As the final edition in Elliott & Thompson’s seasonal anthology series is published, Melissa Harrison gives some insight into how she helped bring the quartet into being
A year ago I was offered the chance to help put together four anthologies of new and old writing about the seasons, in support of The Wildlife Trusts. The timing was terrible: I’d begun writing my third novel and then abandoned it, fallen into despair, and then come up with a new idea, which I was about to start work on, while on the horizon loomed the publication of my non-fiction book Rain and the paperback of At Hawthorn Time, with all the publicity commitments that would surround them. To work on four anthologies to come out within a year, while also holding down a job as the production editor of Mixmag magazine, seemed an utterly ridiculous idea. I said yes.
The fact was that when push came to shove, I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else doing it – because by the time I met up with Jennie Condell, the editor at Elliott & Thompson, I was already buzzing with ideas for pieces to include and subjects to cover, and I felt excited at the prospect of discovering what might prove to be a new generation of writers on the natural world. So, having agreed to come on board, I sat down at home and did what I always do when I’m faced with something terrifying: I made a massive list.
One (hectic) year on and the fourth book in the series, Winter, is finally on the shelves, its handsome jacket, designed by Lynn Hatzius, completing what I think is an extremely attractive and tactile quartet. Did I manage to commission all the writers on my list, cover all the subjects and clear all the extracts I wanted? Of course not; and barely a week goes by for me without thinking of something else that I wish I could go back and include. But man alive, I am proud of these anthologies, for this reason: I believe that they are doing something really worthwhile.
I didn’t want to put my name to four pleasant but ultimately pointless gift books – and thankfully, that wasn’t at all what E&T or The Wildlife Trusts had in mind. Instead, Jennie, researcher Brónagh Woods and I worked hard to find extracts and contributors that might surprise our readers: ways to describe the seasons that might feel fresh or challenging, a broader range of locations than the usual beauty spots, and voices and perspectives that have been underrepresented in writing about the natural world, and should be heard from more.
We decided to steer clear of some over-anthologised poems and extracts, but others were too well-loved to ignore. And to sit alongside the exciting new material that was being submitted, we sought out diary entries, letters, essays and the notes of local naturalists’ clubs, extracts from classic novels and modern nature writing, and poetry written over a thousand years ago – as well as poems so new they were being finalised as we went to print.
I’m not going to pick out my favourite pieces of writing from the series, firstly because there is nothing in those books that hasn’t fully earned its place, and secondly, because while I do have my favourites, one of the joys of putting the books out has been seeing which pieces catch the imagination of readers – often quite different ones than I would have thought. It was Jennie at E&T’s idea not to reveal the author’s name or the publication date until the end of each entry and to keep the biographies for the endmatter, which makes reading the collections a series of discoveries – and I encourage you to approach them in exactly that way.
As I hope is starting to become clear, the fact that my name is on the books’ covers doesn’t mean that I did all the work: far from it, in fact. Putting together anthologies like these requires an enormous amount of extremely organised legwork over and above what it takes to publish the more usual type of book, from researching material in the British Library day in, day out, to clearing copyright, sending out hundreds of contracts and organising the sign-off of edits from a huge cast of contributors. I’ve worked on books like this on the other side of the desk, and I can tell you: Jennie, Brónagh and the team at E&T have done a brilliant job.
And I can say something about these four anthologies that I’d be too shy to say about my own books: please buy them! I’d like them to raise as much money as possible for The Wildlife Trusts, and to inspire love in their readers for the natural world. And I want them to help make the room marked ‘nature writing’ a little bigger, so it can include a wider range of voices. And I want those voices to be heard.
Winter is published today by E&T Books in association with The Wildlife Trusts. Copies can be found in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.99. Look out for a box-set of all four volumes, coming soon.
Melissa Harrison on Caught by the River / on Twitter