I was ludicrously lucky to be Mal Peet’s editor. But not for long enough! And there are others who edited him for longer. And knew him much better. I was just last one up to bat.
So what was it like, editing Mal? A year or so back I drove down to Exmouth to talk to Mal about The Murdstone Trilogy. We had an initial conversation in his lovely airy light writing room, with only Pedro, his beloved dog, present. Then Mal, his wife Elspeth and I went to the pub. I drove. Did Pedro come? I’m pretty sure he did. We all talked more about the book. The three of us together with Pedro ‘being good’ below the table. We had a nice lunch, lots of laughter mixed in with the book stuff. It was such a delight and privilege to hear Mal talk about his work - or anything else for that matter.
I tentatively, very tentatively, made a suggestion about one of the characters in the book. Mal gave me a look and the idea some serious thought, and made some very good objections. Afterwards I watched as Mal and Elspeth set off, arm in arm, and Pedro, yes I am sure he was there, to walk the few miles home together along the beautiful estuary. Mal said they’d talk together on the way and he’d think about what I had said about his book. I drove back to Oxford not really quite sure how the meeting had gone. But feeling very happy with no reason. Later Phil Earle asked Mal how the editing had gone. Mal announced happily “He came down here and ripped the arse out of my book!”
Everything went swimmingly after that. But you could never be quite sure with an author as good as Mal. That was the great thing about him. Only someone as gloriously big-hearted as he could be so wickedly and truthfully funny. And only a writer of great power can imagine so far. Much further than most of us, Mal could see beyond our ken.
Mal lives on in all our heads now. Mal in all his guises and talents. And I don’t know the half of them. But I would like to bang on about one thing. The bit of Mal I know a bit about. And I’ll try to use Mal’s voice to do so.
Here he is in a passage from Keeper - the book with which he first announced his extraordinary talent to the world and immediately won the Branford Boase Award:
‘I think I am a goalkeeper,’ I said.
Senora da Silva raised her sculptured eyebrows. ‘Think, ‘ she asked, ‘Only think?’‘I am a keeper,’ I said, ‘ I have no choice in the matter.’
Swap the words ‘keeper’ for ‘writer’ and you have Mal Peet.
Be of no doubt, Mal Peet is a great writer. He emerged suddenly at the height of his powers at the comparatively late age of 52, then went on to write six of the finest novels written in English since the war. I kid you not. Straight off the reel.
The best way to honor Mal is to read him. For each and every one of you to go out and give a Mal Peet book to a reader. Give all of them. Talk about them all. Tell the world. Let no one be able to say ever again that he is the greatest author you’ve never heard of.
David Fickling delivered the full version of this eulogy at Mal Peet’s funeral earlier this year. The Murdstone Trilogy is published in paperback by David Fickling Books Thursday 2nd July.