Talking Toller: an interview with Jon Woolcott

by Pippa Marland

This week we’re delighted to publish an interview between Pippa Marland of the Land Lines team and Jon Woolcott of Little Toller books, the Dorset-based pre-eminent publishers of nature writing in the UK.

PM: Can you say a little about how Little Toller began and about your ethos as publishers?

JW: Little Toller is nearly ten! It began when Adrian and Gracie Cooper moved to Dorset – the county had been Gracie’s childhood home –and, wanting to learn more, they started looking for the great classics of rural life. To their frustration many were either out or print, or not well published. Interestingly, around the same time, but entirely separately, I had moved to Dorset, and had exactly the same experience. I simply shrugged, but Adrian and Gracie, despite having no experience in publishing, decided to do something about it and began publishing these books again – with new covers from great artists and new introductions from contemporary writers – for a new generation of readers.

PM: How did you become involved and what’s your particular role?

JW: I’ve spent most of my working life in the book business – on the retail side previously, working in all sort of different places, from independent bookshops to doing marketing for Waterstones. About eight years ago I was browsing in Daunt’s in Marylebone High Street and came across a few books with wonderful covers – including Richard Mabey’s Unofficial Countryside and Edward Thomas’ The South Country. These were some of the first books that Little Toller published, and I was immediately captivated. I took a break from work in 2014 and having worked a little with Gracie in the past, I came for a coffee at the office (a converted cow byre adjoining their home),and while chatting, a job emerged. I work principally on selling our books to bookshops and doing marketing and publicity. I also help look after our blog for new writing – The Clearing. But being small, and being deliberately collaborative, means that we all do a little of everything, so inevitably this extends into editorial, or packing up books, or thinking about how we can grow, or how we can make a difference.

PM: Could you describe the Little Toller catalogue?

JW: There’s probably a set of assumptions about Little Toller and our list, some of which are spot on, and many which are not. While we started off publishing older books, and that’s still an important part of what we do, we’ve tried to find voices to respond to the current crisis in nature, and to find new ways of connecting us to landscape and the natural world. We publish our new Nature Monographs, which now number eleven, the most recent being Tim Dee’s Landfill and also features books by Adam Thorpe, Fiona Sampson, Richard Skelton, Iain Sinclair and Oliver Rackham. We also have a series, Field Notes, which tend towards the autobiographical – writers like Carol Donaldson, Horatio Clare, Dexter Petley and John Fowles. Having said all that I think we all know when we’ve found a Little Toller author or book, even if it doesn’t necessarily or immediately fit the “New Nature” genre.

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PM: How did you select the texts for your ‘Nature Classics’ series – in other words, what constitutes a ‘classic’ for you? Are there any of these forthcoming? And do you have a wish-list of books you’d love to reproduce if you were given the opportunity?

JW: These are basically the books on our shelves which we think deserve a new outing and have a relevance or interest for today’s readers. Sometimes they’re simply really influential texts like The Natural History of Selborne or The Making of the English Landscape, or sometimes they’re books which will strike a chord again. I’m thinking of books like Clare Leighton’s Four Hedges, for instance. Next year we’re republishing Copsford by Walter Murray, a book about an escape from a city to a place of reflection, a reconnection with nature, albeit with hardship.

PM: What do you look for when selecting titles for your series of contemporary monographs?

JW: They often find us! This series tends to feature established writers who are keen to do something a little different from what they’re known for, like Iain Sinclair writing about the Gower, for instance. The intention was always for us to find a contemporary equivalent to the nature library, to create the classics of the future.

PM: One of things that strikes me about the Little Toller catalogue is the physical beauty of the publications. How do you go about choosing the artwork and design of the books?

JW: We think this is so important – the physical book must be a thing of beauty if it is to survive in a digital age, and in any case we owe it to our authors, and the books. We’re lucky because Gracie has an extraordinary eye, and a great empathetic understanding of how books could manifest themselves. We spend time working with artists on books, and a great deal of time thinking about and worrying about paper quality, the little details that make a real difference to the reader. Thank you for noticing this – we hope it’s one of the things that marks us apart.

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PM: What for you, if any, are the gaps in the contemporary nature writing genre?

JW: This is a personal view, but for me we should think less about it as a genre, because that’s just confining, and as a result you end up with some sort of internal hierarchy based on who is the most scientific, the most worthy in the genre. I’d rather books be judged on their own merits. For me therefore, I’d like to see the genre be a little wilder, and a little less about one thing. But of course there are always new stories from nature to be told, and it’s the telling that’s the main thing.

PM: In what ways do you think nature writing can engage with the environmental issues – both local and global – that are so evident at this point in time?

JW: Tough one, but I think that for many readers it can be a way in to thinking about nature in a more sustained way and asking questions about environmental policy. Nature writing can be both consoling and an alarm call, and can also be warm, witty and intelligent.

PM: Do you have a personal favourite among the classics and the newer titles?

9781908213365JW: I have a huge admiration for The Making of the English Landscape because it single-handedly invented the study of landscape as part of our history, and it’s still really important, more than sixty years after its publication. I’m also very fond of Edward Thomas’ In Pursuit of Spring – a really intriguing book, where you can see the writer becoming the great poet before your eyes. And the idea of his taking this little snapshot of England before the Great War is appealing, a measure of what was lost, but also of what endures. Of the newer ones, On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe has a particular resonance – I’m a big fan of his writing, and Tim Dee’s book Landfill is a wonderful mix, and tells us a lot about our relationship to nature now. It’s funny, clever and absurdly well-written.

 

PM: What advice would you give nature writers who are just starting out?

JW: I suppose the advice would be the same for writers of any genre – don’t be put off by those who have gone before, and work hard to find your own voice. If you love nature, don’t be worried if you don’t know every habit of every species – just experience it, and record it faithfully. Don’t be afraid to trample the boundaries of the genre – you don’t have to fit into a box – and most of all, keep going.

 

 

You can find out more about Little Toller and their publications here: https://www.littletoller.co.uk/about-us/

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