I first met Jan in 1986. It was my first job as a children’s fiction editor and I was very new to the recently formed Penguin Children’s Books, combining for the first time the Viking Kestrel hardback and Puffin paperback lists under Liz Attenborough. Jan had been most recently edited by Viking Kestrel’s editorial director Sally Floyer, and she had a huge critical reputation as one of only three multiple winners of the Carnegie Medal. And I think it is true to say she was considered somewhat daunting by the wider team, so I was apprehensive to say the least, so much so that I remember wearing a suit on one of the few occasions in my publishing career.
And over lunch it did seem that Jan was interviewing me about my reading habits and tastes to assess whether my editorial judgement was one she could respect. Thankfully for me, nearly all the books she mentioned I had read and had an opinion of. I seem to remember that the ice was properly broken when we discovered we had an abiding love of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.
From then on, I enjoyed a thoroughly enjoyable relationship with Jan. She was in the process of writing Dream House, the second book of a three-book contract that her agent Murray Pollinger had secured for her with Penguin following the Carnegie Medal award for Handles three years previously. Man in Motion was the third book of that contract. I do remember making a couple of minor suggestions to do with pace early in the novel which she acknowledged by making the smallest of changes, but she didn’t really agree with me.
Jan never needed much editing as such, as her writing process was rigorous and highly evolved – I don’t remember how she evolved this process or if she learnt it from anyone else. It involved typing three complete drafts of each novel from scratch. The first was a sort of exploration of her characters and the events that shaped them so she could discover where her story was going. The second draft was a major rewrite that consolidated all that she learnt about her story from the first. And the final draft was a polished version of the second.
Alongside her novels, she wrote exquisite short fiction – The Twig Thing was one such that I commissioned her to write for a new series for beginner readers, and it arrived fully formed with not a word out of place but resonant with feeling and insight. I think what she needed from an editor was not so much a guiding hand when it came to writing, but more someone whom she could rely on to understand her work and give her room to explore where her art would take her.
She had strong opinions about illustrators and was scathing about those who relied on photographs from which to paint – there seemed to be a particular vogue for such work for covers of children’s fiction in the 80s. Her art school education was a big influence and she especially prized artists who could draw from their imaginations and always sought to influence the choice of illustrator for her books. Paul Cox was one such illustrator that she greatly admired who was always in great demand. Eventually, he illustrated the cover of her teen collection, A Can of Worms.
As a coda, you might be interested to read Jan’s article in Books for Keeps about being edited – ‘The Craft of Writing’, from BFK No. 132.