Banished to the room at the bottom of her garden, Fremantle Press publisher Georgia Richter finds buried treasure as she reads her way through quarantine

‘Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,’ said the Rat. ‘And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please. Now then! Here’s our backwater at last, where we’re going to lunch.’
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, 1908

I have just emerged from what we Australians so cheerfully call quazza or iso (a fortnight-long sojourn so much more manageable than the rollercoaster of lockyD). The time, which begins with an unpleasant stretching sensation, soon resolves into a dreamlike retreat from the world.

I have no reason to complain, and truly I’m not. Though there is no bathroom in my digs (beyond a laundry trough and outdoor toilet) I cast it in my mind as glamping, and it is okay. The dog is a loyal companion and refuses to go for walks with other family members until I too can pass beyond the gate.

Image of dog laying on a blanket outside
Georgia’s dog enjoying the sun

When the sun is out, I weed and prune every pocket of the garden. I unearth two Grecian urns (Liquidation Warehouse, c.1999 AD) and an odd sculpture of rusty wires with sharp scissors welded onto the tip of every lethal point. The dog digs in the freshly disturbed soil, or disappears deep in the nasturtiums, or stretches out nearby on the sunny grass.

Image of two Grecian urns side by side
Grecian urns

When not manicuring the great outdoors, I edit up a storm. I am very lucky: work for me is a salaried pleasure. And when I am not working, I read. Without wi-fi and stuck in the room at the bottom of the garden, I turn to the books on the shelves around me for company. So I revisit The Wind in the Willows. It returns me to my childhood when we had no TV and my dad, Klaus, read to us in the winter in front of the fire. Klaus was a conscripted Hitler Youth, made to fight in the Second World War at the age of fifteen. His own father was killed in the opening days of the war, when Germany invaded Holland. Klaus immigrated to Australia in 1951 to begin a life of determined assimilation. After the traumas of his youth, he only ever watched comedies and read Karl May adventure novels and westerns, and P.G. Wodehouse’s oh-so-English Bertie Wooster stories. And he read The Wind in the Willows to us in a voice that never lost its German accent, despite his desire to fit in.

Now I wonder how much Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 allegory is a story purely for children, with the terrors of the world hinted at in the Wild Wood and the Wide World beyond. The character of the bumptiously chaotic Toad contrasts with that of humble Mole, who is struck by bouts of homesickness. My father might have identified what Moley feels as Heimweh (‘home woe’) – the yearning for impossible return.

During quarantine, I re-read Eleanor Spence’s A Candle for Saint Antony – a YA novel in which Austrian Rudi falls in love with Australian Justin, who is not quite up to the task of reciprocating Rudi’s feelings in such complex terrain. What a thing it was for me to encounter that novel in the early ’80s. What would Spence think of now about a novel like Holden Sheppard’s 2019 Invisible Boys? How far she was from a time when Own Voice writing was a thing, but back then, her novel was an extraordinary thing to read, and it seems to me now like a story told to a possibly resistant audience with great care.

At intervals, I dip in and out of a mildewed copy of The Mother’s Golden Guide. Death was pretty close to the surface in 1877. The book is full of dire warnings about domestic perils. On the subject of ‘Green Wallpaper’ the writer advises:

… if any paper should become detached from the walls, a child is very apt to play with it, and to put it to his mouth. Four children in one family lost their lives from sucking green-paper hangings.

And, on ‘Exercise for Infants’:

If a mother wishes her baby to talk early and plainly, she should let it make all the noise it pleases. This is the way it strengthens its lungs and learns to talk. Quiet or good children, as they are called, are likely soon to go to a quiet place – the grave.

Thus primed to the ghoulish, I turn to mystery novels, with the dog collapsed next to me on a picnic blanket like an eligible bachelor. I read Edmund Crispin’s 1948 cosy crime, Buried for Pleasure, featuring Literature Professor Gervase Fen, and a naked lunatic loose on the moors. I feel disappointed when I spot the killer too soon, and turn with relief to an Amazon delivery of a compendium of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant novels. My anticipation is high. The prose of Tey is eloquent and soothing and her plots watertight.

However, much like the mildew on the cover of The Mother’s Golden Guide, I quickly strike a problem. The crimes Inspector Grant has to solve pale in comparison to the production values of The Complete Collection, which has evidently been typeset by somebody’s pet marmoset. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. In this case, you certainly must. The title, Six Classic Detective Grant Novels, is set in the self-publisher’s choice of Bradley Hand, and the jacket features (appropriately) a car going downhill fast.

Image of book cover Six Classic Detective Grant Novels by Josephine Tey. Image shows a car in the foreground and man in the background.
Six Classic Detective Grant Novels (2016)

Squinting at the eight-point font, page by alarming page, I encounter some or all of the following typographical crimes:

  • words intended_for italics_presented thus
  • double hyphens used–instead of dashes
  • letters left off at the beginnings of words
  • portions of some words set in four point instead of eight
  • dialogue broken across lines, mid-sentence
  • dialogue by two different speakers sharing the same line
  • ostentatiously absent commas
  • some words with too   much    room between them and other words withnospaces at all.

As I stagger between paragraphs, I feel as unwell as my last rough crossing to Rottnest. I google the publisher on my phone so I can express my distress at their dishonouring of one of the great writers from crime’s Golden Age. But, surprise, surprise, Knut Publications is nowhere to be found. My marmoset theory firms up.

Still longing for the Tey immersion, I press on with the book, casting about like a traveller for snatches of the mother tongue in a cacophonous ferry full of tourists. Never before have I fully appreciated the role of typesetting as typographical camouflage that allows the story to reach the reader without impediment.

Some time during quazza, I send a book to typeset and pepper it with stern directions, lest it find itself in the paws of a marmoset. I receive a set of page proofs of a mystery novel called The Gallerist. I spot a late aberrant typo, correct it and cross my fingers as I say ‘OK to print’. They say every book should be like an Arabian carpet: the single flaw pointing to the perfection of the whole. But, shaken from my nightly skirmishes with the atrocious Knut, I am on high alert for any typographical failings in work published on my watch.

On a different day, I chance upon my very first editor’s report to The Gallerist‘s author, Michael Levitt, pointing out the strengths and potential of his delightful art world mystery, whose protagonist Mark Lewis is as decent a chap as Detective Grant.

Image of book cover The Gallerist with a picture frame with a sticky note in the centre.
The Gallerist by Michael Levitt (2022)

How much work and care from author and editor go into bringing a story into the world? Why do we expend time and energy on this singular enterprise? I think we do it so that readers can experience an escape into another world. We do it for people like me, packed around with hot water bottles at the bottom of the garden when the temperature drops and the hail comes in, and for people who find themselves in circumstances that are much harder to bear.

My year six teacher, Leslie Stott, used to berate me because I read only fiction. But what seemed to us both at the time like some kind of failing was really a developing passion. The path of fiction was always going to be mine to tread.

During the day I read and edit manuscripts. I let them sift and settle in my brain until I can articulate for the author the issue whose resolution will lead us both to the finished manuscript. Sometimes it is a matter of addressing character motivation. Why don’t I believe the choices that they are making? At other times, the plot seems to wobble rather than hold steady. How, I ask, can we pivot in order to get the character from ‘A’ to ‘B’ in a way that will feel seamless to the reader?

How curious it is, this business of building believable worlds from fiction. Ultimately the aim of author and editor is to render the world so true and complete that the reader forgets they are even reading. And typesetter and proofreader must also play their part in this.

Even so, falling headlong into a novel to the exclusion of everything is not always possible, especially the second time around. Now I cannot open The Wind in the Willows without also being ten again, hearing my father’s voice as I read. Through these pages I glimpse a time when the troubles of my world really were safely far away in a Wild Wood.

And so, at last it is done. On Day 15, with an odd feeling of reluctance, I fill a clothes basket with my things, including the offending Tey, to carry up to the house. The dog leaves his bed and shakes his ears. It is time to leave the dream and face the Wide World.

Close up image of Georgia on the left and her dog on the right
Georgia and dog

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