to Mister God, This Is Anna
by William Collins
from the 1975 United States edition
The story of Anna is so strange and so enchanting that at first I found it difficult to believe it was about real people.
Anna was a little girl of four when Fynn, a young man of nineteen, found her late at night sitting outside a baker’s shop in London’s dockland. She had run away from her parents, who had been ill-treating her; her bruised body told the story. She was determined not to return to them and refused to say where she lived… Fynn took her home where his large-hearted mother took her into the family circle as one of her own. An unusual and moving friendship developed between the little girl and the big young man. He found her not only a delightful and interesting child, but a kind of infant prodigy, especially in God-thinking. She wrestled with profound theological issues in her own intuitive and reasonable way and expressed her findings in startlingly simple words. As Fynn writes, “Anna was not only deeply in love with Mister God, she was proud of him”. The fact that she spoke the rough language of the street made her pronouncements all the more astonishing – sometimes breathtaking
“A bomb with legs on” is how Fynn describes Anna. Indeed she seems such an unusual child that sometimes the reader may wonder – as I did when first confronted with the author’s manuscript – whether she is not in fact a fictional character – a kind of “mini-myth” – invented by an adult of original and questing mind as the means of communicating thoughts about God in a new language. But I am convinced that Anna was a real little girl, who was in fact found in the streets at the age of four and who died as the result of an ugly fall at the age of seven.
The manuscript, just sixty pages of it, was brought into my office by a man who told us the author was a friend of his and that it was most unlikely that he would be willing to meet me. Those first sixty pages were enough for me to realize that the story of Anna was one of the most exceptional manuscripts that I had ever had the chance of publishing. The problems that faced me were: Who is the author? Is this a story about real people? and How could I find out, if the author refused to come and see me? At last, after long negotiations, he agreed to come.
Fynn arrived in a very bellicose mood. The reason he was reluctant to meet us was that Anna’s death had been for him such a traumatic experience that thirty years had to pass before he felt he could write about her. Anna was still so much part of his life that he dreaded to expose her to what he thought would be the arrogant rough and tumble of a commercial publisher’s editorial and publicity expertise.
After Anna’s death Fynn had suffered a nervous breakdown. He is now a brilliant scientist and computer expert. Meeting him was a dramatic experience. Here in front of us was undoubtedly the Fynn one had met in the book – tall, handsome and sensitive, with an innocence and honesty that is rare to meet. In a matter of seconds I found that I was on the same wavelength and just sat back and listened to Fynn telling the story of Anna. I sent a brilliant editor to stay with Fynn and his wife in the country to discuss the many editorial problems which arose during the writing (?) of the book. There was so much material to use, cutting was necessary so that Anna’s character should not be hidden under a load of details. Our editor loved his visits to Fynn. They talked far into the night. Our editor himself had worked in the East End some thirty years ago and he knew so well the scenes and atmosphere described by Fynn.
We were determined from the very start that Fynn should remain anonymous. He felt, and we agreed, that if he had to relive the story of Anna over and over again in interviews it would be very upsetting for him.
I have been asked, “Is the book genuine?” My reply is that I won’t claim every word is verbatim. But the substance, mood and atmosphere are authentic. In all my publishing experience of over fifty years I have never handled such an amazing story.
Chairman, Collins Publishers, London