment about what advice to take and what to ignore. Very occasionally you get someone who doesn’t listen – and they tend not to give either, in terms of generous, intelligent feedback. We try to weed these writers out at application stage, maybe in interview, and usually succeed.

What should writers look for in a good mentor and how do they go about finding the right one?

A mentor should get what you’re trying to do and be able to help you do it better, much like both a creative writing tutor and an editor. The three roles are very similar. How do you find a mentor? There are some schemes. Arvon run one. I was lucky enough to be one of their mentors and work for a year with three excellent writers – Sonia Hope, Nicola Freeman and Adam Welch – who I was able to help select. Otherwise, I think it’s probably a good idea to try to get personal recommendations.

Your impersonation of Dominic Cummings during lockdown, followed by many other well-known people, was highly entertaining. I think the highlights were Adele and Moby. Who’s next? 

Thank you. I’m doing some Picador authors at the moment. Someone requested Picasso. Shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

You are stuck in a bookshop with four authors or public figures, who would they be, and why?

Anna Kavan, Giles Gordon, Elizabeth Young, Joel Lane. You didn’t say they had to be alive. It’s a second-hand bookshop, of course, given that that’s the only place where we might find books by all four of these writers. Some of Anna Kavan’s work is in print with Peter Owen, and Joel Lane’s back catalogue is being reissued by Influx Press in beautiful editions, but you’ll struggle to find anything by Liz Young or Giles Gordon in a new bookshop. For now. I imagine a reading. Each of the four reads one of their stories and, as long as we are stuck there, they keep on reading. Bliss.        

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading DM Thomas’s The White Hotel, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. I last read it 30-odd years ago. I’m reading the 1981 King Penguin paperback edition with cover illustration by Peter Till, which I regard as the edition against which all other editions should be judged. I’m also reading Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions), which I found recently in the Oxfam Bookshop Shrewsbury. I wouldn’t have bought this new, as I’m not a fan of Lerner, but I’m not a fan of poetry either, so thought this might be interesting. Thirty pages in, I’m on the fence. I’m also reading a novel published in the last few years that’s supposed to be hilarious, with laughs on almost every page, one reviewer suggested. I’m on page 96 and have had four LOLs and one half-smile.

Nicholas Royle is the author of seven novels, including Antwerp (Serpent’s Tail) and First Novel (Vintage), and four short story collections, most recently London Gothic (Confingo Publishing). He translated Vincent de Swarte’s novel Pharricide for Confingo and is series editor of Best British Short Stories for Salt Publishing, who also published his latest book, White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector. He is Reader in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize and founder-editor of Nightjar Press. You can find him on Twitter or his website.

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