Sue Townsend: A tribute

Sue Townsend: A tribute

The bestselling author of the Adrian Mole books died on 10th April. Louise Moore, managing director of Michael Joseph, writes:

I first had contact with Susan Lillian Townsend in 1991 when she was writing The Queen And I. I was working as a (very) junior copyeditor for the great Geoffrey Strachan, Sue’s publisher at Methuen. I nervously wrote Sue a letter telling her what an anarchic, genius novel I thought it was and posted it off. Back came a funny, carefully composed three lines on a postcard—in Sue’s distinctive bold black handwriting—almost the next day. I now know this was typical of Sue: she was never interested in a person’s status, she took everyone she met on trust and with the same level of kindness and curiosity.

She was agented by the late Giles Gordon, whom she loved, and was already a literary superstar—Adrian Mole had taken the 1980s by storm. Even then, Sue seemed hardly to be affected by all the attention, plaudits and money—although she did love the literary world and its denizens, a night of good gossip at The Groucho, or a trip to Selfridges. (She never kept hold of her clothes or her handbags for long with two daughters, Vicky and Lizzie, and four granddaughters. Sue was always a ridiculously generous giver.) She had no false modesty and took pride in her work, but at the same time she was always far more interested in how you were doing, any news to be had, and talking through the possibilities she had in her mind for what her characters might do next.

I got to know her properly in the late ‘90s, when she came to Penguin. At that time she was beginning to lose her sight, and was ultimately unable to fulfil one of her great pleasures in life: reading. Typically, she had no self-pity. In fact I never saw her once display that. Her husband Colin, her granddaughter Bailey and latterly her eldest son Sean were all to play a crucial part in helping her write her books, and collectively (or singularly) we would wonder if she would make her deadline. It was an intoxicating rollercoaster ride, but she always did . . . just!

She wrote every single word herself; the order of words in any particular sentence was critical to her. I think her blindness and method of working made her even more precise than she might otherwise have been—there is never a word out of place in her books. She would visualise and display an elegant and precise economy in every sentence, and she always knew exactly the right word and the right way to get the laugh.

I was particularly involved in the last Mole she wrote, The Prostrate Years, and we would sit in her study, in pyjamas, sometimes until 2 a.m., when she was yet again pushing a deadline, cackling with laughter at the funny, poignant world she was conjuring up. She finished it the day before she was due to go into hospital for a successful kidney transplant.

There was never a dull moment in the Townsend house. I felt so very lucky as an editor to witness that kind of creativity as it was taking place. It was one of the happiest incidents of my working life. Her final two novels, The Prostrate Years and The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, received ecstatic reviews, and it gave her great pleasure as she knew she wasn’t losing her touch for a second. And she was thrilled that the latter was such a gigantic bestseller.

She loved Adrian with tender exasperation. He would sometimes recede for a year or so, and then he would make a reappearance in her creative mind. He had made a reappearance just months before she died, and she was frustrated that the book was all in her head but her remarkable strength and tenacity were finally failing her. I went to see her a few weeks ago, and left her planning a makeover at the hairdressers . . .

Most importantly for Sue, by a long way, she was—together with her beloved Colin—at the heart of a big, loving, noisy family, its members were all at the centre of her heart. They came first, her writing second. Her house was always a bit like Piccadilly Circus, as the family came and went every day. Her absence will leave a gaping hole in their lives.
She would be cross with me for the long, rambling sentences, and the number of adjectives in this. I can’t help myself: she was an adored author, a real, real friend, and I can’t believe she’s gone.

Image by Gary Caplan