Jill Paton Walsh: “Despite 19 rejections she went on to write more than two dozen books”

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “Jill Paton Walsh, 83, Author Who Scoffed at 19 Rejections”:

Jill Paton Walsh was greeted with acclaim in the 1960s when she began writing young-adult books that challenged her readers in both plotting and messaging. There was “Fireweed” (1970), a story of two British adolescents who set up housekeeping in a bombed-out building during World War II. There was “Goldengrove” (1972), about two youths who navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood during an eventful summer.

But in 1994 Ms. Paton Walsh achieved a whole different level of acclaim, by an unlikely route, with a book for adults, “Knowledge of Angels,” a genre-defying medieval fable about an atheist and a girl raised by wolves. Here she delved into themes of faith and reason and more.

Yet despite her success with books for young readers, “Knowledge of Angels” struggled to assert itself: No one in her native England would publish it.

“British publishers wouldn’t even say what they didn’t like about it,” Ms. Paton Walsh told The Daily Mail of London that year, “so I couldn’t even change it to suit them.”

And so, in a move that was rare for the time, she published it herself — and had the last laugh. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, one of the top literary awards in the world, and is said to be the first self-published book to make that elite list.

Peter Lewis of The Daily Mail had a crisp rebuke for all those publishers — 19 was the final count — who had said no to the book. “To open it and start reading,” he wrote, “is to be appalled by their lack of judgment.”

Ms. Paton Walsh was a versatile writer whose more than two dozen books included several in the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, which had been created by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957). She completed “Thrones, Dominations” (1998), which Ms. Sayers had begun in the 1930s but never finished. Then Ms. Paton Walsh wrote three of her own Wimsey books, “A Presumption of Death” (2002), “The Attenbury Emeralds” (2010) and “The Late Scholar” (2014).

Gillian Honorine Mary Bliss was born on April 29, 1937, in London. Her father, John Bliss, was an engineer for the BBC who at his death had 363 patents to his name. Her mother, Patricia Paula (DuBern) Bliss, was a homemaker.

As a child, Gillian spent part of the World War II years in Cornwall, on the coast. “A part of me is still rooted in that rocky shore,” she wrote in the autobiographical series “Something About the Author,” “and it appears again and again in what I write.” Several of her young-adult books have a seaside setting.

She attended St. Anne’s College, Oxford, graduating in 1959, and recalled listening to lectures there by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. . . .

She married Antony Edmund Paton Walsh in 1961 and had her first child with him. Finding domestic life somewhat drab, she began writing to relieve her boredom. An editor at Macmillan told her that her first manuscript wasn’t good enough but took an option on whatever she would produce next. That was “Hengest’s Tale,” which she described as “a gory epic retold out of fragments of ‘Beowulf.’” In 1966, it became her first published book.

Next came “The Dolphin Crossing” (1967), followed by “Fireweed.” Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1970, the British children’s book author and editor John Rowe Townsend called it “an outstanding novel for young people: original, haunting, poetic.”. . .

Her next young adult book, “Goldengrove,” was about two youngsters accustomed to spending summers at their grandmother’s seaside home and how one particular summer changed everything. Writing in The Times Book Review, Barbara Wersba, herself an author of young adult books, praised Ms. Paton Walsh’s ability to write “as though she were still 12 years old.” But, she wrote, that didn’t mean that Ms. Paton Walsh’s books were juvenile. . . .

Ms. Paton Walsh aged the “Goldengrove” characters in “Unleaving” (1976). In 1979, with “A Chance Child,” she gave readers a compelling look at child labor in the 19th century.

Her goal with her works for children, she told The Guardian in 1994, was to convey to them “that whatever they think of the world, it is actually much more complicated.”

“I hope to show them how difficult it is to make judgments,” she said, “how often the bad person turns out to be good, that life is unexpected.”

She tried her first novel for adults, “Lapsing,” in 1988. A tale about an Oxford undergraduate, the book drew on her own experiences with faith and love and earned good notices. So did a second novel for adults the next year, “A School for Lovers.” But sales were modest, and when she shopped the ambitious “Knowledge of Angels,” there were no takers in her home country — though Houghton Mifflin had already published the book in the United States. The Guardian would describe it as “a compelling medieval fable centered on the conflict between belief and tolerance, and veined with a complex philosophical argument about the existence of God.”. . .

Ms. Paton Walsh self-published the book in England, and though it did not win the Booker Prize, its nomination drew considerable attention.

After the nomination, Ms. Paton Walsh chided the British publishers, telling The Times, “They’re all afraid of their jobs, and they make their decisions by committee.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.

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