(Years ago, I stumbled onto a C-SPAN interview with E.R. Braithwate, the author of "To Sir, With Love." The whole thing was delightful, but of course the part that fascinated me most was how his famous book happened, but almost didn't.
Link to the full interview here -- seriously, set aside some time to watch the whole thing. You'll be glad you did -- however below, please find the part where he talks about the book.)
"At the end of each day, because I did not know how to teach, I would go home, and in notebooks, record exactly what had happened that day in the classroom. I kept careful notes of what was said, what was done, not only what the children said, but how they said it. I tried as carefully as possible to recapture the atmosphere of the classroom. And as you can well imagine, after seven years or more, there were lots of these notebooks.
And long after I had established a kind of rapport with these students, and was able to work with them, I was sitting at home during the holiday season, thinking that these books were literally driving me out of my room. There were too many, and I planned to have a little bonfire in the back of the yard, and I’d taken out handfuls of them, and before burning them, I began rifling through the old days, remembering what it was like at first, reminding myself of many an instance when, if it were possible, I would have walked away from that school and never looked back.
And then Mom came out and said, “What’s going on?” I said, “Listen to this, Mom,” and I would read to her bits and pieces, and I would say to her, “Do you know, if only I had been sensitive enough, there was so much I could have learned so early!”
And she said, “What are you going to do with these?” I said, “I’m going to burn them.” And she said, “But, why? These could be useful to some other young student. Why don’t you write a book?”
Write a book? You don’t just ‘write a book.’ You need to be TAUGHT how to write a book, you need to go to university particularly to LEARN how to write books. I said, “I can’t write a book!”
Writing a treatise is not writing a book. To write a treatise you borrow from all sorts of sources, and then put it together and stick your name on it. That’s not writing. So I said, “I can’t write a book.”
Anyway, she gathered these and took them back indoors, and day in, day out, she would remind of this book I should write. And finally, one weekend I thought, “Okay. You want a book? You’ll have a book.”
So I went into the local town, I hired a typewriter, I bought some paper -- and I knew so much about writing a book, I forgot to get carbons. And beginning with the earliest of those notebooks, I tried to retrace my steps in this exercise called teaching.
When it was all done, one morning, I put it on her plate, breakfast time, I said, “There’s your book.” And she said, “Don’t give it to me. DO something with it!” But what do you do with it?
I went to the local library, and said to the librarian, with whom I’d established a kind of superficial friendship, and I said to him, “Look, I’ve written this thing. What would you advise me what to do with it?” So he said, “First of all, let me read it and I’ll tell you.”
I left it with him for a week. Then I returned and I said, “What do you think?” He said, “Well I’m not sure whether my reaction to it is because of our friendship, or because of the manuscript itself. Why don’t you take it to an agent?”
An agent? I said, “Look. I can’t afford even to go to the cinema, and you’re telling me I must hire an ag—“ He said, “See, I didn’t use the word ‘hire.” And he went to a shelf and brought back something called Authors and Writers Yearbook. In it were all the agents anywhere in England, dating back I suppose to – I don’t know, you pick. The old ones.
And he said, “Let’s go for one who has been in business longest!” I was willing to let him tell me. And we happened upon a firm, a firm of agents called, “Pern, Hollinger, and Hyam.” Very impressive names! So he said, “Try them. What have you got to lose? Nothing.”
Following day, no, that very day, I went to the local printers and had them put a cover – a paper cover – onto this ‘manuscript’ and, the binder said to me, “What do you want to call it?” And at the end of the manuscript, there was this label I had used. When the kids at the end of that term were leaving, they gave me a present, and on it they had put their names, and over their names, “To Sir, With Love.” And I thought to myself, “Strange title. Why not?”
So I put on the front, I wrote: To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite.
So that morning, I went to the West End of London, Dean Street Soho, very next to the red light district, if you know where that is. And I walked up these narrow stairs, and there was this elderly lady sitting at one of those little . . . telephone things with the horn, old fashioned, you plugged into the thing – not like today, you know, they just use their fingers.
But, she was sitting at this, and I said, “Good morning. I’ve brought a manuscript.” And when I said the word ‘manuscript’ she looked at those shelves, where the cobwebs were hanging on all these packages. I got the message, and I said “Okay” and I picked up my – I was leaving, and she said, “Just leave it there. Put your name and address and telephone number, and eventually . . .” She made eventually sound as if it had ten syllables. “E-ven-tu-a-lly.”
So I left it and I went home. And I was sitting in the backyard next morning, and mom came out and said, “You’re wanted on the telephone.” And I figured out, I didn’t have a girlfriend. Who was calling me? So I answered the telephone, and the person on the other line said, “Mr. Braithwaite?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “My name is Paul Scott. And I’m calling from Pern, Hollinger, and Hyam.” And so I said, “Yes?” And he said, “It’s about your manuscript.”
Have you ever heard such a beautiful word?
So he said, “When can you come that we might talk about it?” So I said, “How about tomorrow?” I would have gone that day if I could. So I went up and he told me that . . . it was in. He said there were two possibilities, either The Bodley Head, which was England’s most prestigious publisher, or another one he mentioned, Secker and Wahlberg. He said, “But let’s go for the best first. If they don’t like it,” he said, “we can always try Secker and Wahlberg.”
So he sent it off The Bodley Head, and they said they’d be happy to publish. And it became an overnight bestseller. And the only person who was not the least bit surprised . . . was mom."