Thursday, September 18, 2008

Janet Frame: one of the greats

Last night I had the pleasure of dining with Pamela Gordon, the niece and literary executor of one of the 20th century's most extraordinary writers, New Zealand's Janet Frame (photo by Reg Graham pictured).

The occasion was the Australian launch of Frame's posthumous collection of poems, The Goose Bath. The book has been a bestseller in New Zealand since its publication in late 2006 and, for some reason, wasn't picked up by Random House Australia when it re-released Frame's backlist (including the celebrated autobiography, An Angel at My Table) under its Vintage imprint last year. So my company picked it up and has just published it in Australia. I doubt I'll get rich but it really is a marvellous book by a writer who got tantalisingly close to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature not once but twice.

Frame's rights are handled by the Wylie Agency in London but the task of putting her affairs in order after her death from leukaemia in 2004 fell to Gordon. A modest, self-deprecating woman, she has taken the task of managing the estate conscientiously and tenaciously. Frame published 20 books in her lifetime, translated into many languages around the world. Gordon spent many long hours, assisted by the other trustees of the Janet Frame Literary Trust and Tim Curnow, the now-retired literary agent who used to run Curtis Brown's Australian office, planning the strategy to ensure that the Frame legacy continued.

The result is that Frame's work is now more available than it has ever been. The backlist has been re-packaged and republished, more translation rights have been sold and several unpublished works are now finally seeing the light of day. The novel, Towards Another Summer, was published to acclaim last year but Gordon feels her 'triumph' was sifting through hundreds of unpublished poems and finally marshaling The Goose Bath into print.

As Gordon explains in a fascinating interview on ABC radio, Frame was a poet first and a prose writer second, but somehow couldn't find the courage (or perhaps the interest from her publishers) to publish more than one collection of poetry in her own lifetime. The unpublished poems sat in boxes in an old fountain base once used by the family geese, dubbed 'the goose bath'.

Gordon and I talked about the common accusation leveled at literary executors of releasing substandard unpublished material. As Gordon sees it, there were reasons why some of Frame's work was not published in her lifetime that had nothing to do with its literary quality. Publishers were not so interested in her poetry, while Frame herself held back Towards Another Summer because it was perhaps too close to real life. While she couldn't face the task herself, Frame asked her niece to ensure the poems found their way into print.

Interestingly, Gordon told me over dinner that publishers sometimes assume that the rights to Frame's complete catalogue must be sewn up and so don't enquire about rights. I'm certainly glad I enquired. The truth is that there are still territories available for some of her best work and, with the Estate in good hands, there may never have been a better time to consider taking on this very special writer.

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