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Train Noir

Andrew Stevens talks to writer, bookseller and literary agent Maxim Jakubowski about Derek Raymond.

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3:AM: How did your longstanding association with Robin Cook/Derek Raymond come about?

MJ: The first time I set eyes on Robin was in Paris at Gare d’Austerliz where the Train Noir was departing for the Grenoble crime festival. At the time, all his books were virtually unavailable in the UK and I hadn’t truly heard of him. And there was this voluble toff, with his ever-present beret, holding court as the train made its slow way down to the Alps. Also on the train were Sarah Dunant, Tim Heald, James Crumley and countless other writers from all over the place and, of course, France, along for the jamboree. Needless to say, the whisky and champagne ran out first, under the glare of a flock of television cameras and countless journalistic microphones, and I was one of the few still drinking (mineral water and orange juice) by the time the train arrived in Grenoble. I then saw little of Robin at the festival, as we were not only on different events but also due to the fact I was seldom at the hotel bar after meals!

The next time we met was at another European festival, Mystfest in Cattolica on the Italian Adriatic two years or so later. Also in attendance and performing his mad dog act at the slightest encouragement was James Ellroy. Suffice to say the effervescent Robin and James did not see eye to eye! But we began to talk, over meals, coffees, etc… and formed our friendship.

3:AM: Why didn’t Cook and Ellroy see eye to eye?

MJ: Problem is that Ellroy as an ex-alcoholic is now somewhat holier than thou when it comes to drink, and that Robin was jolly and irrepressible and didn’t realise how much Ellroy could not be encouraged to just have a sip any longer!

3:AM: How did you end up as his agent then?

MJ: When Robin finally returned to London after his lengthy foreign journeys in 1989, he contacted me. He had fallen out with his previous agent and wanted someone to represent him with whom he had a better rapport. Though I was not technically an agent, I had all the publishing contacts and took the job on out of friendship for him. Though I must sympathise with my predecessors as Robin was not the most disciplined of authors when it came to signing contracts or dealing with paperwork or contractual terms; but he never did miss a deadline I would add.

The first book I handled was Dora Suarez. He handed me the manuscript shortly after we shook hands on things and I remember reading it on a flight to New York and having my breath taken away.

There was still an option outstanding with Secker & Warburg from a previous contract so I submitted there initially.

His previous editor, Barley Alison, had by then retired and Dan Franklin was the new editorial director. He turned the book down swiftly, confessing he much admired the book but that it physically made him sick and he was therefore unable to champion it. I quickly placed it with Little, Brown whose Abacus imprint had paperbacked some of the Secker titles, and with Bob Wyatt at Ballantine in New York, who was launching a new (short-lived) imprint for difficult books called Available Press.

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3:AM: The French and the Germans ‘got’ Cook obviously, but how was his work received in the States?

MJ: Sadly, when he was alive, Robin had a very limited audience in the USA, due to a checkered publishing history. He became more of a ‘writers’ writer’ so to speak. With the republication of the books by Serpent’s Tail his reputation and readership there is now growing, but it’s still nowhere on the scale of the Europe or even the UK. He has devoted fans, including many peer group writers like Jim Nisbet and James Sallis, but there’s still a way to go.

3:AM: Was there a deliberate plan to reissue the Serpent’s Tail editions in the series format?

MJ: Following Robin’s death and some of the earlier books falling out of print in the UK, it was always the intention of the Estate to get the Factory series republished; ideally in matching livery so as to make them easily identifiable and collectable. It took some time to clear all the rights and get them reverted in both the UK and USA, but once that had been achieved, we did a deal with Serpent’s Tail to reissue the series. They, of course, had reprinted some of his 1960s and 70s novels initially written under his real name, and have put together some great covers, as well as issuing for the first time in English Nightmare in the Street, which had hitherto only been available in French translation. Serpent’s Tail also distribute their books in the USA so this gave us the opportunity for the first time to present the series in its entirety over there.

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3:AM: Are there any plans to have the earlier Robin Cook novels reissued? What about his short stories?

MJ: Serpent’s Tail sound keen about reissuing some of the remaining ‘social realistic’ novels Robin wrote in the 1970s, although they are naturally of minor interest and not as strong as his Derek Raymond crime books. There is also the possibility of a small collection of his short stories that his Italian and French publishers are also considering. John Williams and myself have managed to collate all the stories he wrote (not many) and it would form a slim volume, but the quality is undeniably high.

3:AM: Is there much interest in adapting his books for film?

MJ: There has been constant interest in adapting Robin’s books for the movies and/or TV over the years. The only instances of the adaptations actually making it to the screen were in France, where his iconic status has always attracted film-makers.

At various stages, the Factory books have been optioned by the BBC and other UK-based independent production companies; scripts were even penned but at the end of the day no final green light was ever given. The Estate is confident this will happen sooner or later but in the meantime we have been careful not to scatter the rights of individual books all over the place, and would rather wait for the right offer to film the whole series.

3:AM: There’s only one biography on the shelves of Cook at present, do you think he’s ripe for a further study given his reputation?

MJ: Initially, Robin thought of writing his biography, but this turned out to be The Hidden Files, which only skimmed the surface of his rather colourful life and career, and devoted much space to his personal view of the ‘black novel’. Shortly before his death, John Williams agreed with Robin’s approval to one day undertake a more complete exercise and for several months during Robin’s final illness taped Robin talking about his life. It was always the intention this would form the basis for a definitive biography. John is hopeful he can begin writing the book pretty soon, once he has other writing commitments out of the way, now that his Michael X bio has finally appeared.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 11th, 2008.