Mr Atkinson's mountain: from publisher to author, and back again

Richard Atkinson
Opinion - Books Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Richard Atkinson, publisher at Penguin Press, on the long haul of writing his family memoir

It was never my plan to become a writer: I had no burning desire to inflict a book of my own upon the world. At 40, I was happily employed at Bloomsbury Publishing, running a thriving cookery list which offered me a cast-iron excuse to eat lunch at fancy restaurants, all in the name of "research". But then life took an unexpected turn, as it was around this time that I learnt I wouldn't be able to have children, a personal setback which left me suddenly feeling unmoored. My father had died when I was four; he'd been an only child, and I became obsessed by the need to find out about his side of the family, about which I knew very little.

Like most amateur genealogists, I started poking around on, that online portal to an all-you-can-eat buffet of parish records, electoral rolls, census data and so on. Then, one day, while rummaging around in a cupboard at my mother's house, I came upon a cardboard box full of bundles of old family correspondence in elegant copperplate handwriting, tied up with faded pink ribbon, which dated back to the 18th century. Mostly these letters concerned my Atkinson forebears at Temple Sowerby, the Cumbrian village where they'd lived for several hundred years, and revealed them to be prosperous folk.

"Clearly I could make no amends for my ancestors' misdeeds, but I could at least try to give an honest account of their part in this horrific activity"

But my research only really took off after I spent a night at the house of my ancestors, now a hotel, in November 2010. Within a few days I had located two further caches of family correspondence - one kept in a county archive, another belonging to a distant cousin - and also managed to acquire a book of recipes, remedies and household hints handwritten by my four-times great-grandmother in 1806. When this deluge of Georgian papers landed in my lap, it felt like an act of fate.

The main character in the story that I would go on to discover was my namesake, Richard Atkinson. A major contractor and purveyor of provisions to the British army during the American War of Independence, he'd acquired the nickname "Rum" Atkinson after supplying 350,000 gallons of the spirit at an allegedly inflated price. The family narrative included an unrequited love affair, a feud over a disputed will, fortunes lost through gambling, and restorative visits to English spa towns - so far, so Jane Austen. But much to my dismay and discomfort, it also turned out that family members had been wealthy merchants and sugar planters in Jamaica, and there were few aspects of the slave trade in which they had not been involved.

The proposal for Mr Atkinson's Rum Contract took me about a year to write, as I pieced together the basic narrative arc across three generations of my family - from the 1750s, when Jamaica was the jewel in the imperial crown, to the 1850s, after the abolition of slavery, by which time half the island's sugar plantations had been abandoned. Although part of me wondered whether it was madness to implicate my own family by deliberately writing them into this shocking part of history, I felt a powerful responsibility to keep going. Clearly I could make no amends for my ancestors' misdeeds, but I could at least try to give an honest account of their part in this horrific activity, without glossing over it.

"I think I believed the words would start spilling out of my head. They did not"

Quite early on I confided to my friend Claire Conrad, the literary agent, that I thought I might have stumbled on a story that was worth telling; she urged me to write the proposal, then helped me knock it into shape. It went out to a handful of publishers in March 2012; a small but heated auction ensued, the happy outcome being that Louise Haines (an editor I'd always greatly admired) acquired the book for 4th Estate.

It turned out that securing a publisher was just the first foothill of a huge mountain range that lay ahead. The euphoria of the auction soon wore off as I grasped the size of the task that faced me. I was neither an academic drawing on a deep knowledge of colonial history, nor a journalist accustomed to bashing out a thousand words before lunch; I had to learn both the history of the period and the craft of writing more or less from scratch. I recall one petrifying afternoon, shortly after signing my book deal, sitting in the basement reading room at the London Library with my laptop open, a blank screen in front of me, having promised myself that this was the day I would start writing the book. I think I believed the words would start spilling out of my head. They did not.

In my life as a publisher, I was used to working collaboratively - the aspect of the job that I loved most of all - but it dawned on me that no one could share the burden of writing Mr Atkinson's Rum Contract. It was my mountain, and I would have to climb it alone. For a while, I was almost paralysed with fear at the vastness of the task I had set myself, and would lie awake at night wondering whether there was some way - without epic loss of face - that I could return the advance money and resume normal life.

It became obvious, as it dawned on me quite how much research was needed, that I would be unable to continue as an editor while so fully occupied with my own project - so I was fortunate that Bloomsbury let me take what was initially billed as a year's sabbatical. Tracking down the scattered jigsaw pieces of my story, I would end up visiting 24 archives in Britain, Jamaica and the US. I found research exhilarating and addictive: I would turn up at each new archive with all the eagerness of a detectorist homing in on an Anglo-Saxon hoard, not knowing what I might unearth that day, but confident that I would find treasure.

"Having told the story I felt compelled to tell, the lonely struggle of the writer's life holds little further appeal"

By way of contrast, I found the process of actually writing the book - getting the words down and placing them in a coherent order - a solitary, unrelenting business, a matter of placing one foot in front of the other until I reached the end. For the first time in my life, I was working in a vacuum. As a publisher, I adored the buzz that came from new proposals regularly arriving in my inbox, and finished copies landing on my desk. As a writer, though, I reached a strange moment - about two years in - when I realised that I hadn't shown anything I'd written to anyone.

In my book proposal, I had blithely estimated that it would take me two years to deliver the manuscript - in the end it was seven years before I handed it in. Given how long it took me to write, it was just as well that I never stopped finding my family's story deeply fascinating - it helped that the secrets kept coming right to the very end. Nor did I lose hope that the story would be of interest to a wider audience, for I recognised that my family's "tangled inheritance" encapsulated in miniature the difficult legacy of the wealth that slavery made for this nation - something we are still struggling to come to terms with.

The long-awaited publication of Mr Atkinson's Rum Contract took place on 16 April, under circumstances stranger than I could ever have imagined. Meanwhile, once again I'm a publisher - at Penguin - and colleagues have asked me whether my attitude to authors has changed. The answer is emphatically yes - I have first-hand experience of the exquisite torment that they put themselves through on a daily basis, which has given me an even greater respect for their work. I certainly don't regret my own time spent as an author, and I'll never forget the thrill of lifting a copy of my book off the conveyor belt at the printers just a few days before lockdown - but having told the story I felt compelled to tell, the lonely struggle of the writer's life holds little further appeal. For now I am more than satisfied to remain at base camp, in a supporting role - the publisher's life is definitely the one for me.

Richard Atkinson is publishing director at Penguin Press. Mr Atkinson's Rum Contract by Richard Atkinson is published by 4th Estate.

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