How We Met: Vikram Seth and Giles Gordon

Giles Gordon (52) grew up in Edinburgh. He was a publisher until he became a literary agent in 1973. Last year, he sold Vikram Seth's novel, A Suitable Boy, for pounds 250,000, the biggest advance ever paid for a first novel in Britain. Seth (42) is a poet, novelist and playwright. His novel in verse, The Golden Gate, received great acclaim when it came out in 1986. He has also published two volumes of poetry. He lives with his parents in New Delhi, where he would rise at 4 o'clock in the morning and write 12,000 words a day to finish A Suitable Boy, published last week by Orion.

GILES GORDON: I got a call from New York. Vikram was coming to London and wanted to meet some agents. It was 1986, just after The Golden Gate was published. He wore a coat - a raincoat, I think, though it was summer - and grey baggy flannels with a white cricket shirt. It was like something out of Forster, a parody of how an Indian thinks an Englishman dresses in summer. He always goes around with all this stuff, like a tortoise. He is a small man, smaller than most authors. But that day he came in looking like a camel. The image I have is of this little man with an enormous rucksack which he never lets go of. He likes being close to his notebooks and his possessions.

Most authors just take the first agent they come across, or look one up in Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. But Vikram decided, being serious in all matters, that he'd do a crash course on agents. And he does take these things enormously seriously. He put together a dossier of agents, one of which was ours. And he wanted to see three different people. We deeply resented that. Grand authors go around one or two agents before deciding. But to see three agents in one agency simultaneously, when you're totally unknown, is a bit of a cheek. I mean . . . the chutzpah of the man.

Vikram sat at one end of a long table and he began to grill us. It was absolutely incredible. He wanted to know our literary tastes, our views on poetry, our views on plays, which novelists we liked. There really was a lot of Eng Lit in it. Then he asked our views on agenting and how we would go about selling his books. The three of us were very self-conscious and rather resentful of doing this in front of each other. Agents never get interviewed by authors.

We were on tenterhooks because we knew he was going to see other agents. A few days later I got a phone call. 'Giles,' he said, 'you didn't tell me you were a member of the Garrick Club. Will you take me to tea there?' (Vikram always orders everyone around.) It was only much later, when I asked him why, that he told me I was the only agent who seemed as interested in his poetry as anything else. Apparently some of the other agents said they wouldn't do the poetry.

He grilled me in much greater detail over tea. I was very self-conscious about it all because it was like a parody of England in the Edwardian era. He wanted cucumber sandwiches and all that. But at the end of it, he said, 'Right, I think we could get on.' I said, 'Terrific.'

Then he went back to India. I'd see him occasionally, and I sold two small collections of poems. I thought he was contemplating his navel. Occasionally he mentioned a novel, but he never really said anything about it. Writers don't, you know. Then one day in the summer of 1991, 5,000 pages of typescript arrived. That was the novel. We sold it by auction a year later.

We'd drawn up a list of nine publishers. He insisted on seeing all nine of them. I suppose he did what he'd done when he was looking for an agent - he talked to them all for hours about how they would publish the book, what they thought, what other books they had on their lists. Usually publishers can't stand that sort of grilling. They just want to get on with publishing books. He saw two a day, over a period of five days. Normally he would see four or five people in each house. Penguin captured him for dinner, which they thought would help. It didn't.

At the end of the day, he would go back to the flat where he was staying, and he would write down detailed accounts of these meetings after having already taken extensive notes. And he would phone me up at home every night, at about 10 o'clock, and go through them at enormous length, saying things like, 'When Peter Carson at Penguin said that they would use a wrap-around dust jacket what exactly did he mean by that?' The conversations would go on for hours.

On the first day of the auction, he was very depressed. I just didn't want him around. He got very panicky. He kept coming into the office, and being as small as he is, nobody would notice. He would just rush up the stairs, and suddenly he'd be standing in my room. 'Vikram,' I'd say. 'Good Lord, what are you doing here?' I just had to tell him to go away until it was all over. And when it was, I said, 'Vikram, I sold your book.' He said, 'You've sold it? You can't sell it. Not without my approval.' I said, 'Yes, I've sold it. For a quarter of a million pounds.' And he just about collapsed.

He's thrilled to bits with what's happened. It's not just the starstruck author. He's really gratified on a very fundamental level. And he deserves it. The first edition of A Suitable Boy is sold out. And I've just sold another collection of his poems.

VIKRAM SETH: I had written The Golden Gate. It was only with the greatest of good luck that I had managed to find a publisher for it, and I thought I should start looking for an agent. In fact several agents had called me. My trouble was that I knew my next book would be unpredictable; it might be fiction, it might not. So I set out to interview several agents.

The day we met, Giles was wearing an exceptionally stupid white suit, as if he was a sort of Miami gangster. Strange, because that's not Giles at all. He's Scots and very dour. I remember that he looked profoundly uncomfortable and rather irritated by this whole process. In fact he was obviously irritated because he didn't say very much. I didn't realise what a terribly gauche thing I was doing. To me it didn't appear like that at all. I just thought I needed to find someone I had a rapport with.

They started asking me about which authors I liked and I mentioned R K Narayan. Giles's face absolutely lit up. While I had been questioning him about the agency and commissions and so forth, he had been uninterested and offhand.

He was like the dormouse asleep at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party who suddenly woke up. Then he went back to sleep. But I liked him enormously. I didn't necessarily expect to like him so much. I just thought it would be a good, businesslike, amused sort of relationship on either side.

The second thing happened as I was being ushered out. We'd had tea and I wanted to look at the geography of the place because I find that affects me. Giles started waxing rhapsodic about the fig tree in the garden. It's a huge mammoth fig tree. I don't think it bears any fruit which, I suppose, is a metaphor for most of the authors in the agency's stable. And Giles was saying what a useless thing it was, yet how he wouldn't let anyone cut a branch of it. I had a sense that he would negotiate well for me.

Both Knopf and Faber & Faber, my poetry publishers, made offers on the first draft they saw. Faber offered pounds 40,000. And Giles, I think out of concern for me and a realistic sense of what the market might bear in bad times, Giles said, perhaps you should accept this. And I told him, no. I can't accept something like this for a book that took me so long to write. It certainly won't help me write my next book if it is as unfashionable as a 300- page book in verse or a 1,400-page book in prose. So I'm willing to take the risk of it being a lower figure I eventually get, as long as there is also the possibility of a higher figure.

About a year later, the book was ready to be sent out again. I thought I would be lucky if I got three times what we'd been offered. In fact, if Faber had offered pounds 80,000 that first time I would have accepted.

The auction was quite slow to start. But the second day it really hotted up. Giles was being quite offhand with me. He was quite willing to say, 'Now go away Vikram. You're getting in my way.' But he would be quite encouraging at the same time. I think it was all to the good. I was getting very palpitative, if there is such a word, and my commonsense was deserting me.

I went to sit under the fig tree. It was summer, and I liked sitting out there. From pounds 60,000 it went to pounds 100,000. Chatto dropped out at pounds 75,000. But there were four left - Little Brown, Heinemann, Penguin. And Orion. Then suddenly it was pounds 150,000. I was looking up at the sky through the branches of the fig tree while my life was changing half-hour by half-hour. It was incredible. I'd lived on pounds 4,000-5,000 a year for so many years. You know I'm an economist by training, but a poet by profession. I was wearing just what I'm wearing now. And I had my old pink rucksack.

Then the bidding went up again. pounds 155,000 from Picador. What to do? I wanted to sleep on it. So I put my backpack on and I said to myself, should I take a cab? Can I afford a cab? I realised that of course I could afford a cab. But it all seemed too unrealistic. So I took out my bus pass, and caught the bus. The next day, Giles called and said, 'Vikram, I've got some rather good news for you. I've got this offer and I think you'll be raaaather pleased.' Very Giles.-

(Photograph omitted)

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