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Sunday, April 6, 2008
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.