Ali Smith's Seasonal Quartet

Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet: an oral history

Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer, Ali Smith's Booker Prize-shortlisted, bestselling Seasonal Quartet, is now complete – a unique feat of modern literature that records perhaps the strangest time in living history. Here is the untold story of its creation, in the words of Smith herself and the editors and designers closest to the project.

The past five years have witnessed some of the most extraordinary news events in living history. They have also seen the release of Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer, Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet: four books that, in an unprecedented feat of publishing, have tracked these world-turning moments in real-time and have gone on to earn critical acclaim, a place on the Booker Prize shortlist and topped the bestseller charts.

Summer, the final instalment released this month, was re-written and re-filed as Black Lives Matter protests took to the streets, pushing publishing deadlines to their limits and becoming the first book to be entirely produced during lockdown. Here we speak individually to those involved in the series’ creation, from assistant to author, to hear the untold story of these remarkable books.   

In 2014, Ali Smith proposed an idea to her agent and publisher.

Ali Smith, author: I’d had a thought way back at the start of ever writing anything (I published my first book in 1995) that one day I’d like to write four books about the seasons.  But the project was one of those things you have at the back of your mind, think one day you’ll get to, but not yet, something several mountains away on the horizon.

Simon Prosser, publisher: Ali has a great story about the fact that a long time ago, She sent a postcard to Olivia Laing, who’s her partner’s cousin, saying something like, “One day I want to write a book about the four seasons”. The idea was somewhere in her head from a long way back.

Tracy Bohan, agent: Ali had delivered a previous novel after her deadline and Simon and the team at Penguin had heroically managed to keep their publication schedule. It became a happy accident, and sparked an idea for a subsequent cycle of books. That was the first conversation we had about it.

Simon: She wanted to write a sequence of books called Seasonal and they would each deal with a season. And there was the idea of whether it would be possible to write these books on a relatively short time, so they were right up to the minute, as contemporaneous as could possibly be, and whether we could publish them as fast as was humanly possible.

Ali: I asked Simon whether he thought the project would work or be possible.

Simon: So really it was a question: “Can we do this?”

Ali: He liked the idea, and checked with the team, everyone from copy edit to distribution.

Simon: I sort of investigated and thought, well, we’ve all worked together a long time, we all trust each other. I thought, yeah, we could get it down to about six weeks, from manuscript filing to finished book. Which is super, super fast. I can’t think of a way you could publish it faster.

Tracy: What was a little bit dangerous and fun about the Seasonal pitch was that, very much by design, this very tight turnaround would be an integral part of the creative project.

Ali: Everyone said AN ENORMOUS YES.

Simon: And Ali was like, “Right, let’s do this.”

Hermione Thompson, editorial team: Everyone was immediately hugely excited about it. But I don’t think any of us could have known how pertinent and timely and formative it was going to turn out to be. 

Autumn. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

In order to meet the unprecedented deadline, the team took an unconventional decision: to design the covers before the manuscript was submitted – let alone written.

Hermione: What would normally have been a conversation we had for every book, but was instead decided very early on before any of them had been written, was the cover design.

Simon: We knew right from the word go that what we wanted were covers that would express the cycle of the seasons.

Richard Bravery, art director: Ali embraces art like very few other authors out there – from film and photography through to painting – and the works featured on her covers represent her books in a very intimate way. We first used Hockney on Ali’s books back in 2011, an iPad painting for There but for the, and the relationship between her and Hockney has been there ever since. 

Simon: Richard got somebody to speak to the Hockney studio, and what came back were these four incredible images, of the same lane, through four seasons.

Richard: It was Joanna Prior (Managing Director, Penguin General) who suggested using Hockney’s seasonal paintings, which immediately felt right for the quartet. And from there we began talking to Hockney’s estate about which of the many different seasonal paintings he has produced over the years would be right for the books. “The tunnel” which depicts the same stretch of east Yorkshire road, emerged from those conversations.

Simon: They were stunning. And we were like, “yeah, those are perfect”.

Hermione: Richard came up with a series look, which uses beautiful cloth binding with a half-jacket of the artwork itself over the top.

'He showed me the four Hockney mock-ups for the covers of books that didn’t exist yet. No pressure'

Ali Smith paperbacks in a stack on white background

Ali Smith Seasonal Quartet | £30

Richard: We knew we wanted the package to feel tactile and in some small way to reflect the seasons, and cloth felt like a good articulation of that. The decision to use a half jacket followed on easily: why use cloth and then keep it all covered? The typeface used is Caslon 224, Black - I got seduced by the little chapeau on the ‘A’.

Simon: It made sense for the bindings to reflect the seasons, so Richard and I had a happy hour choosing all of the bindings to reflect the different seasons from a book of linens, and then thinking about the foils, and getting the foil to reflect the seasons.

Anna Ridley, communications director: I remember Simon coming round excitedly, dragging in Richard and being like, “Look at these! Aren’t these amazing!” They looked so fresh, it was exciting to see them emerge fully formed.

Richard: Your job as a designer is not to have your sticky fingerprints all over it but to become a conveyor of these ideas. How can you fuck up Ali Smith and David Hockney? I mean, really? It’s the easiest job in the world to be a designer on that series.

Simon: Very quickly Richard just put those covers together and we mocked up all four of them, with the covers wrapped around the linen, and I put them in a bag. I went off to meet Ali and said, “I’ve got something to show you”.

Ali: In December 2015 he showed me the four Hockney mock-ups for the covers of books that didn’t exist yet. No pressure.

Simon: I got them out of the bag and she said, “Oh!!! They're amazing. They’re perfect. We’ve got them! That’s it!” It was extraordinary, they were just perfect from the moment Richard designed them.

Ali: I felt a strange mix of that, ‘uh-oh, no pressure’ that I mentioned and of an uncanny... reassurance. It was like they already existed, though I still, eh, uh-oh, had to do the work to find them. 

Richard: There was no moment that I doubted that Ali’s words would fit the vision that we’d all created.

Simon: And they existed, they were like these vessels there to be filled. So she had them, and I had them, they sat by my desk for four years, five years, whatever it’s been. It was almost like they were there to be filled. It was highly unusual, can’t really explain it, but there it is.

Annie Underwood, production control: At that point it was literally a case with the cloth on and the foil, and already they looked really beautiful together.  They’ve always looked so nice. Obviously with our job we don’t see the finished thing until it’s finished. But it was nice to have those cases as a guide to see what you’re working towards from the very start. I’ve always had those on my desk to work from and to look at and to know. So it’s been a constant companion for quite a few years.

Dickens manuscript
Ali and Simon go to see Charles Dickens’s handwritten David Copperfield manuscript. Image: Simon Prosser / Twitter / Penguin

The five summers that have seen The Seasonal Quartet through from beginning to end have been rich in rite and mystery, with each new book following certain patterns and habits created by its predecessor.

Ali: Books, I’ve always believed, aren’t really written by writers, but by everything that person’s read. It’s the writing that already exists that begets the writing. 

Simon: We have these rituals, and one ritual is that we would go and see a manuscript for a book that would inform the novel. So in the case of Autumn we went to go and see the manuscript for Keats’s 'Ode to Autumn' together, which was wonderful.

Ali: We went to visit Keats’s poem 'To Autumn', in his original handwriting, a talisman, at the British Library. When we were there, Rachel Foss, the Head of Modern Archives, showed us several other handwritten pieces by him, and by JG Ballard and by Angela Carter. Talismanic, and a paying of respect to the whole process and the corrected, crossed-out, rewritten fragments we leave behind, and the vitality in those fragments.

The following year we visited the few pages of what’s now thought to be 99.9% definitely Shakespeare’s handwriting in a blistering speech or two he wrote for The Book of Thomas More and then the next year we visited Katherine Mansfield’s last written letter, in which, in the middle of winter, she says she’s watching for signs of spring. 

Simon: And for Summer we went to see the David Copperfield manuscript at the V&A towards the end of last year.

Lindsay Terrell, marketing manager: There were a few things that we always knew: that there would be Shakespeare, that there would be another artist, usually a writer or a painter, like Katherine Mansfield or Pauline Boty and we knew that they’d act as a kind of presiding spirit over the book. But until the books went to print, even Simon and Ali didn’t know what that story was. Had we wanted to sell those books to readers by pitching them the storyline, we couldn’t because it wasn’t an option. That was a real challenge to marketing the books.

Simon: We leave marketing copy until the last possible moment, when we’re being screamed at. Even then, it will just, literally say, “the follow-up to” whatever’s been before. You’ll notice that we never describe what’s in the book in advance, ever. Then, at the last moment, Ali will write a paragraph or two that we then use as copy which you’ll see is often quite elusive. Her strong sense is that you don’t need to do things in a conventional way and you can do things that are true the spirit of the book.

Winter. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Meanwhile, Ali was writing.

Simon: A lot of writers will file bits and pieces as they’re going along, and she’s not like that.

Hermione: She allows her ideas to percolate and ferment for a really long time, doing all this research and investigating all these all these directions, so that by the time she sits down to write she has a very detailed and developed sense of what she wants to do with it.

Ali: Basically, I chanced, each time, that something would come together on its own terms and I hoped I’d get it reasonably right.  Also, I like writing fast. I always have. It’s a vital thing. But I knew I was pushing my luck with these if anything in life intervened, or if I went down the wrong rabbit hole. I don’t know if they work, the books. I hope they’re okay.

Tracy: Ali does this very nice thing where she gives Simon and I a physical copy of the manuscript and she comes by. She’ll go to the Penguin Random House offices and then on her way back to Kings Cross to get the train back to Cambridge, comes to Bedford Square and it’s such a joy to kind of hold it in your hand. It really is one of the great thrills in my career.

Ali's manscript
Ali has delivered every manuscript in the same 'beautifully battered' portfolio since 1995. This was Summer. Image: Simon Prosser / Twitter / Penguin

Hannah Chukwu, editorial assistant: Every year Simon meets Ali at Kings Cross station and she literally hands over the manuscript to him.

Simon: The manuscript for Autumn arrived when I was on holiday in early August, in Frenchman’s Creek in Cornwall, a place haunted by the ghosts of Daphne du Maurier and that means something to Ali, as well. It was couriered down there, they had to knock on the door in this obscure place, and I just literally dropped everything and read it.

Hermione: I was in the office, it had come through on email, and I read it the same day, sitting at my desk long after the working day had finished. Ali has a very distinct voice so you always know when you’re reading something of hers – there’s a connection that runs through it all – but with Seasonal she was also doing something palpably different, something that she’d not done before. It felt very exciting to witness her finding the vocabulary for that and weaving these new sensibilities together.

Ali: I edit as I go along, so that the draft stops being a draft and the edit produces or reveals where what I’m writing will want to go next. It means that by first completion much of the iffing and butting of the editing’s been done. And I like a deadline. It means I know exactly when I can pay the bills.

Simon: The thing with Ali is that she’s very word-perfect. She’s one of those very unusual writers in that every word, every bit of punctuation, it all falls very firmly but lightly. In terms of conventional editing, there’s always very little. It probably wouldn’t work otherwise.

Ali: I have actual nightmares based round the stupid mistakes Lesley’s had to strip out of my manuscripts.

[Lesley Levene copyedited The Seasonal Quartet].

Hermione: The manuscripts when they come to us are as close to word-perfect already as you could get.

Winter. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

In the months that Smith was working on Autumn, the UK had voted to leave the EU. The result left the country in unimaginable political turmoil. Upon Autumn’s release, on 20 October , 2016, it was swiftly dubbed “the first Brexit novel” by the media around the world. One passage, which starts “All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing”, seemed to sum up the country’s existential divide.

Hermione: The idea for the Quartet came about just before we hit this period of ridiculously news-heavy few years, and none of us could really have known that was coming, but it felt like Ali was picking up on something in the water.

Tracy: Obviously when the deal was done, when the Quartet was sold, none of us saw it coming. Well, certainly, I didn’t see it coming.

Simon: What I can’t do looking back is disentangle how much the looming referendum played a part in how much Ali decided this was the book she wanted to do. I suspect it did. 

Ali: I always wait till the last moment anyway before I start writing anything, and with these the wait sometimes felt primed, like a curtain hadn’t quite gone up yet at a theatre – especially with the first and the last of the books, Autumn and Summer. With Autumn, I started writing, but I sensed that something was being withheld, or I was being withheld from the book. Then when the fallout round the EU ref vote started to happen I understood why I'd had to wait.

Simon: The “all across the country” passage is something that spoke, it turned out, to hundreds of thousands of people. It summed it all up in some way. She has a great ability to channel feeling in a way that’s unusual, and put it in words that are very memorable.

Lindsay: We always knew the concept which we were working with was designed to deal with immediacy and designed to be timely, but what I hadn’t seen yet was how that passage that had felt so specific to 2016 could hold a resonance that it could have as the years went by.

Hermione: It was also quite distressing: here was a response to a thing that we were all absolutely in the eye of the storm for, and it was an outpouring of grief and fear and uncertainty. It’s a very intense experience to see some of the emotions you’re in the midst of yourself and only just starting to understand or name expressed so acutely in a piece of art. 

Spring. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

While Ali was writing, Hamish Hamilton’s production, press and marketing teams were working at phenomenal speed to make sure the manuscript could become a viable book in a matter of weeks.

Hermione: The main thing we were doing in terms of publishing the book in terms of an object was making sure that the production team were comfortable with the timings of everything, which were always super tight. That’s a conversation we’d have to have long before Ali delivered the book, so she would agree with Simon when she felt she’d be able to deliver it long before she started writing.

Simon: We had to work out a schedule way ahead of time. Because one thing I felt strongly was that you should publish each book in the season of its essence, so that means some books had a slightly longer run at them and some had less.

Annie: For us we’d normally, with a new manuscript, have a minimum of two weeks but ideally up to three or four, to typeset the first proofs. I think the quickest one we did was Spring, and we did that in two days. It’s insane. And Ali has her own bespoke typeset grid, which adds another layer of complexity to it. Usually editorial would have a month to do a proof-read, but they were doing it in three days. Corrections were on a one or two-day turnaround, when you’d normally have a couple of weeks. It’s kind of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of thing. You don’t want to time your holiday for a certain week in the year when you know Ali’s coming in because you’ll miss the whole thing, basically. 

Ali: As I wrote the books I felt the support, was never lonely (writing can sometimes be very lonely) given the communal making of the project, more, I felt understood, and enabled, and that I was in real expert hands with a project which, as we entered what I’ll call the interesting times we’ve been living through this last few years, was a kind of steady continuum, a lifeline in a stormy sea.

Annie Underwood with Spring
Annie Underwood sends Spring to press. Image: Simon Prosser / Twitter / Penguin

Ruppa Patel, senior inventory manager: So the first one publishes and we see this beautiful object arrive in the office, it’s got this beautiful autumnal, bronzy-brown colour, with this beautiful Hockney artwork. It’s so beautiful, and we’re like, how can this not do well?

Anna: It required a new way of doing things – and a new way of dealing with the press who hound to be able to read the manuscript and we weren’t able to do proofs.

Lindsay: Anna’s brainchild was to have a kind of early, exclusive event for every publication that would get together people who would love Ali most, which was mostly booksellers and some journalists and, of course, people in-house. They really powered the publications.

Anna: At that point when we had the manuscript finally ready to share it was like launching it with a bang. We’d invite everyone to an event where you’d get your chance to get your hands on a copy of the book and get to hear Ali do a reading from it.

Hannah: I’ve seen her speak in quite a few different contexts, and she’s an amazing speaker, and really silences the room. It’s been really interesting to see that evolution and see that it still works. It just connects with people.

Anna: The preview events have grown book on book. We had to move the one for Spring out of the office to get a space big enough to fit everyone and then for Summer, the digital preview event was attended by people from far-flung locations. That felt really exciting, a kind of fitting final instalment. 

Ali Smith at the Spring preview event
Ali Smith brings Spring to Daunt Books in 2019. Image: Simon Prosser / Twitter / Penguin

Autumn had arrived. Winter would follow in January 2018. The cycle continued with Spring, in March 2019.

Hannah: Spring was one of the first books I worked on from start to finish, and that was while I was on the traineeship, from September 2018 to March 2019, which was a unique way to get started in publishing. 

Annie: I remember when Spring came in. We were in the office and you can see it on Simon’s desk. You’re keyed up, it’s almost as if you’re about to go on some really exciting adventure; you know it’s coming and you’re counting down the seconds until it comes to you and you can have your turn.

Hannah: I remember reading Spring overnight, I remember staying up late to read it. I remember feeling like I had this big exciting secret that everybody else was waiting for, and I had to myself.

Hermione: Spring, in particular, I found very, very affecting. About the resilience of nature, I guess, and the way that it persists regardless of what’s going on. Ali manages to offer the reader that consolation and that reassurance without ever disconnecting us from the ongoing moral responsibility of recognising what’s going on in the world – seeing it for what it is – which is a series of crises and atrocities. To hold those two things in balance and say, things will go on, but also we have a responsibility to change the world we live in. 

Lindsay: Our ambition for Spring, three books in was to make it a Top Ten bestseller. For those two days waiting for that chart to come out, the anticipation really kept building. I remember Simon coming round to me at one point and saying, “Lindsay, I think we’re going to get Top 5,” and I said, “Well we might.” And then he came back again and he said “Lindsay, do you think we’re going get top 3?” I replied: “Maybe, we could. We’d need a spring miracle! But it’s possible to get to top 3.” And he replied, “Yes, yes, it would be a spring miracle!”

Ruppa: I didn’t have a feel for what was going to happen. I knew the ambition was there but I couldn’t tell. In terms of stock levels we probably did put similar stock levels out in the market.

Hermione: We get the results of the bestseller chart emailed every week, so if there’s a book that’s in a bestseller list we kind of all know at the same time, and go round to each other’s desks and celebrate a bit.

Lindsay: Of course, we got number one.

Simon: It felt like a miracle. Ali’s Jilly Cooper moment, as one of us joked when I called her, the instant after hearing. 

Anna: I’m pretty sure there were tears. I think I probably cried, Lindsay would have cried.

Lindsay: Anna and I both cried, which sounds a little bit ridiculous but a number one feels like something beyond just a commercial success. It meant that people were reading this very important book at the kind of volume that actually can effect change, do you know?

Hermione: Ali had never charted in the Hardback Bestseller Top 10 before, and for her first entry to be number one, and for this incredibly risk-taking, brave, generous-spirited, totally sui generis piece of work felt, so joyful and special.

Ali: I don’t remember! I reckon I block this kind of thing. Fluke – not the kind of thing that happens to me, it’ll certainly never happen again. 

Lindsay: I have wondered if it meant more to us than it did to her in a way. We told her and her response was just so characteristically Ali, she said, “It’s like Top of the Pops, and we’re toppling populism.”

Summer. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Even after a series that had taken in Brexit, political upheaval, an immigration crisis and the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, few could have anticipated the history-making events that would affect the final book in the cycle.

Ali: With Summer, I started writing at the end of January, first week of February, as news which had all been about the phrase done-and-dusted Brexit turned to news about people suffering from a strange respiratory disease and that disease crossing the seas as a doctor – who was being called a ‘whistleblower’ – himself died.

Simon: She started writing, and then the pandemic hit. The book was finished in lockdown, completely, and it was produced, from start to finish, in lockdown. It’s the first book we’ve done that way. 

Hannah: She was writing just as lockdown happened and we got a draft in, and then we had a new draft in as the Black Lives Matter protest started, because it would be impossible to publish that without those things having occurred already.

Simon: So when you read Summer, it not only includes lockdown but it includes the murder of George Floyd. And the book exists now, you can read it. 

Hannah: It’s been very cathartic to know that that was something we’d get to work on and be reading about together. We’re used to working in such close proximity and such a collaborative matter, it’s been very different to do that when everyone’s so separate and going through things in such a separate way. So I think that shared experience of reading it together, but also reading it together with a view to editing together, it also informed our conversations when we were talking as a team about how things were affecting us.

Simon: We’d all worked together out of lockdown, so in lockdown it went through like clockwork. I was joking with Ali that it was a book designed to be produced in lockdown.

Summer. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Finally, Summer is here. The final quarter has slotted into place. What’s appeared is not so much a series as a cycle: something that continues and regenerates, rather that starts and finishes.

Annie: Production are the first people to see the finished books because we have to check them and make sure nothing’s gone wrong with any of them. In the lead-up to the books coming in, I worry… what if it comes in and the cloth’s the wrong colour? But it’s such a “doo-doo-doo-doo!!” moment, to open the box and find it looks like how you want it to, and the colour is perfect, it’s just so exciting.

Ali: The four together? I still can’t quite get my head round it. They’re beautiful objects. I hope I meet the standard.

Hermione: It’s a funny one because we’ve seen images of the books for years, as digital mock-ups, long before real copies existed at all. So, it’s a little bit like that feeling when you go to a place that you’ve seen lots of film and photography of, like the first time you go to New York. It’s a bit uncanny because you feel like you’ve been seeing it for years.

Simon: It felt totally different to having the mock-ups. The kids were away, so I was in the house on my own which is very, very rare and so they just sat on the sofa and kept me company for a night. They sat there and glowed and radiated something. And I thought, what an incredible achievement that Ali has done, what an incredible achievement by my colleagues to make this happen and for these books to be there, sitting one on top of another. I was very, very moved, actually.

Anna: It feels like a really momentous occasion to come to the end of it.

Ali: It was a case, from Brexit to Covid, of watching how the narratives that get called news, by which we understand and try to assimilate what’s happening to our lives in the world, reached us, and in what form, in what mode of language, and with what purpose. And if we see what happens, however destabilising or unsteadying or steadying or impactful as a form of narrative, then we can start to read it, and reading is everything.

Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

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