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)

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?