Crocodile Soup was such a warm, funny and uplifting book that from the first few pages of the typescript, I had pretty much decided I wanted to publish it. It was I think some time in 1997 and I was publisher of a new literary list, Anchor, and Julia’s writing — slightly left of field, but so fresh, engaging and individual — seemed exactly the right thing for us to be publishing. I can’t remember if there was much of an auction or not, but it took a pretty hefty offer to acquire it.
Once the deal was done I asked her agent, Jane Bradish Ellames, if I could have her phone number as I wanted to make contact with this wonderful new author of mine. ‘She’s in hospital’, Jane said. ‘Anything serious?’ I asked unprepared for the answer. ‘Well yes actually, she has breast cancer and she’s been in having another operation’. I must have sounded shocked and surprised, because I remember Jane telling me not to worry, Julia would be fine, she’d be out over the weekend and I’d be able to talk to her on the Monday. Monday came and indeed I did talk to her, and in fact learned that the further operation had been a second mastectomy to combat her cancer’s return. But despite her very recent release from hospital after such a serious operation and the terrible news she had just given me, I don’t remember experiencing any worry at all about finding the right words to express my sympathy. I simply didn’t get the chance. Even though this was our first encounter, Julia’s extraordinary exuberance and charm engulfed me even over the phone. I remember her joking that she was probably unconscious on the operating table when the final deal was struck. She just had a way of diverting people from the difficult questions and putting them at their ease.
In the background there was clearly a party going on. ‘There’s some friends round and we’re having some champagne to celebrate the deal,’ she explained. Her excitement was so totally infectious that the question of her illness was completely forgotten and we launched off into one of those mutually admiring conversations authors and editors have when they’re starting up a new relationship and everything looks rosy and hopeful. But I knew then what I still know now, that Julia was a very special person – someone rare, life-enhancing and courageous. I saw this again at the launch party for Crocodile Soup which was held in a Newcastle nightclub. It was easily the best party of its kind I have ever attended. There was not a hint of pretension or self-pity in the whole event, just enormous affection and fun radiating from Julia herself and from the large audience of friends, relatives and admirers who had come to wish her well.
Sadly the closure of the Anchor list in 2000 meant a parting of the ways for Julia and I, but her writing and publishing went on successfully with other publishers and I would occasionally log onto her website to find that her courage and spirit in the face of the return of her illness remained undaunted. The last conversation I had with her was a couple of years ago, in which she was characteristically enthusing about the many new authors she had been working with in the writers’ groups she helped organise in the North East. It’s wretched that this cancer she fought so bravely has taken from her family and friends when she was still so young and still had so much to give. But I have no doubt that the legacy she leaves behind with everyone who knew her is an extraordinary one. She was simply unforgettable and inspiring, and I am proud to have published her and feel much the richer for the brief acquaintance that being her publisher allowed me.
Curtis Brown Group Ltd