A painful literary legacy
How does it feel to be immortalized in fiction by a parent? That’s the central question of Mr Toppit, British author Charles Elton’s debut.
Mr Toppit is your first novel, but you’ve worked in the book business for many years. Have you seen fame affect a writer and his family the way it does the Hayman clan?
When I was a Literary Agent in the 1980's I worked for the firm that represented the Estate of A.A.Milne and I learnt the story of how much his son, Christopher Robin Milne, hated being in Winnie The Pooh and how it blighted his life. He ended up totally estranged from his parents. I also knew the huge sums of money that came in for the Estate, more than 50 years after the books' publication. That was the inspiration for my book—really the only idea I had when I started it, though the details. I was lucky in that, during the 15 years it took me to write my book, the Harry Potter books began to be published and suddenly my notion of a series of children's books “taking over the world” didn't seem so far-fetched. Since I've worked in television drama, I've seen many actors affected by the sudden fame a part can bring them. Not always a pretty sight.
Speaking of the Hayman clan, they’re an extremely compelling and absurd bunch. Were these portraits drawn from anyone in your life?
There are many autobiographical elements in the book. Sometimes, I took real characters I knew and put them in my fictional setting. Lila, the German illustrator, is based entirely on my sisters' German teacher at school, who became obsessed with our family. Laurie's mother Alma is based on my sister's mother-in-law, who really did call the police accusing her blameless son of trying to kill her. My mother was run over and killed by a cement truck, in the way that happens to the father in my book.
With Luke as the series’ star and Rachel omitted entirely, you’ve set up an interesting dichotomy. Which child do you think got the better deal?
It's interesting to weigh up whether Rachel or Luke get the better deal. In an ideal world, if Rachel had been a more stable character, I think she would have got the better deal, but her own demons bring her down. In a strange way, Luke—because of his detachment—is probably the best able to cope with the fame the Hayseed books bring, even though he hates it.
Was it always your intent to leave out the plot of The Hayseed Chronicles? Why did you choose to do so?
It was a very conscious decision. I wanted to give a flavour and hint at the enigmas but leave it to the reader to imagine what the books might be like. If I had included more, it would have all become too “solid.” As one of the reasons for the Hayseed books’ success is the way that everyone interprets the character of Mr Toppit in their own ways, I wanted my small excerpts to do the same thing.
The success of the Hayseed Chronicles is due almost entirely to chance. These days, it’s said that a publisher’s commitment dictates sales, but do you think there are still real-life books that could take off in such a fashion?
I think it happens less than it used to, but there are examples of books taking off by chance, or just word of mouth. The first Harry Potter book was bought by the publishers for a tiny advance and there was no marketing push. Also (I think) Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin took off (in England, anyway) without any pushing by the publishers. With the proliferation of Reading Groups, I think it could happen more. Conversely, there are many examples of large advances and massive hype that don't pay off in sales for publishers. I'm not even sure that good reviews help that much always. There's nothing like people simply loving a book and passing it on.
You do a terrific (and often quite funny) job of showing the difference between English and American sentiments. You’ve already published to much acclaim in the U.K.; do you think your book will be received differently in the States?
When my book came out in England last year, there was a lot of publicity. Penguin constructed a campaign and a website that looked like a fan site devoted to the (fictional) Hayseed books. On the day of publication, they took out a full-page ad in The London Times purporting to be a statement from 'The Hayseed Foundation' threatening legal action against my book Mr Toppit as if it were an unauthorized and possibly libelous biography of the Hayman family. The morning radio picked up the news and I got a lot of calls from friends worried that I might be heading for prison. The reviews were lovely, and getting onto the “Richard and Judy Book Show” (the U.K. equivalent of “Oprah”) helped turn it into a success. But, of course, the U.S. is a different market and it means a huge amount to me that the book works in the U.S. For one thing, I love the U.S. and lived in Los Angeles when I was an agent. But I think, because quite a lot of the book takes place in America, it will read differently to a U.S. audience—for one thing, the English sections will be the “foreign” ones. And, as Mr Toppit is about a series of books that become famous in America, I'd find it pretty painful if my book falls flat there!
Even though Mr Toppit is very much an adult book, what do you think grownups can learn from children’s literature?
One of the themes of my book is the difference between being a child and an adult. What I love about the best children's books—and one of the reasons I adapted several into films when I was producing drama—is that they show how clear-sighted children are, how things tend to be right or wrong, and how this gets compromised by the adult world for whom the gradations between right and wrong are infinite and confusing. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best examples of this, and a book I (and everyone else) love.
We have to ask. Who is Mr Toppit and what would finding him achieve?
I wish I knew the answer to this, and one of the points of my book is how differently he can be interpreted. For me, he's the dark at the top of the stairs, the questions we don't want answered, the place in our soul that we'd rather not go to, but mostly The Man Who Knows Too Much about all of us. But maybe—on the other hand—he's just a mirage, or some kind of mental optical illusion signifying a lot, but meaning nothing.