A LAYMAN'S GUIDE TO BEING WYLIE
Branded a writer-rustler for prising the likes of Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis from their. agents, Andrew Wylie is a man who knows what he wants. Marianne Macdonald met him
Sunday 13 April 1997
Now this is obviously fairly weird and, with its connotations of severe personality deficiency, not the sort of thing most people would mention to an interviewer. But Wylie let it drop in the first five minutes. I had asked if he spent much time at publishing parties, and he said no, because he didn't socialise. "Not at all?" I asked in surprise, and he replied calmly: "Really not at all. I have zero social life."
Could this be true? Well, yes. Further questioning elicited the information that the married Wylie never went to friends' houses for dinner, never had friends to his place for dinner (or at all), and never accepted invitations. ("When I went to parties people were like: 'Get out!'" he confided.) Fascinating, but why advertise the fact? Perhaps he thought it would show his vulnerable side - or perhaps the truth is he simply has no friends.
It would certainly be fair to say that few people in publishing regard Wylie with great affection. One does not gain friends by ruthlessly stealing the best writers in the world from their previous representation (which is totally non-U: agents are supposed to wait for authors to contact them). Nor, when you are threatening global domination with an agency which boasts the likes of Salman Rushdie, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth on its books, are you likely to inspire anything but fear in lesser hearts.
The trade is obsessed with the way Wylie goes about signing up these luminaries. One story is that he sidles up to famous authors at parties - which as we now know cannot be true - and whispers: "Would you like $1m for your next novel?" When they enthusiastically nod yes, Wylie replies: "Well, I've already got it for you. You just have to agree." His other technique, apparently, is to quote their work at them with word-perfect recall and then comment on it in such a knowledgeable and awestruck fashion that writers are flattered off their feet.
I spoke to various agents and publishers before meeting the 49-year-old Wylie, and was amazed by the explosive and seemingly excessive dislike in which he was held. Wylie had a short-term and destructive approach to agenting, they claimed, and demanded ridiculously high advances for authors. The writers invariably did not earn them out, ie the publishers did not make their money back in sales, so when the author wanted to sell their next book the publishers did not want to know, a process humiliating for them and unsatisfactory for everyone else.
"He's one of the most unpleasant men I've met in my entire life - an absolute card-carrying shit. He's managed to get everybody's back up," said one usually complaisant literary character. "He wooed an author I represent and I was furious," reported another. "They're flattered he's read their works properly. Why doesn't he find his own authors? Why does he have to steal everyone else's? He's like a lizard that sticks its tongue out to get insects... Through his horrible black-rimmed glasses he looks like an albino, or a foetus... He's totally deadpan and sinister-looking... He never smiles... In fact, he's really quite repulsive."
Goodness. So when I went to meet the legendary predator at his London office (his main base is in New York) I was surprised to be confronted by a small, delicate-looking man with a high forehead and infectious giggle. He had a goofy manner and an endearing habit of clutching the sides of his chair with embarrassment. He acted things out, snuffling with amusement at his antics, and was generally extremely good company. It was only after we met that I realised who he had nigglingly reminded me of - Tom Hanks, playing the overgrown schoolboy in Big.
This charm was only one aspect of his character, of course, and goes hand in hand with a sharp intelligence and prodigious attention to detail. Wylie leaves nothing to chance - and this may include the shrewd manipulation of his image throughout our interview. Either way, I can understand why authors want him as their agent. He told me with satisfaction when we met that the agency was just finishing an eight-month operation to input onto computer the entire rights histories of the authors he represents.
He was unrepentant when I asked him about his appalling reputation, however, and reverted from accountancy to kiddish innocence. "When I started doing this [he got going in 1980], I had no clients," he explained sweetly. "So I certainly had to do something about that! So I thought: 'Well, who do I want to represent?' and I went after them. And I think the first reaction was: 'Excuse me, you don't do this.'" (He started giggling and snuffling at this point.) "But I said, 'That's no fair! Everyone I want to represent already has an agent or how would I know about them?'"
But wasn't it equally unfair to snaffle the cream of everyone else's list, I asked, and he exclaimed: "Well - right!" and started giggling again. "I don't know! If I read a book that I love, then the next thing I want to do is ring the author! And what I find is that usually not enough work has been done in making sure things are going as well as they possibly could be, and I don't mean that condescendingly, I mean we probably just look harder, we probably work harder and put in more hours. In the New York office, for instance, the average working day is 12 hours for the eight people we have, and many days are 14 hours.
"About 10 days ago I was talking to an agent in our New York office, and I said [he puts on a reproving voice]: 'Je-eff, you were going to deal with that little pile of paper over there a couple of weeks ago, and I see it's still there! And I wonder if we couldn't deal with that pre-tty soon?' And he said, 'You're right, and I will.' And I said, 'How come you didn't get to deal with it last weekend?' And he said: 'I was in last weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and I was in the weekend before Saturday and Sunday, and Andrew, God didn't make eight days.' And I said: 'Yeah, but last night you left at eight' - which in New York is shorthand for getting home early - and he said: 'Yeah... I had a date.'"
He was about to carry on with this story (which, of course, reflected rather well on his agency) when I demanded: "What, you mean the poor guy isn't allowed a love life?" Wylie looked a bit surprised. "Well - you know! I mean, Christ Almighty, he's a young man, he's got enough vim and vigour to have a love life between 11pm and 1am!"
And this was one of your employees? "Colleague, colleague!" And are your colleagues frightened of you? "No, no, it's very cooperative, we have a very good time, it's a lot of fun!"
I SUPPOSE work is Wylie's idea of fun, and it certainly does seem true that literature is: he adores, really worships, his authors. I read his client list (which stretches to well over 200 names) to one agent and he kept gasping until I finally asked what the matter was. "Well, Christ," he said, "I had no idea he had such an amazing list. I mean, Benazir Bhutto, the estate of Italo Calvino, Norman Mailer, Annie Leibovitz, Elmore Leonard, David Mamet, Edna O'Brien, the Borges estate... I mean, my God!"
The question remains how he got them, particularly after the hoo-ha over Martin Amis. Amis, if you remember, decided he wanted to get pounds 500,000 for his novel of two years ago, The Information, and asked his agent, Pat Kavanagh (who was married to his then best friend Julian Barnes) to get it for him. This she was reluctantly and successfully doing when the news broke that Kavanagh was out and Wylie was in. That was what made Wylie famous. That, and the revelation that after he got him pounds 480,000, Amis spent a large chunk of it on fixing his teeth.
Anyway, it turns out that what Wylie basically does is ring up the authors he wants (and he only deals in proper, literary novelists) and asks them to have a drink with him. "Occasionally, I have made the call," he admitted bashfully, "and the person knows why you are calling, and they will say, 'Thanks a lot, but I don't want to have the conversation.' Then I'll say: 'Damn!'" - he started giggling and put on a cross face - "Huh! Damn!"
And does he stop trying? "Well, I say: 'Okay, that ends it.' Or: 'Okay, that doesn't end it.'" He peeked at me. "I might say: 'Okay you locked the front door, but you left the kitchen door open.'"
And how do you get to the kitchen door? "Walk around the house and kick!... I called Martin [Amis] a few times over a number of years. I even hired relatives of Martin's in an attempt to create engaging diversionary tactics." Who was that? "Oh, there was someone working in my office who was some sort of cousin of Martin's." And that was why they were hired? "Well! That was a consideration! But none of it worked! Christ Almighty! Boy, was I depressed!" It was like pulling teeth to get the story out of him, but basically Wylie read in the papers that Amis wanted half a million pounds for The Information and the pair had yet another drink.
Wylie was extremely elliptical about this whole process - I think he goes in terror of offending Amis - but admits he gave him "the result of a staggering set of calculations" about his backlist, revenue, royalties, fluctuations in sales and comparative publishing figures ("I like to crunch things") and that helped win his idol. It would have also got Wylie almost pounds 50,000 in England alone, not to mention a further 20 per cent of Amis's foreign sales.
Wylie was more open about how he wooed Rushdie in the late Eighties. He explained: "I'd been on vacation to Jamaica and I was reading Shame and having a pretty good time. Then I got to the scene in which the history of the family is woven into the tapestry and I dreamt about it that night. The next morning I woke up and thought: 'Right. Okay. Now this is someone I want to represent.'
"So then I called him and he said, you know, 'Thanks very much but I am well represented and happy, you know, blah blah blah.' I was like: oh! [he puts on a devastated, but also determined expression]. "So I said: 'Okay, but I really am pretty keen on your book!' - he started giggling - 'so could we possibly have a drink if I was in London?' He said yes, so I called my wife and said: 'I'm going to London.' I called him from Heathrow and said: 'It's about that drink, can we have that drink?' And at the end of the drink he said, 'Well, thank you very much but as I said before I'm happily represented.'"
To cut a long story short, at this point Wylie decided it would impress Rushdie if he signed up Benazir Bhutto, then soon to be prime minister of Pakistan, so he flew off to Karachi and did that. Then he rang Rushdie again. "I said: 'Listen, I'm in Karachi,' and he said: 'Where?' and I said: 'Karachi. And I'm flying back to London, and I wondered if we could have another drink.' And he said: 'What are you doing in Karachi?' I said: 'Representing Benazir Bhutto, of course.' So I rerouted all my flights and went back to London and called him from Heathrow again... You have to be very determined."
Did he recite Shame to Rushdie? "No, that is just a tiny bit apocryphal." And what about his $1m line? "I've heard that and, in my defence, I would say I'm not that stupid... I would be grateful if I were given more credit than that!"
And what about the claim that he destroyed his authors by asking for too big advances? "I've heard that and I think it's erroneous. I think in many cases, if not most cases, the size of the advance determines the level of printing and marketing of a book... I have not had the sad experience of having it be a problem."
Did Wylie think he made a lot of money? "No. If you want to make money you should be an investment banker or work in TV or something like that. There are about 10 jobs you should have if you want to make money. Publishing is not one of them."
But he must make money! "I make enough not to represent stuff I do not want to represent. That is what I figured out in the first three years, just that one observation. Otherwise you end up doing something you don't want to do. You want to travel from A to B in the most interesting possible way and you end up hitchhiking" - he starts giggling again - "and the person who picks you up beats you for the duration of the trip!"
BEFORE I reveal how to get your own novel accepted by Wylie, I want to return to the Jackal's lack of social life, which I think must be rather hard on his family - his second wife, Camilla, is 45, and they have two daughters, Alexandra, three, and Erica, 11. (His son, Nicholas, by his first wife, is now 27).
In fact, for lots of reasons, he cannot be easy to live with: he is the kind of person who runs five miles at six every morning and works like a demon through the weekend. He does not drink, because he used to drink "too much", and regards food as fuel.
Did his wife want a social life? "No, she's Italian, so she has 100 sisters, so they come round." Did he mind that? "Um. Well, that depends on who you talk to, me or her." Did she work? "No, she's a professional Italian! No, she... um, she's been taking care of our youngest daughter for the past two years, so she's busy."
Did she, I wondered, like going out to dinner? Ah-ha! Wylie looked gloomy. "She likes to go out to dinner," he confirmed. "And you don't like to take her?" "No, I do, I do, I do, but my approach to dinner is I eat in about 30 seconds" (and here he started snuffling and giggling again) "and then I sit there mentally tapping my foot thinking: 'Now what?' And she hasn't picked up her fork yet!" So it's boring? "No, no, it's not boring, because I adore her and she's hilarious and we have a lot to talk about! I've known her for a very long time and she's great, I absolutely worship her! She's very funny and very bright and we have plenty to talk about!"
I privately observed that he expressed his admiration for her in a rather bad-novelish way, while he talked about Amis and Rushdie like a man passionately in love, but moved on. Who were his favourite writers? Well, he said, the ones on his list. Okay, who were his favourite dead writers? "Thomas Mann. Rimbaud. Ungaretti. Stendhal. Guido Cavalcanti."
Where did his love of literature come from? Its roots, he said, were in his childhood in an isolated country house in Massachusetts which had a beautiful library "which was always cool, even on a hot day". Here, Wylie grew up surrounded by chickens and horses. He rode for miles every day. Did he socialise more at that stage? Wylie gave me a piercing look. "No," he said. "I had one friend, and we would play."
After this "idyllic" childhood Wylie went to Harvard to read 19th-century French literature "which was not particularly fun, but it was okay". What he told me about it reinforced my impression of a man who would go to great lengths to get what he wanted. He says he went to study under the American poet Robert Lowell (whose estate he now represents) and when Lowell told him he didn't teach undergraduates, enrolled in his classes anyway and went on to finish his four-year course in three years.
Then Wylie became fascinated by the artist Andy Warhol, so he inveigled him into giving him an interview. This interview, by Wylie's account, lasted for three years until Warhol finally enquired when it might be published. And Wylie replied: "Isn't it odd you asked that, because I keep submitting this interview to all sorts of magazines and nobody will take it! So the best I can figure is that it's my questions or your answers that are at fault. And as you can tell I'm asking perfectly good questions, so you must be giving me the wrong answers!"
Wylie thought that this story was incredibly funny, but then he went into the kind of loving paean he reserves for his other god, Amisanrushdie. "Andy was so bright - I miss him. God, he was funny. God, he was funny. He was very, very, very funny. God, he was funny - I loved him, absolutely loved him. He was the professor I didn't find at Harvard..."
AND WAS Wylie an agent in lieu of the writer he didn't become? I know Wylie used to write, because last summer the Daily Telegraph's Peter-borough column ran a rather amusing series entitled the Andrew Wylie Poetry Festival, of bits of his long-forgotten early Seventies verse.
The poems were quite short. One went:
Wylie has bravely gone on record as saying he doesn't think his poems are as bad as everyone else does, but he now denies vehemently - and rather rudely, given his clients' chosen profession - that he would want to be a writer himself.
"God! No! Horrors! What a life! The last thing! No! No! What a nightmare!" he cried, clutching the arms of his chair in Woody Allen-esque dismay. "I would rather be a chicken farmer than a writer! And I don't even like chicken!" (He started giggling here in distress.) "To go off into a room with yourself, sitting there, with, you know, with the burden of the body, the size of your ass after a few years, the whole thing - what a nightmare! Look what it does to your pants! Christ! You look like shit! Your eyesight goes, you're fat, you're anxious, you're worn out, you're depressed, you're fighting, you know, vertically with eternity, it's absolutely a losing battle, God forbid! I'd rather do anything, I can't think of a profession I'd like less - but the result! Wow!"
If it's a good result, of course. Although that may not in itself be enough to get you Wylie's representation. I promised to tell you how to get your novel past him, and the secret is the covering letter. Yes, really. Wylie himself reads the "slush" for his agency (the unsolicited novels which come in) and judges each one on the first sentence of the covering letter. If someone writes: "Dear Mr Wylie, have I got a book for you!" then he immediately writes "NO" and discards it. If someone writes an intelligent first sentence then he will open the box and look at the title. And if he doesn't like the title, he will also write "NO". If a book passes these tests (which account for about 80 per cent of refusals) he will read the first sentence of the novel. If he doesn't like that - you guessed it - another big no-no. He gives manuscripts an average nine seconds.
Struggling to get my head around this appalling revelation, I said: "So if someone wrote 'Dear Mr Wylie, would you read the first two chapters of my novel,' would you consider it?" "Oh yeah," he said. "If it's sensible. Then I'd be opening the box." If someone called their novel - I glanced at the gathering dusk outside - Living In Darkness, would he read it?
Wylie was enjoying this. "Living in Darkness. Living in Darkness," he mused. "And the author is not, like, blind? All right, I'll go to page one."
And if the first line was: "All happy families resemble one another...?" "I'd go to the second line." He paused. "Or I'd say we've got a plagiarist here!"
Did Wylie ever sack clients? "Well, I don't think it's very nice to say... but I did sack Marianne Wiggins [a novelist, and Rushdie's wife at the time the fatwa was issued]. She wrote that Salman was unworthy of that event. I can't think of anyone who could have handled it so well. I sacked her. I sacked her five times. I was so furious - God I was furious! I fired her by phone! I fired her by letter! I fired her by Fedex! Then I thought she wouldn't get the message quick enough so I fired her again!"
He is standing up now and giggling furiously. He leaned over and wagged his finger at an imaginary doll-sized Marianne Wiggins. "I was like: 'you're fired, you're fired, you're fired, you're fired, you're fired!'" We're both laugh- ing unstoppably by now. "Boy," he gasps. "Boy, was I angry!"
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