Author Jessie Burton has named a setting in her new novel The Muse after a Waterstones bookseller as a thank you for a “stellar” effort in hand-selling her début novel.
Burton’s new novel (Picador, 30th June) is set in 1967 and features Trinidad immigrant Odelle Bastien, who begins a new job as a typist at The Skelton Institute in London under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick.
The Skelton Institute is named after Leilah Skelton (pictured above), a bookseller at Waterstones Doncaster, after she put a huge effort into hand-selling Burton’s first novel The Miniaturist (Picador), which went on to be named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2014.
Skelton, a former art student, made creative window displays for The Miniaturist by cutting out characters from the jacket to make small models. She also gift-wrapped copies in opulent paper and even made tiny dolls’ house-scale copies of the book, handing out the free “Miniature Miniaturist” creations to customers with every purchase. Her finishing touch involved repurposing an old shop display by installing a mechanical motor to create a flying circle for a tiny clay bird that “flew” over the window display, earning praise from Burton on Twitter, who said the bookseller was “beyond compare”.
Now Burton has thanked her with a dedication in her new book. The author said: “I had two reasons: mainly, it was to say thank you for such a stellar and imaginative effort in her shop hand-selling my first novel. It meant a great deal, and when it came to naming a place of artistic endeavour, of generosity of creative spirit, who better to name it after than Leilah Skelton, a person with whom I, as a writer, had developed a personal connection?” She added: “Secondly, I just really like the name. I hope she won’t take offence at this, but it’s a bit medieval and very English, and sounds a little like ‘skeleton’. It fitted the air of the art institute perfectly, the twisty Englishness and mystery of the place my heroine, Odelle, encounters.”
Skelton said she was “overwhelmed” by the author’s gesture. “I feel amazed and humbled and overwhelmed with the honour of being given my own little permanence in the world because of an author’s kindness,” she said. “I absolutely love the book and I managed to get swept up in her writing despite this regular appearance of my name. Every time I scanned ‘Skelton’ it was like a little tap on the shoulder—someone saying, ‘That’s you, that is’.
“It really is something that a working-class, undereducated northerner can become an Institute of Art in London—no matter that it’s a fictional one.”