First Books

Antony Beevor, Ali Smith, David Almond, Ian Rankin, and Margaret Atwood reflect on their first books. My favorite is probably Margaret Atwood’s piece about how she “published” her first collection of poems, at the tender age of 21. The book was printed in a cellar, and Atwood herself set the type, though she had to do each poem separately because there was a shortage of letter As.

Then how did I get the nerve? I actually went around to various bookstores and got them to place the book. Bookstores were different then: small, individually owned, run by kindly gnomes with a tolerance for eccentricity. They must have thought that I was a fool or a lunatic, or in the Toronto parlance of the day different, but this did not seem to bother them. As the book was small, it sold for 50 cents. I should have kept 249 of the things, as the price has now gone up considerably.

The title of this tiny but peculiar effort was Double Persephone; the poems rhymed and scanned, and were about sex and death, with some rebirth tossed in: my optimism was showing early. As I recall, the word chthonic was in them, so it was pretty deep stuff.

What do I think of them now? They weren’t very good, but at least they were oh, killing term promising. I’ve been cheered up since by reading the juvenilia of other poets whose mature work I admire: Tennyson, for instance, has one that begins, ‘Airy, fairy Lilian’.

Best advice for young writers? This is a risky business. You’re on a tightrope. Below is Niagara Falls. Courage. One step at a time. Don’t look down.

The others are also quite good. Do take a look.