The Publishing Post
Searching for THE Book:The House of Marvellous Books
By Sarah Ernestine
The House of Marvellous Books by Fiona Vigo Marshall
19 May, Fairlight Books
This story begins as so many do, with something lost and someone searching. But as the world of The House of Marvellous Books unfolds, it becomes clear there are many things yet to be found.
In the centre of London, in a once-grand library, a historic publishing house, The House of Marvellous Books, churns in near silence. Year upon year, their financial situation has grown more and more bleak, until they find themselves on the brink of closing forever. This novel is composed of diary entries by the book’s narrator, Mortimer Blakeley-Smith. Mortimer quickly becomes the heartbeat of this story – the centre around which the plot evolves. With a quiet social life and few close family ties, Mortimer’s life is grounded in his work as a junior editor. He works to commission new titles, chase down missing documents, and work amongst a disjointed team.
Gerard, Head Publisher, seems more focused on safety emails to the staff about phone chargers and printers than he does about maintaining the publishing schedule. The assistant, Ursula, can be found mis-entering information on an old computer when she is not falling asleep at work. But Drusilla, the strong-spirited Head Editor of The House of Marvellous Books, has one main goal in mind: find the missing Daybreak Manuscript. This manuscript is an elusive historical text that has grown into modern myth, rumoured to be hidden somewhere in the building of the old library. It is also said to be priceless. Drusilla firmly believes the manuscript will be found, and the selling of it will be the financial support needed to keep the publishing house from going under.
While the great search goes on in the background through conversation and recollection, Mortimer’s everyday life shines through. He walks around London, reads Proust, talks to his best friend in prison, visits his great uncle out of town, and spends most of his time alone.
While this book has elements of a great treasure hunt, it also includes mundane details about Mortimer’s everyday life that make it feel like talking to an old friend. The story has a strong sense of place, filled with details about the city and the UK’s publishing industry. The dates noted in Mortimer’s diary for personal reasons are mirrored with familiar events, including the London Book Fair, sales conferences, editorial meetings and cover briefs.
Simply, The House of Marvellous Books is a book about books, written for lovers of books. It challenges readers to reflect on the value of stories, the history of language, and the importance of character.
An interview with the author, Fiona Vigo Marshall
The narrator of this novel, Mortimer Blakeley-Smith, has a unique voice. What came to you first, the plot or Mortimer’s character?
Mortimer Blakeley-Smith came first, definitely. Once he came through, I had the basic novel. Mortimer doesn’t really need a plot as such, rather a series of situations, in which he is always hopelessly entangled. He will always be the same no matter what, a writer manqué living in a world of his own, a prey to needy friends, bossed around by his colleagues.
However, Mortimer emerged within the context of the publishing house, of which he is both the spirit and the foil. His voice is a useful literary tool for filtering his perceived experience. In real life, I expect any self-respecting publishing director would kick him out pretty quickly. The plot was layered on afterwards with the substantial help of Louise Boland, CEO of Fairlight Books. This was a terrific experience, a real privilege, and taught me a lot about plotting.
This book is written as a series of diary entries spanning over a full year. Was this structure planned from the beginning, or did it evolve with the story?
It was always in diary form – in fact I tried quite hard to get rid of the diary structure because of its constrictions, and to write it as straight narrative, but the book kept reverting to its original form. Originally I played with the idea of Mortimer as a modern day Gawain, from the 14th century Gawain and the Green Knight, making a kind of pilgrimage from January to January, with the threat of extinction hanging over him. Then the figure of the medieval saint Brendan the Navigator became more important, voyaging from island to island in search of the island of eternal youth, the Isle of the Blessed. I saw publishing as a kind of quest, with publishers going from book to book in search of the one quintessential book, the bestseller, and I think the day-by-day recounting of events gives more of the feel of this crusade. The diary form is also more immediate, maybe offers more dramatic possibilities, and is an effective way of getting inside the narrator’s head. I hope it also conveys something of the fun of publishing – that unexpected quality, of not knowing what each day will bring.
The House of Marvellous Books itself reads as a quirky yet historical literary treasure trove, a library and a publishing house all under one roof. What were your biggest inspirations for the publishing house, or for the novel itself?
I liked the idea of a big old library crumbling away in the middle of London. I once worked in such a building where the roof did in fact have a slit in it – like Edgar Allan Poe’s doomed House of Usher. And who can escape Jorge Luis Borges’ infinite library? The concept of a group of people travelling towards a more or less common destination, but with very different motivations, came from the old allegory of the Ship of Fools, from Book VI of Plato’s Republic, and later from Das Narrenschif by German satirist Sebastian Brant in 1494. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was another influence. Anyone who’s sat through a heated acquisitions meeting will know what I mean! Everyone sits round and tells their own tale. After fourteen years as a commissioning editor, I had a good kernel for the mythical ruined empire of The House of Marvellous Books.
What do you hope readers, or young professionals in the publishing industry, can take away from your book?
I wouldn’t take it as a manual on publishing! I hope it conveys something of the joy of books. In an industry increasingly dominated by commercial pressures and squeezed by genre, I like to think that the great eccentrics of the publishing world live on. The search for the one book continues, the one that’s going to make it, to shoot to the top of the lists, but I hope that The House of Marvellous Books might act as a reminder that there may be room for other books.