For the love of literature
Editor, publisher, and Flipside creator Liz Calder CBE
There are many things that must go through your mind when your name is included in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, not least keeping the date free (and what to wear!). One of the UK’s most respected literary figures, publisher, editor and Suffolk resident Liz Calder, visits Buckingham Palace later this year to receive her CBE for services to literature. As a young woman, Liz was a successful model in Brazil, and is likely to be less daunted than most by the dilemma of appropriate attire. But she has had to wait three months to learn the date of the ceremony (December 13).
“I felt a bit queasy about [being awarded] this CBE,” she says. “I’ve always thought that an honour of that sort isn’t given for just doing a good job, it’s for an identifiable achievement, something that has changed things, that has made an impact.” For the authors, publishers and readers who have benefited from Liz’s instinct for good writing, there is no doubt she has done just that. Indeed, this year, Liz has also been elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and awarded the Benson Medal for exceptional service to literature.
First working as a ‘publicity girl’ at Victor Gollancz in 1972, Liz quickly rose to the position of editorial director and then joined a rival company, Jonathan Cape, before co-founding Bloomsbury, the home for Harry Potter.
Liz launched the careers of Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Anita Brookner, and was the first UK publisher to work with John Irving. She helped nurture writers such as Angela Carter, Anne Michaels and Jeanette Winterson. Earlier this year, she saw another of her writers – and good friend – Michael Ondaatje receive the Golden Booker Prize when his famous novel, The English Patient, was named the readers’ favourite over the past 50 years.
“I would have liked to have gone to the ceremony,” she says. “But I had a long-standing arrangement to have a tea party here for all the people from the allotments.” So, instead of joining the literati in London, Liz was serving tea and cake to the gardeners of Halesworth.
Liz has lived in Suffolk for 13 years. She moved to be nearer to her daughter and had been told about the county by a colleague, writer Kevin CrossleyHolland. Perversely, she says, he was so enthusiastic about everything Suffolk had to offer, she thought she would stay away. However, she realised that a home on the coast would mean regular visits from her grandchildren. “We gradually discovered Suffolk to be the wonderful place it is. We totally love it now. We wouldn’t be anywhere else, so, of course, Kevin was right.”
Liz was brought up in New Zealand and spent her early married life in Canada, the USA and Brazil, before returning to London and a life in publishing. Brazil, where she learned Portuguese, remains a passion and she returns regularly. For the past 15 years she has been the president of FLIP, an international literary festival in Paraty, a small fishing village between Rio and São Paulo.
It’s about as far from Suffolk as you can imagine but, over the past six years, Liz has successfully brought the spirit of South America to Snape Maltings through the Flipside Festival. Now the First Light project will take art, music and literature to young people in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, while pop-up author events are planned throughout the county. The first of these took place in the summer when Liz invited Michael Ondaatje to launch his new novel, Warlight, which is partly set in Suffolk, at The Cut in Halesworth.
Since 2009, Liz has celebrated works of art, fiction and poetry created in or about this region through the small publishing company she formed with friends, Full Circle Editions. Life is still very full.
“I am very grateful to have reached the age of 80 and still be upright,” she says. “I have obviously inherited good health from my parents and my upbringing in New Zealand, with plenty of open air and healthy things to do.” She eats well, practices yoga, and enjoys being at home, she says. “I absolutely love anything to do with the house and garden, in terms of decorating and shifting furniture. I share an allotment. Everyone else’s is neat and tidy and ours is a bit of a mess, but there are things growing and it’s a lovely atmosphere.”
Having led such a fascinating life and career, when will Liz write a book of her own that tells her story?
“I am writing a sort of memoir for my grandchildren, but I haven’t got very far. It’s going to be a personal family story because I think that’s important.
“But I am not going to write a book. I know my limitations as a writer. You have to be driven to write, to be passionately driven, and that isn’t happening, or not yet. There’s always time.”
‘I felt a bit queasy about this CBE’