Mari Stead Jones: finishing the story

Mari Stead Jones: finishing the story

More than 26 years after her father’s death, Philip Pullman’s praise was music to the ears of Mari Stead Jones.

“There are books that are unjustly forgotten, and I think this is one of them,” said the author of His Dark Materials. Pullman was writing in a foreword to a 2011 reissue of Make Room for the Jester by her father, Welsh writer Stead Jones. Originally published in 1964, the novel had garnered lots of attention as a Welsh Catcher in the Rye, but fallen off the radar since.

“That was marvellous,” Jones remembers. “Pullman actually did a lecture about it at the Hay Festival.”

Make Room for the Jester

It was a reminder of what might have been if her father’s career hadn’t stopped cold after 1968. Stead Jones published only three books in his lifetime – over a brief four-year period. After 1968, her father would never publish anything again. It was the late 1960s, and times were changing. The lack of sex and swearing in his stories made them unfashionable. The offers to publish dried up.

“My mum said he wouldn’t adapt. His agent made the suggestion that he should modernise some of his language but he wasn’t happy to do that," Mari remembers. So, even with no publisher waiting, he kept producing.

“He was a positive chap. Most evenings, from eight o’clock onwards, he would squirrel himself away in his study and you could hear his typewriter going until about 10 o’clock.” When Stead died suddenly in 1985, the family packed the contents of his office into an old chest, and there it lay – for 26 years.

A yearning to write

In 2011, 44-year old Jones, whose daughter had just started school, found herself with time on her hands. A voracious reader, she’d always had a vague idea that she’d like to try doing some writing. Her mind turned to the chest and her father’s papers. Surely, she might find some inspiration for a story in there?

But there wasn’t only inspiration in the chest, there were whole novels – storylines and plots intact – three-dimensional characters, short stories, and even a few plays. The 17-year gap between the publication of her father’s last novel and his untimely death had resulted in a veritable mountain of writing in varying stages of completeness. Thanks to her father’s resilience,  Mari is in possession of a unique and sizable writing legacy.“You have photo albums to remember people by, and memories. But this is a different thing altogether.”

Agatha Christie

Ten months after the first foray into her father’s archive, Mari – who lists Agatha Christie’s The Big Four, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series and Iain Banks’ Whit as some of her favuorite books – had transformed into a writer herself.

On 1 March this year, Parthian published her first book – Say Goodbye to the Boys, a stylish, character-rich tale set in 1947, when three young friends return from the war to their small Welsh hometown for a lazy summer, only to discover that everything has changed. It’s a whodunit, complete with a trail of clues and a bumbling detective.

Jones likes to think of the book as a partnership. While the novel has many of the Stead Jones hallmarks that Pullman would recognise, it also contains more than a few of her own. She is less wordy than her father, she says, less literary. She went through manuscripts, line by line, retyping, deleting great pieces, and then rewriting. When she found the narrative running away with itself, she trimmed it back.

Mari thinks her father would be glad that she’s the one making the decisions that he wouldn’t make himself when he was alive. “He’d be pleased it’s being published,” she says.

“He would probably say there’s too much swearing in it - but that would only be because he’s my father.”

Say Goodbye to the Boys by Mari Stead Jones is published by Parthian Books.