Saturday, February 16, 2008

This agent is more cool than James Bond

His motto is: Rob the publisher and enrich the writer. many writers love him. And for the aspiring writers, he is the god of many big things.

He is the one who got the spunky Arundhati Roy's first book out and created a publishing sensation.

He is David Godwin, the legendary lit agent, the literay Robin Hood, as this Mint article describes him.

But apparently, he started small. When he got Roy in his stable of writers, he says he just had a table and chair in his office and nothing else. He took the next flight out to India to meet her and sign her up (perhaps, worried, had she seen him in his lacklustre office, she might have changed her mind):

After he was fired by Aitken in 1995, Godwin decided to set up an eponymous agency with his wife, Heather, looking after the business side. A friend who was a shipping agent offered him a desk and a phone at his office. “I was in my early 40s. I had no money. No salary. I had to live off what I had sold,” recalls Godwin.

Then everything changed. Godwin’s friend Patrick French (who would go on to write Liberty or Death) dropped by. “Patrick told me that Pankaj Mishra (then working for HarperCollins) had told him about a manuscript he had come across which was ‘the biggest thing since Midnight’s Children’,” says Godwin. It was written by a woman nobody had heard of. Her name was Arundhati Roy.

The manuscript arrived the same day. Later that night, half-way through The God of Small Things, Godwin made a call across the world. He loved the book, he told Roy. He was taking the first flight out to meet her.

A bemused Roy told Godwin to calm down, finish the manuscript and then call her back, if he was still interested.

Two days later, Godwin was flying out to a country he had never before visited—an event that has become so much a part of the folklore surrounding The God of Small Things that it is sometimes referred to simply as the “dash”.

But Godwin is less romantic about that dash and says with a sense of pragmatism: “I only had a desk in London. I thought it would be better for me to see her in India.”

There are two new things here, at least for me. I had read that Pankaj Mishra himself had called up Godwin. Turns out no, not him, it was through Patrick French that Godwin came to know of Roy's manuscript. Also, what is intriguing is that if the book was so good, and it was as time would prove, why didn't Pankaj buy it for Harper Collins for whom he was working at that time (am I right?).

"It was written by a woman nobody had heard of. Her name was Arundhati Roy." Well, I had heard of her. In fact, I had read one of her pieces, in the then Vir Shanghvi edited mag, SUNDAY. She had written protesting against Shekhar Kapur making a film on the life of India's bandit queen. The lady was always a fighter, and courted controversy right from the beginnning. I hope I am not getting the timeline wrong here.

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