In the 1980s Kathleen Herbert was a respected author, much in demand as a speaker, and selling her books all over Europe, the UK and America.
Imagine: a large abandoned warehouse. Nothing in it- nothing at all. Except an industrial sized fan. Does it work? OK. Move it to the middle of the warehouse. Now, on the floor (none too clean) place two copies of the same manuscript, about seven hundred pages each. Put them both down in front of the fan, go back to the wall socket, and press the switch. Wheeee- that was fun. Now go away and leave dust and pages to settle. Come back every so often over a few years and try to pick them up and put them in a pile. Eventually manage to cram the pages- every single last one of them- into two carrier bags- the sturdy sort that are supposed to last a lifetime. Hand them to a friend- and six months later, Moon in Leo is in bookshops and selling on Amazon.
Yes- I find it hard to believe too. Just over a year ago that's all I was- a friend to a writer. And now I am a publisher.
During the last few years there have been low points indeed, as the stroke that she had in 1994 started to take its toll, and she became prey to depression and delusion. During those dark years, we met rarely, and she allowed no-one into her house. She was often despairing and felt she was being watched. She bemoaned her own incapability- on good days with a joke, on bad days with tears.
A constant in her conversation and letters though, was the book she knew said something important she needed to share:
I have looked over my novel about Furness during the Popish Plot- which is firmly based on truth… during these last weeks, the story has suddenly become incredibly topical- … for the background we have:
· a King called Charles, with a complicated marital and family life
· a society of the rich and famous who produce a new scandal with every edition of the newspapers
· a government that is not only stale but starting to smell
· an established religion that has run out of steam, and numbers of cults that are boiling with enthusiasm- some for good, some for evil, both inside and outside Christianity
· and a large number of “alternative” Englands that are barely suspected to exist by “official” England
· It’s 1678, but change the clothes and it could be today.
I wrote a novel about the different folk who have come to our islands (for good, bad, fear, food, etc) and how they are still coming. I put the story into the past, so no folk could be insulted or unhappy or frightened.
As she became less and less capable of mustering her resources to approach publishers and agents, I repeatedly offered to help: She said a well meaning friend had offered to type it and had completely messed it up; she implied that he had taken it upon himself to re-write bits of it, and had even lost the original MS. (Remember the two almost identical copies?)
Perhaps we could meet for coffee and a meal and look at what remained, I kept saying. Despite several attempts to arrange meetings, they never happened, and there were times when she was so much in despair that I suggested she bundle it all up, put it in a box and send it to me by registered post.Finally, gathering all her strength and all her pages, she managed to bundle the manuscript into two large carrier bags- "bags for life" - a lovely irony. And she gathered enough courage and energy to meet me outside Burnt Oak station with the bags. That was in June 2010.
It took me two days to sort the two manuscripts and I was thrilled to find they were both complete- (OK I lied about the industrial fan.) It took my husband several weeks to scan it and use OCR to transform it into a modern manuscript that we could present to publishers and agents.
How and why I lost patience and decided to short circuit them all, is another story.
She had a week or two of great energy and optimism, when she rode on the wave that had buoyed her up to gather her book together, but it was a very brief upturn in what proved to be a rapid decline in her health and spirits. She had been neglecting the physical world of eating, drinking and sleeping until she was found wandering, far from home with a dislocated shoulder, and taken to the nearest hospital.
Now, with proper food and warmth and care in sheltered accommodation she is regaining strength and clarity day by day and delighted that people are enjoying Moon in Leo, and that the message of tolerance- political, religious and personal- which is one of its strongest themes, is finally reaching those people she was so desperate to talk to.
And why did I start a new business to publish this lost book? Because I agree with Kathleen- it is an important book which tells us things we need to know; but most of all, because, having sorted it out, I then couldn't put it down!
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