An interview with Susan Wittig Albert

Unlike Susan Wittig Albert, I had a most unfortunate childhood. I did not learn to read with Beatrix Potter books. I was introduced to them much later in life, when as an aspiring children’s book writer, I took a job as a gift rep selling Random House books. In the many boxes of book samples I received weekly, one held a re-print of a Beatrix Potter book. Immediately enchanted by the story, I was even more taken by the illustrations. Potter’s skill as a naturalist artist is legendary. It is her life-like imagery in completely fantastical scenarios that makes the stories so mesmerizing for children and adults alike. One truly feels transported into another world.

It was certainly another world when Beatrix made a career of her little books, first by self-publishing and soon after through her publisher, Frederick Warne & Co. Much has been written about this part of her life, but today we’ll discuss the art and book publishing from a different angle as we visit with Susan Wittig Albert, author of the recently released The Tale of Hawthorn House. This is the fourth book in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series. The charming cozy mysteries for adult readers are set in the Lake District that Beatrix so loved, and features Bea with a supporting cast of real and imaginary characters.

Author Susan Wittig Albert

The Tale of Hawthorn House

Dani: Susan, most fans of Beatrix Potter know quite a bit about her life, but one question that nags is why was Beatrix so intent on publishing the books?

Susan: Well, I think most artists—people who feel they have a talent and want to share it—are compelled to find an audience. Beatrix Potter was no different. As a child, both she and her brother Bertram were encouraged by their parents to develop their artistic aptitude. In her mid twenties, Beatrix sold some of her drawings as greeting cards and shared her gift of storytelling through the picture letters she wrote to her former governess’s children. As time went on, she wanted to share more widely, and came up with the idea for a book about Peter Rabbit, which she published herself when it was turned down by other publishers. After that, one thing led to another, and before long, she had an audience which demanded her work and a publisher who was eager to promote her. But even Beatrix was surprised by Peter’s acceptance. When the sixth printing was ordered, she wrote to her editor, Norman Warne, “The public must be fond of rabbits! What an appalling quantity of Peter!” Tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I think she was always amazed by her commercial success.

But the commercial success of her art meant something else: the possibility of personal independence. Beatrix noted more than once how nice it was to have some money of her own. She used her earnings to buy Hill Top Farm, which gave her the opportunity to escape from London and from her parents’ demands on her time.

And finally, there was her editor, Norman Warne. Beatrix wrote the early books (through 1905) in collaboration with him. He became increasingly important to her, and since her parents would not allow her to have any other connection with him, the books were a way of sustaining their relationship

Dani: What role did her fiancé, Norman Warne, the youngest son in the publishing firm, play in promoting sales and ensuring the financial success of the ventures over the long term?

Susan: I think the role Norman Warne played in shaping Beatrix’s stories was far more important than the role he played within the firm. Yes, he did go on extended sales trips to booksellers in various cities, soliciting orders for books—that was part of his job.

But more importantly, he was a mentor to Beatrix. He guided her in her choice of projects, encouraging her to develop her own original stories, rather than simply illustrate nursery rhymes, as she originally wanted to do. He offered suggestions for the drawings and the text. He was knowledgeable about the printing process and about ink and paper, and when she had changes or corrections to make, he saw that they got made. He also probably ran interference for her with his brothers, Harold and Fruing, who sometimes wanted her to do things she didn’t want to do, such as to illustrate another writer’s book.

Most importantly, Norman was a supporter, a cheerleader (a wonderful, wonderful quality in an editor!) and her friend. Without him, it’s entirely possible that she wouldn’t have gone past the first book or two. And it took real courage for her to go on working after his death.

Dani: Did Beatrix set the stage for merchandise sales related to the books long before Disney padded its fortunes this way? Any idea how much success the publisher had with these add-on sales?

Susan: In the early 1900s, there was (as Beatrix said herself) “a run on toys copied from pictures.” English and German toy-makers were using storybook characters as models for their wares, and she was afraid that her popular characters would be copied. So in 1903, Beatrix patented her Peter Rabbit doll, with whiskers pulled out of a brush and lead-weighted feet, and urged Norman to find a manufacturer to make the doll. She created a board game, wallpaper, and other book-related merchandise, to the point where (as I suggest in The Tale of Hawthorn House) there were almost more “sideshows” than she could keep track of. However, she was always more keen on licensing toys and other items than her publisher was, and after 1906 or so, she became increasingly frustrated with Warne’s seeming inability to keep up with her creative ideas.

Dani: Warne owns most of the rights to artwork and images of Beatrix to this very day. How did they gain such control over it all? Was it difficult getting permissions for your series? Did you discuss with Warne using Beatrix’s own artwork for your book?

Susan: When Beatrix died in 1943, she bequeathed her shares in Frederick Warne and the rights and royalties in her books first to her husband, Willie Heelis, and after his death to Norman’s nephew, Frederick Warne Stephens. These were later given to the publishing company as a way of honoring her relationship to Norman and her long friendship with the Warne family, which continued long after Norman’s death. (You can find more details about this in Linda Lear’s biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature.)

In 1983, Frederick Warne was acquired by Penguin, which also owns my publisher, Berkley. So when I needed to get a license to use Beatrix’s characters (Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and so on), the legal folks were able to work it out. I don’t think we ever discussed using Beatrix’s art. From a marketing point of view, that would have been a good thing, but I want The Cottage Tails to stand on their own, and prefer the freedom to develop the art for the series.

Dani: I love the images you ended up developing for your own books, which capture the spirit of BP without copying. Can you tell us about the process of choosing that artwork and who the artist is?

Susan: Normally, authors don’t have any say in their cover art. This was the case with the first book in the series, The Tale of Hill Top Farm. The artist did a nice job, but I was deeply disappointed, because there was no image of Hill Top Farm, one of the most famous houses in England. Through a friend, I found artist Peggy Turchette, and commissioned her to do the art for the Cottage Tales website and other advertising materials, including a postcard for the second book, The Tale of Holly How. My editor saw it and liked it and asked Peggy to do the cover art. So we’ve worked together ever since—certainly a happy arrangement for me. All of the art work that you see on the Cottage Tales website also comes from Peggy’s talented brush. You’re right—her animals are reminiscent of Potter’s without being duplicates—that’s important. For example, Peggy had originally put a shawl on Jemima Puddle-Duck for the cover of the editor at Frederick Warne (who approves my manuscripts and our art work as part of the licensing arrangement) asked us to take it off. The shawl made my Jemima look too much like Beatrix’s Jemima. That’s the sort of thing we get into.

Dani: Thanks, Susan!
Also, plan to visit all the tour stops for more interesting interviews and guest posts by Susan Wittig Albert. The entire blog book tour schedule is posted here.

You can read the prologue to The Tale of Hawthorn House by clicking

Buy the book by clicking

1 comment:

Helen Ginger said...

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