LONDON — Diana Athill, a writer and editor who honed the work of novelists including John Updike and Margaret Atwood before finding late-life fame as a frank and fearless memoirist, has died, her publisher said Thursday. She was 101.
Publisher Granta Books said Athill died Wednesday after a short illness.
Born to a wealthy English family in London in 1917, Athill worked for the BBC during World War II and after the war co-founded the Andre Deutsch publishing house that bore his name. She worked there as an editor for five decades, nurturing writers including Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul.
One of the first successes for the fledgling enterprise was Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” which Athill later said “nobody else would touch because of how rude it was.”
The book’s British publication was held up by a court injunction before the attorney general declared that it could be published.
“If it had been banned ... we would have gone bust,” Athill said.
“I loved editing,” Athill told the BBC radio program “Desert Island Discs” in 2004. “Mind you, when you had a really good writer like Vidia Naipaul or Jean Rhys, you didn’t really have to do any. Because they would put in a manuscript that was perfect. All you had to do was be encouraging and make soothing noises and say, ‘Aren’t you wonderful, darling.’”
Athill published a memoir, “Instead of a Letter” — an account of an unhappy wartime love affair — in 1963 and went on to produce several more volumes, recounting a long and eventful life as a woman in a male-dominated literary world. “Stet: An Editor’s Life,” published by Granta in 2000, was among the best known.
Athill’s sharp, unsentimental accounts of her professional and personal life — including relationships with Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali and Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord — drew wide praise and a large readership.
“I just like writing to be clear and concise,” Athill told a Guardian webchat in 2017. “I don’t like a lot of words. This is my nature. I like to keep things simple and very much as they really are. I’m not one for fantasy and I’m not one for exaggerated writing.”
“Somewhere Towards the End,” which confronted aging and mortality, won the 2009 Costa Book Award for biography and a National Book Critics Circle Award. She also wrote a novel, a collection of letters and a volume of short stories.
Granta publisher Sigrid Rausing said Athill’s writing “was somehow exactly like herself: formidable, truthful, often amusing.”
“We will miss her indomitable spirit,” Rausing said.