If anyone in British publishing foresaw the convergence of music and literature, from rock star memoirs to spoken word stages at festivals, it was Lee Brackstone.
In his past capacity as an editor at Faber & Faber, he worked with Kate Bush, Jarvis Cocker, Van Morrison, Julian Cope, Viv Albertine and Kim Gordon, as well as A-list music writers such as Jon Savage, Nick Kent and Simon Reynolds. And when Hachette/Orion offered Brackstone his own imprint, he decided to make the leap.
“I wanted to test myself,” Brackstone says, speaking from his home in north Essex. “Within Faber you’re protected in a way, you come with a ready-made armour, and to divest yourself of the armour and go out there, naked on the heath, to try and do it again... well, why not? I’d just published the biggest book of my career, the Beastie Boys book, which recalibrated the way certain bands or certain artists could present their story. I could continue to do the same, or I could go elsewhere. And there were a couple of options, but the CEO and the managing director at Hachette and Orion said: ‘Look, you have the freedom here to do whatever you want. We trust your taste.’”
Brackstone has contracted some impressive names for the coming year’s publishing schedule, including techno legend Carl Cox, Patti Smith guitarist and pre-punk curator Lenny Kaye, and Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club drummer Chris Frantz among others. It is, however, a strange time to be launching a ship.
“Exactly – not only the timing of [the coronavirus], but also the death of Andrew Weatherall, who was a long-time collaborator and great friend of mine, and had taken me into so many new, experimental places in terms of how books and music can come together in a live situation, and also on the page. It’s so mad that he disappears just before this happens. And launching a ship is a perfect metaphor, you have that tattoo which says, ‘Sail we may, sail we must’.
“My first book is Richard Russell [the XL Recording boss’s Great Liberation through Hearing], and of course Mark Lanegan, which I thought would have been up your street.”
Indeed it is. Lanegan’s Sing Backwards and Weep is a scabrous and often harrowing addict’s testimonial. It’s also a powerful social history of the Seattle scene from the late 1980s to the millennium. How did it come about?
“I had often talked to Jeff Barrett, who runs his label Heavenly, about what an amazing book Lanegan would write. This had been going on for about 12 years. Two days before I started at Hachette the book just arrived. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this; this is mental’. And the thing is, nobody else in the whole of Britain would have published that book apart from me or Angus [Cargill, editor at Faber]. And because it was being published over there [in the US] by one of the divisions within Hachette, I had first go at it.
“I was 23 years at Faber, it was the only place I’d worked, I started there when I was 22, it was a real wrench to leave, but when something like that arrives, you start to think maybe it’s the right thing. It’s got a kind of Last Exit to Brooklyn feel, it’s not like your common music memoir, it’s something else, it’s relentless, and it’s sort of unsparing, genuinely unsparing actually, of himself, although I know that he’s had absolutely no catharsis from writing the book, nothing at all. He’s trapped in the hell of his own making.
“But it seems to be I attract [these kinds of characters]. We publish David Keenan’s new novel in November, but then he’s got a thousand-page novel called Monument Maker ready to go next June, about French Gothic architecture.”
Fiction and music
Keenan, a critic and musician as well as author, has established a formidable reputation with his first two novels This Is Memorial Device and For the Good Times, but Brackstone admits their working relationship had fractious beginnings.
“He had written a really, really bad and nasty review of one of my books in The Wire, and I was like, ‘This guy’s a f**king total c**t’. And about a week later I got a Twitter message from him, asking me to read his novel, and I thought, ‘How dare he?’ Then I read two pages of what became This Is Memorial Device and I was just immediately knocked over by it. I read it in a couple of days and I made him an offer, then we developed it, we edited the book really, really closely and kind of built it together.
“With For the Good Times I was very conscious of it being a novel about the Troubles, and how it would be received in Ireland. David was very close to it through his family, but geographically abstracted from it, being in Airdrie [in Scotland]. But he’s one of the really truly visionary writers. He trusts fiction to lead him to truth, which is a really extraordinary thing for a writer to do, to have that much faith in the power of the imagination. He sees himself – not in a self-aggrandising way – in an almost religious tradition of writers who work from those principles.
“I think in these times we really need writers like that, who are writing books that may not even be fully understood in their time. It’s like that experience of first walking into a gallery and seeing a Rothko and going, ‘What the f**k is that supposed to make me feel?’ You interact on a different level, almost on a meditative or subliminal level, which is different to trying to look for meaning in everything.
“I think we’ve become too obsessed with meaning and narrative, especially in fiction. One of the things I really want to do at White Rabbit is to publish as much fiction as possible that relates to music. Someone else I’m going to be pushing is Alan Warner; his new novel will come out in April. It’s set in the late ’70s and it’s about a sort of a butler or Man Friday to a famous rock star in a rambling Sussex Tudor mansion. It’s very, very funny.”
‘One of the great editors’
As a veteran editor, what has Brackstone learned from working with masters of the form such as Edna O’Brien. Is she collaborative?
“Do you know, this is quite funny, I was just corresponding with Edna this morning, ‘cos we’re very close, and I’m worried about her obviously, because she’s 89. She can’t get out of the house and she really doesn’t have good living circumstances at all, everything’s very tough for her. And I told her this interview was happening, and she sent a quote over in case you want it.”
The quote, subsequently forwarded by Brackstone via email, reads as follows:
“Lee Brackstone was my editor at Faber for 12 years and it was both a happy and inspirational experience. He was and is uncanny in his understanding of text. He even senses what is missing from a work and manages in a few words to make one deepen and enrich the story. He is one of the great editors (a rare species in our meretricious times) and he will thrive in his new position.”
“Obviously it is really intimidating working with certain writers of such a gilded reputation,” Brackstone continues, “but I was really lucky in that when I started, the first author I worked with was Ted Hughes. It was a book of 101 poems to remember called By Heart. Ted delivered the 101 poems, and 25 of them were by Shakespeare, from soliloquies or the sonnets, and I just thought, ‘You can’t publish a book like this with that many Shakespeare poems.’ So I challenged him on it, and he came back and he was like, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ And he cut it to 15 excerpts from Shakespeare.
"And I think that moment taught me a lot of fearlessness, in that context of working with people who are that big and that important, so I go into it feeling like everybody is fallible, even the great writers.
“But it’s about trust. Edna and I had that trust and bond from the first time we met, 12 years or so ago. We’ve worked together on five books, I think: the memoir, stories, two novels. What we would often do is meet for dinner once a month and she would describe to me which part of the book she’s in, certain scenes. She’d ask me what I thought, we would correspond, then she would send me little chapters, and then she would send me the full thing when it’s done. And at that point I would work on the page, I would sometimes suggest introducing new scenes, obviously line edits.
“I’ve never seen a writer take so much care over word choice in my life. You see the way the books develop over draft after draft after draft. Every book is different as well, that’s what interests me. There’s no Edna O’Brien style, or her style is changing as she gets older, Little Red Chairs is completely different to Girl. She’s on another planet, really.”
Liberation Through Hearing by Richard Russell and Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan are out now; Remain in Love by Chris Frantz will be published on May 28th; all on the White Rabbit imprint