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TOM MASCHLER

Tom Maschler: A storied life of luck and literary passions

by Yoko Hani

Regardless of whether you take it with a pinch of salt or think this consummate professional is simply being modest, Tom Maschler says that throughout his celebrated publishing career, “luck” has often played a significant role.

Certainly, as he writes in his 2005 autobiography “Publisher,” luck smiled warmly on Maschler soon after he joined the venerable London publishers Jonathan Cape and was whisked off across the Atlantic to work on Ernest Hemingway’s final manuscript about a month after the author’s suicide in July 1961. That awesome assignment came after the widow of the great American writer invited Maschler, then just 27, to assist her in assembling writings that were to become “A Moveable Feast.”

But of course, nobody could say that mere luck has driven the career of Maschler, who is regarded as one of the most successful literary publishers in Britain from the 1960s to ’80s. Now, at 74, his resume includes having worked with 14 Nobel laureates in literature, among them Giorgos Seferis from Greece, Pablo Neruda from Chile and Nadine Gordimer from South Africa.

In addition, the first book Maschler bought in for Cape was Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” which not only changed millions of mind-sets but remains the most successful American first novel he has ever published. As well, it was Maschler who introduced Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez — the 1982 Nobel laureate — to English readers, and him, too, who worked with Doris Lessing, the feminist icon who became a lifelong friend and last year won the Nobel Prize.

In fact, if luck has played a part in Maschler’s astonishing success, it is luck he has largely made himself through his professional talents both personal, editorial and in the business of literary publishing.

He has, he says, an instinct — what he calls an “emotional response” — where good books are concerned, and a passion that makes the publishing happen. In practice, this means that after he has found a good book that touches him, he has gone straight to the writer and persuaded him or her to work with him. And in the case of countless books whose titles are now household names, probably because of Maschler’s confidence and enthusiasm, even writers at first reluctant to join forces with him have been won over.

Ever since his autobiography was translated into Japanese and published by Shobunsha in 2006, Maschler says he has been looking forward to making his first trip here. That opportunity finally arose when he came in late March at the invitation of the Japanese Literature Publishing and Promotion Center, a nonprofit organization that is promoting Japanese literature for overseas publication. While here, he attended two Tokyo symposiums where many editors, book-industry people and literature lovers gathered to hear this legendary publisher’s wisdom (and wit) first hand.

Although many participants were eager to hear his secrets of success in publishing and discovering authors, Maschler simply told them in one symposium that there is no “secret.” Instead, he said he had just been fascinated by the books and had been enjoying himself. “It was easy,” was his answer. Then he spoke amusingly and nonchalantly about his work with authors, expressing his belief that “the most important aspect of publishing is the relationship with authors and the editing of their books,” as he wrote in his book.

Maschler was frank in admitting that he has not read many Japanese books. However, among those whose works he knows are Yukio Mishima and the 1994 Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe. He said he also very much liked “Sasameyuki (The Makioka Sisters)” by Junichiro Tanizaki, saying “it is a classic, but modern in a classical way.”

Born in Berlin in 1933, he moved to London with his family in 1938. He traveled around Europe during school breaks, sometimes funded by prizes he won in school competitions. But once, when he was 16 and short of money to cover a planned trip to Israel, he wrote to David Ben-Gurion, then Israel’s prime minister, asking if he could help him to find a job washing dishes on a boat to Haifa. Remarkably, Ben-Gurion replied, saying that he had passed the letter on to the Ministry of Transport and Communications. “From then on, it was plain sailing,” Maschler recounts in his autobiography.

In his book he also tells of how, at age 17, he hitched around the United States and later moved to Rome before joining the London publisher MacGibbon & Kee, and — after a stint at Penguin — then moving to Jonathan Cape in 1960, where his authors included Martin Amis, Bruce Chatwin, Roald Dahl, Ian McEwan and John Lennon among many others. In the late ’60s, too, Maschler was one of the key figures responsible for founding the Booker Prize, Britain’s leading literary award.

These days, Maschler splits his time between London and a home in a village in the South of France — and is also passionate about a project he founded to send a mobile library — a bus loaded with 7,000 children’s books — to Zambia.

During his interview with The Japan Times at the International House of Japan, Maschler talked about his belief in publishing, about the story behind the “Angry Young Men” movement in London in the 1960s, and about some of the twists and turns in his storied career.

Throughout, he expressed his ideas succinctly in words that bore a power exuding his confidence and authority — while not forgetting his bubbling sense of humor. At the end of the interview, though, he showed a bit of his professional face while selecting some of his old pictures to accompany this article. When he said, “No, this is not interesting,” the issue was clearly and indisputably settled.


Are you here because you have in mind some Japanese authors you would like to publish in the future?

[He smiles and points to Mari Kawasaki from the Japanese Literature Publishing and Promotion Center sitting next to him.]

No. Really it was these people (who brought me here). And the book. They wanted to publish my book — they translated my book — and then they invited me. I have always wanted to come to Japan, where I have never been before as it seemed like a big journey. So I thought this would be a great opportunity.

Of course, what happens in life is that when you go somewhere you begin to get interested, you meet people, they tell you about books and you finish up publishing. But my motive, my reason for coming, has nothing to do with that at all. It is purely to do with an apparent interest here in what I have written. Out of it will come other things, but I don’t know what they are.

So you have no idea what you may find here?

That’s right. Have you read the book? ["Publisher"] You see, there I was once in Havana in Cuba and people were talking about Gabriel Garcia Marquez and . . . I finished up publishing him. You see, it’s the same thing. [In his book, he explains that he was invited by a Cuban cultural body to visit the country after its 1959 revolution. Nobody told him the purpose of the invitation, but once there, he found himself on the panel of judges to select the best Spanish-language novel of the year.]

After I heard about Marquez I got in touch with his agent and I worked with them on the contract to publish him. Then they gave me his phone number, which is hard to get. I rang him, and said, “Are you going to be in Europe at any point? When are you coming over?” He told me he was coming in nine months or whenever, and then I met him.

I believe that you didn’t read Spanish at the time.

No. I got somebody to read the book that they were talking about, which was “No One Writes to the Colonel.” Then I gave it to somebody I know who does read Spanish perfectly, and I asked him to do me a report, and I was convinced by the report and I wanted to publish the man.

You say that luck often plays a role in publishing. Was that the case here?

Yes, particularly. Luck did play its part in the case of Marquez. Pure luck. In the case of John Lennon, which I talked about yesterday (in the symposium), that was pure luck, because I wasn’t looking for that. [In his book, Maschler tells how he commissioned a book on pop music from an author who one day brought to his office a few scraps of writing paper from various hotels covered with handwritten verses and line drawings. Maschler was "instantly amused by the humor and the originality" and asked who drew them. The answer was "John Lennon," and later Maschler published "John Lennon in His Own Write."]

But in the case of Doris Lessing, it was less luck, because I met her, I knew who she was, I read her, I wanted to persuade her to do an essay for me — and then it led to my publishing her. I met her at a party in London. I talked to her and later I met her again and said, “Can I come and see you?”

How much did you foresee the success of these books when you decided to publish them?

In the case of Doris Lessing, here was a book of essays and I didn’t expect it to be very successful.

In the case of Marquez, I think he is the greatest writer I have published ever. I think probably he is the greatest living writer. But I didn’t know that (laughs). That came later.

I just knew I wanted to publish him. I didn’t really realize quite how good he was because the book that I was publishing (at the beginning) was much less interesting than “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Love in the Time of Cholera.” He wrote many many greater books after that.

Some say you were a great promoter of the so-called Angry Young Men in the ’60s in England.

It’s interesting that you should bring up the Angry Young Men. The Angry Young Men has got nothing to do with me at all. It was a phrase that the press and newspaper people used at a particular time when people were angry. And the person who, if you like, was Mr. Angry Young Man is a playwright called John Osborne who [in 1956] wrote a play called “Look Back in Anger,” and it began a revolution in the theater, making it about real people, not about lords and ladies with coffee cups.

I, who was 25 [when the film of the play came out], picked up on these themes and ideas and I had the idea of inviting Osborne, who was very very difficult to get because he was besieged by the press after his great success. I could reach him but he refused at the beginning. Then I persuaded him to write an essay.

I also got Kenneth Tynan. He was by far the greatest drama critic of our time in England, a wonderful wonderful writer. Then there were various other people I met, and I went to Doris Lessing and said, “Will you contribute to my book?” In this book (“Publisher”) there is a letter from her saying: “I didn’t want to do it . . . but he persuaded me.”

This book of essays, titled “Declaration,” became — I didn’t realize it, I mean I was just publishing a book and I didn’t realize that it would happen but it did — a sort of manifesto of the Angry Young Men. And the result was we sold 20,000 copies, which is phenomenal for a book of essays. I thought we would sell 3,000. It became quite a famous book.

I was the promoter of the book totally, but I wasn’t a promoter of the Angry Young Men. I didn’t use the phrase. I don’t like the phrase. I just plugged into it. But it (“Declaration”) had a tremendous effect.

Your books caused a big impact on society. Did you intend to make some kind of revolution through publishing?

The real answer to that is, no, I didn’t intend it. I intended to do what I do — to publish good books as well as I possibly can, and that’s all I am doing, (even) if the result is exciting or a Nobel Prize. I don’t really care about Nobel Prizes. I am pleased if they win but I’ve never thought that I will go for it, or I’m hoping for it. Anything I have done has been really for its own sake, it’s not with a view to anything. I just wanted to publish good books.

So, what is a “good book” to you? What made you decide on a particular book?

I think I can only say that good books are something that move me — move me here in my stomach. Something that touches me and which I hope might touch other people. It would have to be in a conventional sense well written; sentences will have to flow in a good way. If the theme is good, that’s great. But above all, it’s an emotional response. And I am a very emotional person (laughs).

Have you had books that you believed would become a big success but actually did not?

Oh yes. Everybody has. I think I have probably been fortunate and it has not happened to me as much as to some people, but of course I published books that I thought would be successful but they weren’t because literary editors didn’t like them or the public didn’t like them or whatever.

However good you are at what you are doing in publishing, you cannot be right all the time. It’s not possible. I’ve been fortunate and I’ve been right a lot of the time (laughs).

Some people say that publishing is like gambling.

My publishing is not like gambling because I am publishing quality, good books.

In my opinion, gambling is when you don’t just publish a book but you pay a big advance for it. You pay $200,000, because you think it will sell.

I don’t do that. I never pay big money because I think it will sell. That’s not what I am interested in. I paid when I thought it was good, but not big money, just a modest amount. So when you are gambling $200,000, you either get it back or you earn more or you don’t. It’s a different game. It’s not what I am about. I have no reason to gamble, no desire to gamble.

I don’t cater to the mass market. I cater to my taste. That’s it; end of story. That’s what I do. Sometimes that’s successful and sometimes not, but that’s my taste.

What is the most important role of an editor?

I would say it is to judge what he is editing and, most of all, more than judging even, it is to encourage a writer. To guide and encourage is what it’s about — and to give the confidence to fulfill whatever it is the writer is trying to fulfill.

It’s also useful to understand language and to be able to understand the detailed, practical process of writing a sentence, and grammar is of course important. But it’s less important and less interesting than working with the writer. You know, there could be a sentence that uses the word “but” four times and you need to cut three, for example (laughs).

Did you or do you have a mentor?

No, I don’t have a mentor. I think I am probably too much myself to have a mentor. Do you see what I mean?

Do you mean that you believe in yourself?

Yes, I believe in myself. I am not necessarily better than other people, but I know I am different from other people. Correct? (He turned to and asked Kawasaki sitting next him, who nodded saying, “Yes, yes.”)

Actually I think I am better as well (laughs).

Have you done everything you set out to do in your work?

Never all done. I do less now, but it’s always possible to find something. No. It’s never-ending. But of course, it’s slower now.

What is your future plan from now?

At the moment, I am taking a bus to Africa. I bought a bus.

A bus?

It’s a 32-seater bus and I’ve paid for it. I am going to Zambia. I’ve got British publishers to give me 7,000 picture books, to put in 7,000 children’s books. I’ve got Quentin Blake — he illustrated my books — and he decorated the whole bus all the way round. It’s beautiful, beautiful. We are taking the bus to Africa.

The bus left England three weeks ago, going to Zambia. In Zambia, we are going to go to schools, hospitals and orphanages. We are going to stop for three or four or five days at each place to show children the books, perform with them and generally talk with them in order to enrich their lives. It’s a moving library. We have a party to launch it on May 19 in the capital of Zambia (Lusaka).

I thought about that six months ago. The thing is I am not, as you guessed, fully occupied with my publishing because nowadays I do a bit but I am not really a full-time publisher.

I always wanted to do something worthwhile. So I thought this was worthwhile. I’ve been to Zambia to have a look around and visit a few people. I know how well they speak English, and that’s the idea — to bring them children’s books in English.

Your work often has an international dimension. Do you think that has something to do with your experience of travel when you were young?

I don’t know. That is an interesting idea, certainly. I mean, I don’t know whether that is true or not true, but I am not — have you met many English people? — I am not what you might call “English English.” You know I am some kind of mishmash. I have more international interest.

What is your typical day like in France?

I go to the market at 9 o’clock. I do some shopping. It’s a village in the South of France. It’s a very beautiful country. There are activities to do on the telephone, and life continues. But right now there isn’t great activity during the day. That’s why I needed to do things like Zambia. In summer, I swim a lot, but I cannot swim in winter.

Twenty years from now, do you think the place of literature in our lives will have changed?

No. I think it will go on. In my view it will continue to be predominant.

What do you say to those who say so many great imaginative works have already been done by so many great writers that there may be no point in writing novels now?

I don’t agree. I think there is every point.

If you look what is published each year, always there are one or two completely new and different experiences in books. So I see no reason why there is no point.

What would you like to be remembered for?

I can’t go beyond doing things exactly the way I have been doing them in my life. I have no ambition to be remembered for anything beyond my creative effort.