Twenty-six years after it first went to print, a revised Under the House was issued by a new publishing company called Shelfstealers. In a later blog I’ll describe what led me to embark on the somewhat curious project of revising a published novel. Some people have been a little scandalized that I did this: a novel is a work of art, not a fact, and therefore shouldn’t be amended.
I want to describe the publishing history of Under the House as an explanation for the multiple outfits the book has worn.
Under the House was first published in 1986 in Canada by Talonbooks. It was then picked up by Bloomsbury Publishing in the U.K., and Random House in the U.S. Then by Tami Publishing in Finland. Faber and Faber put out a softcover edition in 1989. It was then reissued as a Random House Vintage.
Publishing contracts generally say that the author will be “consulted” in the choice of a cover, but that the author’s consent is not required. As a young writer, once the book caught the interest of the prestigious Bloomsbury in London (headed at the time by the enterprising and totally charming Liz Calder), I was so in awe of this imprimatur I don’t remember having an opinion about the cover. In fact, I don’t remember being asked.
The artist hired by Faber and Faber for its edition had an innovative idea: a birdcage with a cloth partly covering the cage. This references the title in an interesting way. It also alludes to a scene in the novel when young Evelyn is given her uncle’s pet budgie to look after and, because she didn’t take proper care of it, it dies. She is fast becoming a troubled child, projecting her lethal sense of abandonment.
When the book was printed by Faber, I remember opening the package, couriered from London to Vancouver, to find a novel written by “Lesley” Hall Pinder. They had misspelled my name. I immediately called the publisher and she “stopped the presses”. She wrote: “it could have been worse, I suppose. Only four hundred copies were printed before we were able to correct the mistake”. Unfortunately, I only have two copies of this collectors edition; somewhere out there are 398 others.
Then came the fascinating “woman as house” imagery of the Random House Vintage Edition. These last two covers were my favorites until the 2012 revised edition. The painting is by the talented artist, Wendy Brown, and I selected it from a collection of her works. Shelfstealers was more than willing to accept my choice. The image is perhaps the most subtle and elliptical of all, portraying the creepy mood of suspicion and paranoia which pervades the wealthy Rathbone household as the family tries to keep its dark secrets hidden “under the house”.
Under the House truly is a book with many lives and many looks. Next to the title of the book, the cover is the most important element for a successful marketing of the novel — in addition to a damn good story.
Stay tuned for the answer to a question I am often asked: Why revise a work of fiction?