Liberating ideas

Posts by John Mitchinson

Perfect Bound

There’s a general assumption that publishers sit in their offices waiting for authors to send them manuscripts. They read them, make a few tweaks and then send them on to the printer. That sounds perfectly reasonable, but, in truth, it happens very rarely. Most books, particularly novels, require months of wrangling, of to-ing and fro-ing and re-writing to get the story, the characters, the tone and rhythm right. It’s a more collaborative process than most readers realise. So, when a near perfect manuscript does land, there’s always a miraculous quality about it. A feeling that here was a book you were meant to publish. For me, it happened three years ago when Paul Kingsnorth sent me his novel, The Wake. And now it’s happened again.

I met Sarah Marr in the most auspicious of spaces – the Medicine House at Blackden where the great British novelist Alan Garner has lived and worked for nearly sixty years. She had pledged to attend the storytelling supper Unbound had organised there to celebrate the publication of First Light, the collection of pieces honouring Alan and his work, edited by Erica Wagner. In the course of the evening, Sarah mentioned she had written a novel and wondered if it was something Unbound might be interested in. We were – we usually are – but nothing could have prepared me for the beauty and intelligence of what arrived a week later.

I won’t dwell on the book here – I want you to pledge and read it for yourself – a except to say it is remarkable: a rich and lyrical novel in which a woman’s investigation into a Victorian painting guided by discovery of the diary of one of the woman models featured in it takes us on a journey filled with insight and revelation. Anna, the narrator, is an emotionally troubled art historian who has a near mystical gift for inhabiting the inner world of the paintings she studies. The writing is memorable and assured – astonishingly so given it is Sarah’s first novel. There will be editing (there always is) but there won’t be much. All the Perverse Angels has the assurance, the feeling of just-rightness, that very few books achieve.

I hope you’ll read it and feel the same astonishment. I was too gripped by the story to think this as I read it, but on reflection it struck me that if we founded Unbound to do anything, it was to allow stories such as this – the ‘quiet books’, as one of our authors calls them – to find the sensitive and intelligent readers they deserve. Join us and help make that happen.

Support the book here.

Perfect Bound

Help us build The Paper Time Machine

Help us build The Paper Time Machine

Today marks an important milestone. Over five years have passed since I first met Wolfgang Wild. At that first meeting he told me he was building a time machine. Even in the hyperbole-friendly world I inhabit, this was quite a claim. But there was a seriousness and intensity to Wolfgang that made me pause. And then he showed it to me: a very early version of the site that would become known as Retronaut. And I knew then that I wanted to publish the paper version of that site, the souvenir album of his journeys back in time.

Many of you will know the Retronaut site. It is one of the very best things on the internet, a unique collection of photographs and films that present the past in a way that makes it seem unfamiliar and vivid – put simply, it makes the past feel present. To do this Wolfgang has raided the archives of photographic collections all over the world. Amazing colour photos of 19th century rural Russia sit next to English Victorian portraits in which the subjects smile; catalogues of American child labourers from the early 20th century run alongside scarcely believable sequences about the construction of the Statue of Liberty; crisp photographs from the Crimean War in 1855 balance unseen pictures from the Walt Disney archive. All of them make you look; all of them make you think differently about the past.

As the Retronaut site has grown (and been visited by millions of people), Wolfgang and I have met regularly to see if we could dream up a book. And then in December, he rang to say he thought he’d made the breakthrough. He came over the next day, buzzing with excitement. He had found, he told me, a genius, someone who could add colour to black and white photos that was so accurate, so realistic that it looked like they had been taken in colour. His description of the effect these images had us both was perfect: ‘It’s like that moment when someone enters a dark aircraft hangar, throws a switch and a long row of arc lights turn on, flooding the space with light.’

Suddenly, Wolfgang’s black and white images – already stretching our sense of time – were transformed into something unimaginably vivid. The opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb looked like stills from a CNN news broadcast. Every piece of clothing, every skin tone had the ring of truth and authenticity about it. This was our book – the past in colour, a time machine made from paper.

The genius was Jordan Lloyd, and his company Dynamichrome have transformed the craft of colour reconstruction into an art. He breaks each image down into a grid and adds colour as carefully and lovingly as you might in restoring a medieval wall painting. Each detail – a piece of clothing, a make of car, a bill board sign – are researched for accuracy and then cross-referenced with the time, conditions, light level and capabilities of the camera on which the original image was taken. The result is haunting. The picture of a ten year-old mineworker from North Carolina suddenly carries the face of a real child; Howard Carter is no longer just ‘the man who discovered Tuthankhamun’ but a working archaeologist, with dust on the knees of his tweed trousers. The Retronuatic effect of collapsing time is given its most vivid and memorable expression: looking at these images it as if you are standing behind the camera.

Miner boy

The book will have 150 of them, many from the amazing archive at Getty Images, who are enthusiastic supporters of the project. It will be lavish and beautiful coffee table book, much like Unbound’s other time-travelling project, Letters of Note. In fact, Letters of Note and Retronaut were the two blogs I most wanted to turn into books when we launched Unbound back in 2011. Another reason why today is special. I bloody love my job!

As well as all the physical options – signed, boxed deluxe edition, special prints – there’s even the chance to have one of your own images coloured and the research process made into a film. We need to raise £60,000 to make it but, with your support, we are confident we can do it. Unbound is about finding ways to make the impossible, the unthinkable, happen.

The Paper Time Machine is our biggest challenge yet. Please help us build it.

John Mitchinson

Backlisted, a podcast giving new life to old books

So we’ve started a podcast. It’s called Backlisted and the simple premise is that every fortnight we choose an old book we think everyone should read. Unbound are sponsoring it and it is hosted by me and Andy Miller, an old friend and former colleague from the early (glory) days of Waterstone’s now better known as the author of the wonderful memoir The Year of Reading Dangerously.

Each episode also features a special guest. The first three are Lissa Evans on J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Linda Grant on Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight and Jonathan Coe on David Nobb’s It Had To Be You. There’s also a ‘tenuous link’ cameo by Unbound’s Mathew Clayton. We intend for it to be warm, enthusiastic and cheerful – rather like the atmosphere of Waterstone’s staffroom in 1992, only with better drinks and (marginally) less swearing.

Backlisted is not about promoting new books, either by ourselves, Unbound or anyone else. The decision to do it sprung out of two related observations: one, that people keep asking us what they should read; and two, that almost all the existing book podcasts are driven by what is new rather than what is good. If nothing else, if you do acquire the books we recommend you’ll have a pretty interesting bookshelf to dust and share pictures of on Instagram.

Franz Kafka once wrote that a book was ‘an axe to break the frozen sea within us’ which perhaps goes a little too far (a Haynes car manual comes in useful when you’re trying to install a new alternator) but we do think, in Andy’s words, that books ‘represent the best that human beings are capable of’.  We also think that the act of reading a whole book – in a world too often dominated by snap judgements and borrowed one-liners – actually makes us wiser, more tolerant human beings.

So, give it a listen and let us know what you think. It has its own Facebook page: Backlisted Podcast and you can download it from iTunes here (we’re currently no 15 in the Literature charts, so do give us a nudge).

Pure and OCD – A Letter from the Editor

On publication of Pure by Rose Bretécher 

Every publisher sets out to do two things: to find stories that change the way we think and to make books that will be read for years to come. It’s rare to do both simultaneously, but Pure does just that.

In a way, it’s a miracle that the book exists at all. A writer tells a story from within his or her consciousness, giving shape to experiences or creating new ones. In Rose’s case, it was consciousness itself that was under attack, constantly undermined by intrusive sexual thoughts of shocking and humiliating intensity. And yet, somehow, over ten long years, she found her way out of the labyrinth and was able to tell her remarkable story.

And, here again, Pure is special. Millions of people suffer from OCD and other mental illnesses. Very few find ways of writing about it and almost none do so with the wit and the brilliance of Rose Bretécher. Her condition makes Pure an important book. But it’s her skill as a writer that makes it a great one: Pure is a rich and terrifying roller-coaster ride through the weird and mysterious workings of her mind. But by the end you are not only cheering her on, your sense of your own consciousness is extended and enriched. You look at yourself and other people differently, and with more compassion. As she writes, ‘happiness is staring down the insurmountable fragility of life and daring to acknowledge the certainty that everything which makes us who we are could, at any second, and without warning, be obliterated in the beat of a hummingbird’s wing.’

From Homer onwards, human beings have lived, loved and made great art inspired by that self-same thought. It’s a huge privilege to add one more to their number.

And we couldn’t have done it without you.

In many ways, Pure is the perfect Unbound book. Rose’s courage and skill combined with our enthusiasm and experience matched by your generosity all add to make something properly valuable. Something that might otherwise never have seen the light of day.

We hope that makes you feel as proud as we do.

John Mitchinson, Co-founder Unbound
Click here to read more and order a special edition of Pure

The Wake at Hay

On Saturday 24th May, an audience of over 350 braved driving rain, thick mud and the lateness of the hour to witness something remarkable. The most brilliant Shakespearean actor of his generation, Mark Rylance, joined Paul Kingsnorth to present The Wake, Paul’s novel set among a band of Saxon rebels resisting the Norman invasion.

The Wake at Hay

Paul Kingsnorth

Paul set the scene, giving us an amazingly fluent and detailed account of the historical background and reminding us that the Norman invasion was probably the most traumatic event in English history with consequences that are still felt today. This alternated with Mark Rylance’s compelling readings from the novel itself, which brought the narrator, Buccmaster, to vivid life. By the end of the event, many made the comparison to Rylance’s most famous role: Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jez Butterworth’s landmark play, Jerusalem. Like Rooster, Buccmaster is a rebel, a free man, a devotee of the old Gods and a complex mix of menace and charisma. Rylance’s matchless control of tone and pitch meant that the shadow tongue in which Buccmaster’s narrative is written was both intelligible and deeply moving. The excitement afterwards was palpable.

The Wake at Hay

Paul Kingsnorth (left) and Mark Rylance

Such is Mark’s enthusiasm for the book we hope to have news soon of further collaborations and events soon. In the meantime, if you would like to hear the event, you can visit the Hay website here and download it for 99p.

Letters Live! at Hay

A stellar cast of actors, comedians and writers read letters drawn from Shaun Usher’s bestselling Letters of Note and Simon Garfield’s To the Letter for Letters Live! at the Hay Festival.

Letters Live! at Hay

Shaun Usher, author of Letters of Note

In the Friday gig, actor of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch read several pieces including the profoundly moving letter from Ted Hughes to his son Nicholas. Other highlights included Chris Evans reading Robert Pirosh’s amazing job application ‘I like words’, and Patrick Kennedy (Downton Abbey, War Horse) reading Elvis’s slightly unhinged letter to Nixon. Kennedy returned the next morning for the second gig where he read Matt Stone’s hilarious (and obscene) memo about the cuts they’d greed to make to the the South Park movie. He was joined by Sherlock star Louise Brearley who reduced many in the audience to tears with her intensely beautiful reading of Virginia Woolf’s letter to her husband Leonard shortly before her suicide. Equally moving was Rob Brydon’s reading of Richard Burton’s farewell note to Elizabeth Taylor after their second divorce. Light relief was provided by legendary TV producer John Lloyd in his splendid rendition of the famous ‘Mustapha Kunt’ letter, and Booker-winning novelist Ian McEwan was a convincing Mark Twain. But the star turn was once again Cumberbatch, who closed the set with Kurt Vonnegut’s magnificent epistle to a school board that had burned one of his books.

Letters Live! at Hay

Benedict Cumberbatch

Many seasoned Hay hands, including the Festival director Peter Florence, believed they were two of the very best events in the 27-year history of the festival. That combined with Shaun’s appearance on The One Show were enough send Letters of Note to no 1 on Amazon on Saturday evening: an amazing, if richly deserved, achievement.