Remembering and celebrating the life and work of Jan Mark
Earlier this year I noticed a flurry of activity on Twitter from admirers of the late, great Jan Mark. She twice won the Carnegie Medal, for Thunder and Lightnings (recently reissued by its original publisher, Penguin Books) and Handles, and was shortlisted or runner-up for many other awards with a host of wonderful titles including Trouble Half-Way, The Eclipse of the Century, They Do Things Differently There and Turbulence. I could go on. Jan wrote over 70 books, after all.
Now, I think about Jan Mark all the time. As well as being a favourite author, she was a good friend. (She did friendship as well as she wrote, which is to say, exceptionally.) I’ve always dipped back into her work for a shot of laughter or a gasp of truth about human nature in her typically sardonic, laconic way. She viewed her short stories as her best work and perhaps they were. It takes no time to read one of the ten tales in the classic collection Nothing to Be Afraid Of but the effect of each short story stays with you long after you’ve finished it.
Not every book can remain in print; not every writer can be remembered. So it was deeply satisfying to know that other people were reading Jan, too, and that she means as much to them as she does to me.
A lot of them had met her. In addition to publishing two novels a year (plus picture books and young readers), she’d criss-cross the country, armed with the National Rail Timetable, visiting schools and teaching colleges, encouraging a love for reading and writing in the young and not-so-young. There are a lot of writers out there today who wouldn’t be practising their craft if it hadn’t been for Jan. They’ll be on prize shortlists for years to come.
Jan spent six years as a teacher before stopping to have a family. She probably would have started teaching again if she hadn’t won a one-off competition to find new writing talent in 1974. Instant, early success with Thunder and Lightnings (1976) led to readers’ hunger for more books so she spent the next six years solidly writing to generate a formidable backlist. She escaped her home office from 1982-84 to become writer-in-residence at Oxford Polytechnic – teaching, again – but didn’t stop writing, and continued with both right up until her sudden death, far too young, at the age of 62 in 2006. Jan was also active as a prominent book reviewer and judge for literary awards (for adults and children).
It’s true that there’s very little of her work in print now, but every year, as Jan’s literary executor, I’m notified by her committed agents at David Higham that someone, somewhere in the world wants to publish a new edition of one of her stories. And people are snapping up second-hand editions wherever they find them. I firmly believe there will more new publications to come in the future.
I wanted a place to bring these readers together – and to help new fans discover Jan’s work – which is why I’ve launched a website, janmark.net. To start with, I’ve published Jan’s own accounts of her writing experience. Not all writers like to talk about the inspirations behind their books or their processes, but Jan did, I know it helps to share them with readers, students and writers. But the website also contains memories of her fans and friends, who are spread throughout the world. There’s room for everyone to have a voice so if you’re a fan – or a new reader – so I really hope you will get in touch.
Reading for Pleasure