Obituary: Diana Athill

Obituary: Diana Athill

21st December 1917—23rd January 2019

Bella Lacey
Granta, editorial director

I was Diana Athill’s editor for the last 10 years of her life. When Ian Jack left Granta, I was asked to look after her backlist, a job that I accepted with joy; Stet had been an inspiration to me. Diana firmly told me there would be “No More Books”. A year later she arrived at the office with a bundle of letters saved by her friend Edward Field, and asked: “Do you think there might be something here?” And so began a second renaissance of her work, a series of three books in her nineties: Instead of a Book; Alive, Alive Oh!; and A Florence Diary.

When Diana could no longer work on her computer, she delivered these books in precise and elegant handwriting, usually having already applied tiny edits in the margins. I would open her letters to me—addressed in that same familiar hand—with great excitement and anticipation.

One evening, after a packed talk at the Shoreditch Salon, an audience member asked Diana: “What’s it like for your editor at Granta, editing the most revered editor in publishing?” With a look of glee in her eye, Diana turned to me and declared: “Well, she has a very easy job of it.” This was absolutely true. Editing her books was an editor’s dream. She knew exactly what she wanted from them, and rarely needed line editing. She would take the occasional structural suggestion with grace, and perhaps a little surprise that she hadn’t thought of it herself.

Diana was a remarkable presence on the page and in person: clear-sighted, forthright, funny and great fun. She was thoroughly delighted by the success of her books and that, in her nineties, she was still “living by the pen”. She possessed an enviable strength of character and an optimistic spirit for life which sustained her and everyone around her. I’m going to miss her tremendously.

Pru Rowlandson
Granta, publicity director

Publicists are natural enthusiasts, but nothing makes us happier than working with a brilliant and entertaining author—so I couldn’t believe my luck when I became Diana Athill’s publicist. We first met 12 years ago to talk about the upcoming publication of Somewhere Towards the End. She drove me to a neighbourhood restaurant in Primrose Hill and we had the sort of conversation that set the tone for the rest of our time together. She was in person, as she was on the page, a frank and funny storyteller, with wisdom from a life well-tested. I remember much of that meeting, especially when she told me that she believed 35 was as old as a woman ever really got (I was approaching that milestone and was feeling conflicted about it). I reminded her of this recently and she admitted that in fact, 100 was perhaps older after all.

For years, she replied to almost any invitation with: “Oh I’d love to ... if I’m still alive”, and with the last few books that Granta published, she would say: “I’ve decided not to do any publicity this time”, except the Guardian, of course, and Mariella [Frostrup] would be a delight and yes, yes, yes—and before we knew it we once again had a campaign most writers would dream of.

Lennie Goodings
Virago, chair

Diana Athill wrote two introductions for us: to the Virago Modern Classic The Diary of Helena Morley and, in 2017, to the wonderful biography of the Irish writer Molly Keane, written by Keane’s daughter Sally Phipps. At André Deutsch Diana had been the publisher of Molly Keane’s savagely brilliant novels, including Good Behaviour. She remembered Molly “was as responsive to love as she was to the challenges of her art... [a trait as] dominant in her friendships as well as her books. That was why so many quickly-made friends remained bound to her for life.” It could be Athill’s own epitaph.

In the introduction, Diana remembered her “bad behaviour”: she was so taken with the manuscript that she said to another colleague: “I am sorry, but I am going to pull rank. I am going to edit this novel.’’ She added: “I knew I was being mean.” I was surprised but delighted by that frankness. Diana’s own writing honours the talent of other literary giants such as Margaret Atwood and V S Naipaul, but in so doing (and modestly), it gives proper due to the editor who cares deeply about writing. I treasure her memory for that quality.

Rebecca Carter
Janklow & Nesbit, agent

Not many 97-year-olds decide to take on a literary agent when they’ve managed without one for a whole writing career, but Diana was never conventional. She needed some advice about film rights, so invited me to tea at the suggestion of her dear friend and publicist Pru Rowlandson. In 2014 Diana was still writing emails: “As at no time would I have been up to talking real money with anyone, I’m even less able to do so at the age of 97.”

I emerged from her now legendary room at the old people’s home with a sheaf of paper that “might make a book”, and which became Alive, Alive Oh! Then we uncovered A Florence Diary. She loved the fact that she was still earning a living by her pen as she turned 100. I had to pinch myself that I was working and laughing with the woman whose work at Deutsch had been such an inspiration in my own career. That is publishing for you: extraordinary connections across time and place. Diana frequently told me she had been lucky in life, despite having knock-backs. I was the lucky one.