NRB Editors remember literary agent and friend Rose Creswell
Trailblazing literary agent Rosemary Creswell died on 19 April 2017 after a long illness. Jean and Linda each pay tribute.
Linda Funnell: Eulogy given at Rose’s funeral on 28 April 2017
Dear Rose, how lucky I was to know you. How lucky we all were to know you.
Rose was my friend, my mentor, my literary godmother. We worked together, and later, when I moved back into publishing, we did deals together. For nearly four decades she was my dear friend.
Rose was warm, generous, hugely smart and tremendous fun. Gough Whitlam is famous for saying ‘the fun is where I am’ – Rose could have said it of herself. It was always a joy to see her enter a room.
Rose had the gift of making you believe you could do things, that anything was possible. She had genuine vision when it came to writing and publishing, and she acted on it.
She was astute in spotting talent and gave many writers the confidence they needed. One put it succinctly when she said to me that Rose ‘changed my life by giving me the confidence to write and the belief that I could’.
Rose was a truly significant figure in the Australian literary landscape. She played a central role in professionalising the relationships between writers and publishers, which too often had been characterised by an attitude that authors should be grateful to be published, rather than authors being seen as important assets to be nurtured and valued by publishers and recompensed accordingly.
Her generosity – both intellectual and practical – was one of her defining characteristics.
Just last month I happened to meet an editor from interstate. She knew I had a connection with Rose and told me how, years ago, when she was a young editor, Rose had helped her on her first visit to Sydney and introduced her to people. That was typical of Rose. She knew everyone and brought people together.
Rose established her literary agency, Rosemary Creswell Publications, in 1979, with co-directors Richard Hall and Malcolm Rogers, but it was always Rose’s business. It was the first Australian-owned literary agency, and at that time only the second operating in Australia. The agency very quickly acquired a talented list of writers, and early clients included Peter Corris, Jean Bedford, Blanche d’Alpuget, Frank Moorhouse and younger writers like Angelo Loukakis, Tony Maniaty and George Papaellinas.
I would have met Rose some time in 1980, when I was working at Pan Books in Castlereagh Street. Pan had contracted three of Peter Corris’s Cliff Hardy novels and a non-fiction book by Richard Hall about the Mr Asia drug syndicate.
I had only been in publishing for a couple of years, and it was still a novelty for me to see books in manuscript form. And here was Rose, who seemed to have a ready supply of interesting manuscripts – unlike much of what came across my desk in the post each morning. In addition, she had a PhD in literature and spoke about the books she represented with a heady combination of insight, erudition and enthusiasm.
She was the most fascinating person I had ever met – and remains so.
In 1984 I went to work for her. Eventually I became a director of her company, but when I started, I was on the front desk at Rose’s office upstairs at 195 Glebe Point Road, above George’s supermarket. Gleebooks was two doors up the street, and the Habit Wine Bar was on the corner. It was a convivial location, where writers, publishers, film producers and friends frequently dropped in. Many meetings that began in the office adjourned to the Habit Wine Bar for lunch or drinks.
Because she knew everybody, Rose knew lots of people in the film industry, and as well as making book publishing deals, the agency negotiated options and film rights for a number of books.
Such was Rose’s reputation that she was retained by Penguin Books to agent the film rights to their Australian titles, and it was in this capacity that she met Roger Milliss, who had recently published his autobiographical novel Serpent’s Tooth. Roger came to the office at 195 Glebe Point Road and he and Rose adjourned to the wine bar for lunch.
To my knowledge there never has been a film of Serpent’s Tooth, but that meeting was the beginning of Rose’s most important relationship, which endured for the rest of her life.
Rose had left school at 15 and gone out to work. She eventually began her university career – which was to be a stellar one – as an evening student, so she was very supportive of me when I returned to university as an evening student. I don’t know if I would have persisted and got my degree if it hadn’t been for Rose’s encouragement. In the evenings I would go to lectures and tutorials, but just as valuable – or more valuable, really – was listening to Rose talk about books, and listening to the conversations she had with her authors.
In many ways the agency felt like an extended family – Rose’s clients were her friends, or became her friends. She celebrated with them when things went well, and worried about them when they did not. She was also expert at chasing down odd sources of valuable additional income for them. She was intensely loyal, and would become indignant at bad reviews, or if she got a reader’s report from a publisher that read like what she called ‘a school composition’ instead of considered editorial comments.
Her own editorial expertise was central to her reputation as an agent and to her relationships with her authors, who trusted her judgement and often relied upon it. Often she guided new drafts to get rid of what she called ‘the scaffolding’ or ‘the bits of chicken wire sticking out’.
Literature was at the centre of life for Rose, it illuminated everything. When something happened that piqued her interest, she would often say ‘someone should write a story about that’.
And she began to publish stories herself during the 1980s. Looking back, she produced an extraordinary amount for someone with a demanding full-time job running her own business. (For all the long lunches, Rose was frequently in the office early in the morning and at weekends.)
First, in 1986 she and her dear friend Jean Bedford published Colouring In: A book of ideologically unsound love stories, which The Age newspaper praised for its ‘ruthless honesty and tough wittiness’.
Then in 1987 she edited the anthology of stories, Home and Away, for Penguin
In 1989 she published two books: the wonderful collection of stories Lovers and Others in March, and later that year her first and only crime novel, To Sleep, To Die, published under the name Ruth Clarement and written with the assistance of Carol Manners.
Rose’s short stories were largely drawn from the people and events around her, and often displayed her fine eye for the absurd, whether discussing romantic love, the publishing industry, or psychiatrists.
And Rose knew psychiatrists. It was one of her paradoxes – that someone who could be such fun could also suffer such terrible depression. There were times when she simply went to ground. Yet she talked about depression with great candour – both in life and in her stories, long before the public awareness campaigns we are familiar with today.
In 1986 the agency moved from Glebe Point Road to more spacious quarters in a former sail-maker’s premises in East Balmain that was accessed down a steep and badly made stretch of road. The Balmain office not only hosted some memorable parties but also delegations of foreign publishers and meetings of the wider literary community to campaign on issues of importance to writers, such as territorial copyright.
Throughout these years, despite a lot of hard work and some great books and great deals, the agency never got ahead financially. In 1991 it became clear that if it was to survive, something would have to change, and so Rosemary Creswell Publications merged with Jane Cameron’s actors and film directors agency to form Cameron Creswell. And there Rose continued to nurture authors and sell brilliant and important books until she retired in 2004.
Her list of authors was wonderfully eclectic: from authors of award-winning literary fiction to notorious criminal Neddy Smith; from serious non-fiction and award-winning biographies to witty social comedies.
There were many paradoxes in Rose’s life: she fought fearlessly for her authors but hated giving them bad news; she was an intellectual who could knit and crochet; she was a networker who knew everyone but hated big parties; she was an enthusiastic smoker who would get up early and swim lap after lap before work.
Rose never made much money but her life was rich in friendships, ideas and books. She was an inspiration to so many of us, and she leaves an enormous legacy.
Rest in peace, Rose.
Jean Bedford: Rose Creswell – friend and agent extraordinaire
I first met Rose in 1980. My book of stories, Country Girl Again, had been published by Sisters (Hilary McPhee and Di Gribble) and I had a finished draft of a novel, Sister Kate, which McPhee Gribble had turned down because we couldn’t agree about the ending. Rose had already taken on my husband, Peter Corris, as a client and I asked her if she would negotiate for me. She achieved a contract with Penguin and I rewrote the draft according to a more sympathetic (to me) editorial report.
At our initial meeting I was intimidated by Rose. She seemed abrupt and businesslike and very beautiful and assured. Later she told me she had also found me intimidating. Perhaps reflecting what I thought was her attitude, I had retreated into coolness myself. But as we had further meetings – over wine and cigarettes – we both relaxed and began what was to become one of the most significant friendships of my life.
When we got the final copy-edit of Sister Kate I had a major prima donna moment at the suggested changes. Fortunately, Rose agreed with me and she took Penguin’s then publisher, Brian Johns, to lunch to show him the edits. Somehow the manuscript got left in a cab (there would certainly have been drink taken), but not before Brian had had a look and concurred. He suggested Rose could do the final edit herself – I hope they paid her; I never asked.
Rose was much more than an agent to all of us fortunate enough to be her clients. She virtually did the first edit on all our manuscripts, making them a lot better to present to publishers. She also became our friend.
She was one of the most tolerant and loyal people I’ve ever met. She turned everything into an amusing anecdote and excused appalling behaviour in anyone she liked, and that was most people. If clients let her down, sacked her, went to other agents, she would always find a way to explain and forgive them – and most of them came back to her in the end, trading on her generosity of spirit. I’d like to say she taught me to be more tolerant, but at best she showed me my limitations in that area. I’d say, ‘But he (it was usually a he) is a right-wing fascist arsehole.’ She’d reply, ‘Yes, his politics are shocking, but he’s very interesting when he talks about …’ Or I’d say, ‘But he/she is so boring …’ and she’d say, ‘Yes, shockingly boring sometimes, but not when he/she talks about …’ She sought and brought out the best in people, in their literary endeavours and their characters.
‘Shocking’ was one of her favourite words, though she was seldom actually shocked by any of the vagaries of human behaviour or personality, finding them endlessly fascinating and amusing. The things that really shocked her were unfairness and injustice, and she was always on the side of the underdog.
You laughed a lot when you were with Rose. And, let’s face it, at times you also probably drank a lot. When Colouring In, the book we collaborated on, came out, one interviewer said she was amazed at the amount of alcohol the characters consumed. ‘Oh, that’s a metaphor,’ Rose said. ‘A metaphor for what?’ We looked at each other. ‘Um, for drinking,’ Rose replied. My daughters thought the Habit Wine Bar in Glebe was their second home for a while. If I wasn’t home they automatically came there after school for a pink lemonade and some chips while we wound up our long lunches. I don’t think it did them anything but good to eavesdrop on literary conversations and meet our generation of writers and publishers. (Although Rose never had kids, she had an instinctive rapport with them and they also loved her.)
You talked a lot with Rose, as well – gossip, yes, but also always about books and writing, her true passion. She was a wonderful raconteur, and a name mentioned casually in a conversation would often prompt her trademark beginning: ‘There’s a great story about X when/before he/she was Premier, Prime Minister, won the Booker, became a nun, went to prison …’ And you’d sit back ready to be highly entertained by anecdotes that were often scandalous, sometimes shocking, always amusing, but never malicious. She just loved people’s stories and wanted to share them.
The last time I saw Rose, a few years ago, she was in a nursing home. She didn’t recognise me or Linda. She didn’t react to anything we talked about, including a mention of her beloved dachshund, Wally. She had been suffering for many years from a terrible degenerative brain disease – so ironic that this true intellectual should be attacked through the brain – and there was really nothing left of the person we knew and loved. ‘Poor old thing,’ one of the nurses said to me, kindly, and I seethed inwardly. ‘This “poor old thing” was one of the brightest lights of her generation,’ I wanted to shout. I did much of my grieving for Rose then and in the years following, and decided I wouldn’t visit again. The Rose I knew, dignified, intensely private despite her sociability, would have hated the idea of us seeing her like that. Although Rose spoke and wrote frankly about her depression, her suicide attempts when she was younger and her various visits to ‘rest homes’, she kept the actual nature of the black dog episodes to herself, private, removing herself rather than inflict her pain on her friends.
One of the tragedies of Rose’s long illness is that she was not able to write after her retirement. She had looked forward eagerly to writing more, perhaps a novel or two, and Australian literature would have been richer for it. She lost the ability to concentrate on reading quite early. She said to me on one occasion, laughing it off, ‘It’s rather interesting, really. I read a few pages and then forget what I’ve read, so it’s all new when I go back to it.’
Such a loss – of a great mind and a great personality. Those of us who loved her, and there are many, rage against the dying of her light.