Talking Books - In Conversation With Michelle Kane

Depending on your age, the term ‘East 17’ has a different meaning. To some, it’s the postcode for a well-known area of north London – to others, it's synonymous with a chart-topping boy band from the early 1990s. As well as being fabled as the location for lead singer Brian Harvey’s infamous jacket potato incident, Walthamstow is also the home of Michelle Kane, the woman with Nigel Slater, Elizabeth Day and Raven Smith on speed dial (amongst others).

As Publishing Director of 4th Estate, Kane has been part of the leading literary powerhouse for over twenty years, commissioning books by the world’s brightest writers. A friend and fellow modular wardrobe wearer, I asked her if she fancied a walk & talk for the Studio Nicholson In Conversation With series. As always, the interviewee determines the route choice, so with the typical (overcast) British summer skies above us, we hopped on the Victoria line primed and ready for a saunter around Kane’s favourite local haunts.

We met years ago at Hoi Polloi – the restaurant at the now deceased Ace Hotel in Shoreditch. Details are fuzzy, but her glorious Glasgow accent and razor-sharp wit drew me in – we’ve stayed in touch ever since. She suggests we fuel up before starting, and suggests we grab coffee and pastries from the wobbly roofed Today Bread café (Genevieve opting for a healthier granola). We sit down for ten and make plans for where to roll first.

"I like the messy, kinetic energy of lots of human beings piled up in London; it's what keeps me feeling excited about life"

With croissants digesting, we amble towards the William Morris gallery. Built in the 1740s, it was the Morris family home from 1848 to 1856. A double-fronted grade II* listed building, it’s a bit of a Georgian masterpiece, sitting amongst classy and matured landscaped gardens. Admiring the borders, I ask why she chose to stroll her own postcode today. Laughing, she said, “I promise it wasn’t merely for convenience! I love the undulating energy of Walthamstow, generated by the mix of communities who work and live cheek-by-jowl here. You’ll run the gamut of all the noise and bustle of Hoe Street, to the feted village part – which feels like the set of Midsomer Murders – by way of Ravenswood industrial estate, with its various pop-up gin distilleries (as well as the world-famous God’s Own Junk Yard). You can have a proper day out without ever leaving the area.”

Kane stops for a portrait, radiating full pre-Raphaelite vibes with flowing mane and trailing elderberry tree behind her. I quiz her about London life whilst Genevieve sets up the shot, “I flinch when anyone asks me if I’m planning on moving out soon. I like the messy, kinetic energy of lots of human beings piled up in London; it's what keeps me feeling excited about life, fuels my creative brain and keeps me curious about everything. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good hike in the countryside as much as the next person, but I always feel so happy (and relieved!) when I’m heading back to London, a place I consider (if one is to think in binary terms) my home.

I think that’s partly to do with being from a town in Scotland – and when I was younger and watching TV shows set here, like Capital City or This Life, I thought I had as much chance of going to live on Mars as living in London. It just seemed so far removed from my own experience that I still feel so lucky to be here and privileged enough to live here in a city that’s not perfect by any stretch, but I can't imagine wanting to live anywhere else.”

After a swizz round the garden, we pack up and head through the quaint parts of E17 towards St. Mary’s church, which sits bang opposite London’s oldest house. We take a quick glance around the honkytonk timber frame (not a straight line in sight) while Genevieve scopes out the church grounds. The sun makes a surprise appearance, and she beckons us over, gesturing Kane and I into position, to a spot where shards of light are bouncing off the stained-glass windows. We stop to admire the stonework and talk about the work side of her life. She’s been dedicated to one company for such a long time that I figure it means she really (really!) enjoys her job.

"For me, as a publisher too, I can reach out to potential writers instead of having to wait for agents to send me proposals, it encourages the editorial teams to stay curious and stay alert to what’s going on.”"

Nodding in agreement she said, “I absolutely love it and don’t mind admitting that it (partly) defines me. When I started at 4th Estate, I was putting together campaigns for the likes of Nigel Slater, Jonathan Franzen, Lena Dunham and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Getting the PR right is so instrumental to the success of the books – making sure your work is getting to the widest possible readership and converting to sales. The publishing process has been transformed, largely for the better, by social media. It’s democratised who gets to tell stories and diversified who the gatekeepers are. It’s changed the shape of the marketing and PR campaigns, because we no longer have to rely on that small window of opportunity for getting the work to the readers.

Seeing lots of modern classics being rediscovered on TikTok really does make me feel excited – and sure that physical books will never die out. There was a time when we were nervous about it when e-books started to really take off – having seen what happened in the music industry – but books are one of the simplest and best cultural artefacts. They will always endure. For me, as a publisher too, I can reach out to potential writers instead of having to wait for agents to send me proposals, it encourages the editorial teams to stay curious and stay alert to what’s going on.”

We head inside the chapel for a nosey about. Church-wise, things seem impressively on-point. There’s all your usual ye-olde-place-of-worship pointers; ancient looking pews on an uneven stone floor, that familiar religious aroma – a waft of dog-eared bibles and dusty prayer cushions, and then there’s the surprise of a thoroughly modern annex that ticks every (confession) box on the list of aspirational interior design porn pointers. We plonk ourselves down on the Klein blue metal bistro sets outside and Kane continues, “Social media is brilliant for spotlighting books that might have been seen as radical and therefore slightly smaller. Huge publishing moments still exist, but these days there are more of them, from The Transgender Issue by Shon Fay through to Richard Osmon titles. Instagram etc., has pushed marginalised voices into the mainstream which is so positive for our general culture and a progressive society.”

After 10,000 steps and ten Hail Mary’s, we’re all done and ready for lunch. While Genevieve packs up her lenses I prod Kane to tell me the title of her all-time favourite novel. She surprises me with an instant response, “The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a novel I fell hard for in school and continue to fall more and more deeply for as the years go on. I’ve given my little boy the middle name Jay, such is my love for it.” A solid choice – and one to add to your reading list, if you’ve haven’t enjoyed it already.