Charles Elton interview: Mr Toppit's top tips

Share this article

ANY DAY NOW, CHARLES ELTON will start talking about his book the way other authors talk about theirs. He'll have the soundbites ready and polished, every answer nudging closer to a sales pitch – a discreet one, naturally; perhaps even self-mocking, because book-buyers tend not to go for the loud "Buy me!" shout.

Right now, though, it's his first interview for his first novel, Mr Toppit. Thunderclouds of hype have been massing around it for months. "The book event of 2009," says the breathless Penguin press release.

In the world of PR, you only get definite article status (the book event of the year, not just "one of the most eagerly anticipated" or some such) when something has already happened. In Mr Toppit's case, a substantial wodge of money has been paid for it in a fiercely contested auction with rival publishers. Elton is, market forces have predetermined, going to be the Next Big Thing in darkly comic BritLit, and I don't disagree with them.

So the Next Big Thing walks into his publisher's interview room high above the Thames for his first interview about the book on which he's been working, off and on, for 14 years. But Next Big Thingdom hasn't really kicked in yet – the media maelstrom hasn't begun – and the plain fact is that Charles Elton is still pretty much unknown.

And that's exactly why I like first interviews with authors. If they haven't yet had the chance to polish their spiel, neither has the interviewer a vast cuttings file to rely on. Other than questions suggested by the book, there is no way of knowing what it is about writers that will interest readers in them.

So the conversation tends just to drift along, casually, unangled, unstructured, to flow where it will – slightly raised levels of inquisitiveness, but as near to a normal chat as you get in journalism.

What could I have guessed about Charles Elton from reading Mr Toppit? Apart from that he'd have a good sense of humour, and knows his way round both storytelling and the book business, absolutely nothing. But the first quality could be innate and the knowledge researched, and all the book jacket says about him is that he lives in London and Somerset with his children, so that's no help either.

If fiction perfectly mirrored writers' lives, I could be as specific about him as Sherlock Holmes after a couple of seconds with a stranger. The central character in Mr Toppit is Luke Hayman, a teenage boy who, along with his mother and sister, is financially secure for life when, after his film editor father's death, the children's books he had written – The Hayseed Chronicles – become global best-sellers. From the inside knowledge of the industry revealed in the book, I'd deduce that Elton must have worked in publishing. A book designer, perhaps? But more than that: someone who really knows all the financial and sexual secrets of celebrity. Ah yes, a literary agent ...

But when The Hayseed Chronicles make it big in the States, it's all down to an overweight Californian woman who once came to the assistance of Luke Hayman's father, Arthur, when he was run over by a cement lorry in London. Her own subsequent rise to small-screen stardom in Los Angeles is also convincingly handled. If that's drawn from life, I'd have to guess that Elton is a television insider too. Or maybe he's worked in film, like Arthur Hayman: because he knows that world too.

So: an author's agent who has also worked as a book illustrator, and who knows the film business almost as well as that of television. You chat to Charles Elton about Mr Toppit, and you discover that's exactly what he is.

EXCEPT, OF COURSE, THAT'S NOT the way the conversation flows. It meanders all over his past first, and as he's in his mid-fifties ("Apart from Mary Wesley, I must be the oldest first-time novelist in the world") there's rather a lot of past to meander amongst.

So that's what we do. We talk about the kind of book jacket he would have produced (nowhere near as good as the cutaway one for his novel, he admits) when he was working as a graphic designer. About how he seems to switch careers every seven years, and how he made the leap from publishing to working as a literary agent and then as a producer ("nothing too surprising about that: in America, most producers are agents or lawyers").

And so the careers drift by, each one enjoyably dripping with showbiz anecdotes, because Elton is nothing if not a good teller of tales. "You see, the one thing I really know anything about is showbusiness. I know everything about films in a terribly trainspotterish way – I can reel off who was the cameraman in Clint Eastwood movies, things like that."

That love of film is genetically grounded too: both his parents were documentary film-makers and his godfather was John Grierson. "But the one thing I can't bear people saying is, 'Oh, it runs in the family', because my parents hated anything to do with drama and showbusiness. The documentaries they did – well, there's so much reality TV around now that we just forget how radical they were."

His own breakthrough came with producing the 2000 remake of The Railway Children. As a literary agent, he'd noticed E Nesbit's original book was about to go out of copyright; as a TV producer throughout the 1990s, he already knew about the discipline of cutting and editing scenes.

Fusing both sets of knowledge – bear in mind that he'd represented the literary estates of both AA Milne and CS Lewis – he started writing a novel about a family with a massive but increasingly burdensome literary inheritance from a series of children's books.

He started writing it, he says, out of a vague feeling of dissatisfaction with his jobs. Being a literary agent was more than being a financial butler, but "I suppose after a while I felt a bit faceless. Maybe I'm not a naturally faceless person, so I thought, with incredible self- centredness, 'What about me?'

"Then when I was a TV producer, I was reasonably happy, but I got to thinking, 'I produce TV shows and then I die. Is that it?' And I thought about writing. I wondered whether I was one of those people without inner resources and whether, without the phone ringing and without crises all the time, what would I be?

"I'm used to a busy office life – and if you work in drama there's always someone running down a corridor in tears ...

"So I began writing the book with no idea of what I was doing. Where does it all come from? I wish I knew. I've spent a lot of my time with authors and they're always saying things like, 'My characters are always talking to me.' I think it's all bollocks, all that sort of thing."

By now we're getting near the end of the interview. In my mind, I think I've got quite a good picture of the roots of Mr Toppit, and the shadowy, seldom direct links between a varied life and an enjoyably esoteric novel, when he says something that catches me unawares.

He'd just mentioned that the first scene he wrote in the novel – in which the protagonist's father is run over by a concrete truck – owed something to Graham Greene's short story "A Shocking Accident" in which someone's father is walking through Naples when a pig falls from a window of a top floor flat, killing him. I hadn't read the story, but nodded all the same.

"Of course, there are all sorts of autobiographical elements in my novel. For example, my mother was run over by a cement truck in Sloane Square …"

"Run over?" I hear myself asking. "You mean, just injured?"

"No, killed."

I'm flustered. He catches the confusion on my face turning to condolences.

"No, no, it was years ago. About 12 years ago."

"So that's after you'd started writing?"

"Yes. Lucky wasn't it?" he laughs.

And now my face turns into another expression. The rarely used "How can you laugh at your mother's death?" one. "But she was your mother ..." I begin.

"Depends how well you get on with your mother, doesn't it? Things happen in your life that you can use. And it was used as a sort of plot device, I suppose – the father had to die when I started the book for everything else to happen."

"And the father's called Arthur, just as yours was ..."

"It's just a name. I wanted them to be Arthur and Martha. I wanted something odd to happen and then something happened in real life and I used it. I was not using it to cover my pain, such as it was. (Such as it was?] It was just something that happened in real life. I saw the look on your face just then as if it was a 'Rosebud' moment in Citizen Kane. It was just a plot device I knew about, that had happened to my mother – and I didn't have to do any research on. She was going to die then she didn't die, then ... blah blah."

Time's up. A gently drifting conversation has just gone over a waterfall, and there's hardly time to right it again. And as for what "blah blah" means, you really do have to read the book. At least, I think you do. But as I end my interview with Charles Elton, the only thing I'm really sure about is that I know precisely where in his life his next interviewers will want to start.

&#149 Mr Toppit, by Charles Elton, is published this week by Viking, priced 12.99.

Charles Elton on ...

The film least like the book: Remember Pat Barker's Union Street? It was about seven unemployed women in Durham, and the main character was an overweight woman called Iris. She was played by Jane Fonda, and they wrote in Robert de Niro and set it in Boston and it became the film Stanley & Iris.

Writing Mr Toppit: I planned nothing, didn't make a single note about anything and didn't do a lot of rewriting. It took 14 years because there were long periods in which I didn't do anything. But I've a memory like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man: even after not writing anything for two years I could open up the files and wouldn't have to look back on anything.

Influences: We represented AA Milne's estate and the story was influenced by Christopher Robin – at least, he's the most famous example of a child who didn't want his literary legacy. I like the idea of fairy stories in which dreams come true for everyone who touches these famous books but it all goes hideously wrong. When I started writing, there weren't any recent children's books that had become world famous; by the time I'd finished there was Harry Potter, and it no longer seemed quite such a bizarre idea.