Unwanted celebrity, dysfunctional family, famous children's books, and coming-of-age are all part of the mix that propelled Charles Elton's debut novel, Mr. Toppit, onto the bestseller list in the U.K., where it was published by Penguin.
But fame and book sales can be fickle, especially when it comes to this side of the Atlantic. It took a thoughtful rejection from Other Press's Judith Gurewich and a willingness on Elton's part to re-edit ("I believe everything can be made better; there's no such thing as a final cut," says Elton, who works as a TV producer in London). Together they turned the novel into a lead title for the press this November.
The original inspiration came from a chance comment 15 years ago, when Elton was a literary agent with Curtis Brown in the U.K., which represents both the A.A. Milne and C.S. Lewis estates. "I didn't know more than someone telling me how Christopher Robin hated being in his father's books. It got me thinking about putting children in books," says Elton.
There may not be a Winnie-the-Pooh–toting child in the Hayseed Chronicles, Elton's fictionalized series of illustrated children's books that underpin Mr. Toppit, but those familiar with Christopher Milne's memoir, The Enchanted Places, will recognize teenager Luke Hayman's bitterness at being used as the model for Luke Hayseed, the boy in his father's books. And Elton is also dead on when enumerating the sheer volume of "stuff" that a megaselling book series can generate. Harry Potter has nothing on Mr. Toppit: "the boxed set of the original five paperbacks, the activity book for older readers, the hardback deluxe compendium edition, the board game... the Royal Doulton cereal-bowl set, the eggcups, the DayGlo rucksacks."
The Hayman family includes failed screenwriter Arthur, whose literary career doesn't take off until he is hit by a cement truck in London; his wife, Martha, who worked in film and spends most of her time in a large, drafty country house much like Elton's family home, Clevedon Court in North Somerset; and Luke and his older sister, Rachel, "[who] has drug dealers like other people have accountants or dentists." Then there's Laurie Clow, the American tourist who is with Arthur during his final moments and who attaches herself to the family. When she returns home to California, she climbs the media ladder to become an Oprah-like figure who popularizes Arthur's books.
Bits and pieces of Elton's life flit through Mr. Toppit, though Elton does not consider the book autobiographical. Yes, his father was named Arthur, and his mother died after being hit by a concrete mixer truck. But Elton had already begun the novel before his mother's death. "It was like it had been given to me," he says. "I felt I had to use it. I knew the father had to die in rather an odd way....They say write about what you know. I do know a lot about publishing, television, and fame," notes Elton, whose father was a baronet, a title he inherited. "In a sense I was writing partly about my own family, the notion of a very charismatic family that everyone wants to be part of, except for the people in the family."
The thing he worried about most was that the California scenes might be branded as anti-American. "I love America," says Elton, "the possibilities of America, the pride in achievements." But he knew that if the book's Hayseed Chronicles were to have the kind of fame he envisioned, England was too small; they would have to appear in America. As for becoming famous with his own writing, Elton says that never factored into the mornings, weekends, and holidays he spent writing Mr. Toppit. When the book was finished, his agent sent it to 11 publishers in the U.K.; 10 bid on it. "It was extraordinary," says Elton, "to have written in isolation for so many years and sold it in two weeks."
Clearly, the isolation is over for now: Other Press's promotion plan is an American-style press-the-flesh prelaunch. Elton was over for BEA, did a whistle stop bookstore tour through New England with Gurewich at the wheel, and is returning to the States this fall to promote Mr. Toppit out west. As for his next novel, Elton says, "It's slow going, but this time around, it's not going to take 15 years!"