‘I have a commitment to social justice and equality. I don’t believe there should be poverty in New Zealand like there is now. That’s the social background to my publishing’, says Bridget Williams.
The publishing office of Bridget Williams Books is in one of Wellington’s more downmarket areas, in Blair Street off Courtenay Place, where inequality can be observed at first hand. Committed to around 25 New Zealand titles annually, the publishing house concentrates on topics like the economy, social issues, history and feminist interests.
Home, however, is tucked into an historic Thorndon street, a Christeller-designed house, occupying about the same area as most people’s garages. It climbs to three diminutive storeys, white walls and brick-coloured floors lending a remarkable sense of space. A built-in ledge above the bath holds current reading. There is a minute, lovingly tended garden. ‘The structures have to be right, wouldn’t you agree?’, remarks Williams, indicating crib walls.
She has an enviable Vanity Fair elegance suitably crossed with a hint of the bluestocking. Williams, 43, offers an apparently random sequence of events leading to her latest venture, but there is evidence that, like the garden, the structures were put in place early.
‘I come from a long line of Anglican clergymen, the kind of family that serves on committees and collects for Corso and believes that New Zealand is a place where you work for a good society. I set out for England when I was 20, with a fresh degree in English from Otago. I was prepared for England not to be the place I expected, the place of my imagination, but as I drove up from Southampton, there was Thomas Hardy’s England right around me and there it was and there it was and there it was. Then I landed a job working for Dame Helen Gardner, Professor of English at Oxford University. She was the only critic I’d really heard of, and here I was working as her research assistant on The New Oxford Book of English Verse. She had a reputation for being very tough indeed, but I was an assiduous child, so in love with what I was doing, and so neurotic and meticulous about commas, that she was very nice to me’.
Williams’s reputation for thoroughness followed her to Oxford University Press in New Zealand, seven years later. The editorial skills learned there gave her the confidence to start Port Nicholson Press in 1981 – with a capital of $10,000. ‘I didn’t even know how to write an invoice. I look back and I think, my God, what on earth did I think I was doing? What is a cash flow? I asked myself, and I found out that a cash flow is not something on a bit of paper, it is what you get in and out every month so you can eat’.
Now there were managerial skills as well. Three years and nine books later, Williams looked for multi-national input and found it in Allen and Unwin. ‘It wasn’t just the money, I firmly believed we needed the stimulus of international thinking. I also wanted an imprint that would attract top authors, and books like Claudia Orange’s Treaty of Waitangi’.
The downside of international publishing is that you get sold. Williams had six highly successful years as Allen and Unwin NZ’s managing director, culminating in the publication of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. Treaty of Waitangi had sold 10,000 copies, and, as would the Dictionary, won the Goodman Fielder Wattie Award. ‘Then we got sold to Harper Collins UK and I had to think about it all over again’.
‘Did you nearly turn it all in?’
‘Yes, but it was too difficult to let go of my books. I, and my editor Jane Parkin, with whom I had worked for some years, offered to buy the New Zealand list. We had a particular commitment to The Book of New Zealand Women: 300 essays about largely undocumented lives of outstanding New Zealand women’. Bridget Williams Books was born out of this upheaval.
Williams took with her names like Lauris Edmond, Pauline O’Reagan, and Charlotte MacDonald. ‘I’m a feminist. For me feminism is the history we inherited from women who fought for things we have benefited from; to move away from that definition denies the struggle. On the other hand, I don’t call myself a feminist publisher because less than half the books we publish are by women, and it’s not the only focus of our list, as it’s not the only focus of my life’. Nevertheless, her feminism has a practical bent: she was one of the catalysts behind the now annual Women’s Book Festival.
I asked if she was demanding of her staff. A longer pause. ‘We work hard, but I don’t believe working round the clock produces a more efficient company. In the present climate there is a trend toward people meeting for a cup of coffee instead of the long lunch hour, and that suits us just fine. We don’t have to depart from the general pattern in order to be what we are, just little. We’re looking all the time at ways that we can make things work while maintaining our commitment to production quality and the kind of books we believe in, the kind that expand knowledge, expand people’s understanding. You do that by making good information available, by raising debate, by asking questions’. An eloquent flourish from the granddaughter of two vicars.