When I came back from Brazil, in 1970, my marriage broke up, and I had to - and wanted to - earn a living. Because I loved books, I'd always had a notion of publishing as something I'd like to do, so I started applying for jobs and answered an advertisement for a reader with the MGM London Story Department. By some miracle, I got the job, and what I had to do was get proofs of new fiction from publishers, write reports on them and send them to Hollywood and New York.
I was there 18 months before somebody in Hollywood realised that this department was actually rather a waste of money and closed it down. But while I was there I had made a lot of good friends in publishing, like the agent Giles Gordon. Giles was working at that time for Victor Gollancz - a publisher I was very interested in because of their tradition of publishing excellent fiction and political books - and he asked me to come and do publicity there.
I met a lot of authors and literary agents doing that, and it was a great introduction to the publishing business. And, about four years later, that job led to an opportunity for me to move from publicity into editorial. Working in such a small office, I had already been involved in editorial decisions and had learned how to edit. And during this time, I published a book by John Irving called The World According to Garp, which I found on a trip to New York. John Irving's editor gave me the proof to read in my hotel, and I was determined to get it for Gollancz. After some persuasion they took it on, and that's been my longest-running author relationship. And it was that acquisition that made Tom Maschler at Cape ring me up and offer me a job to bring in new fiction there. It was too tempting, and I moved there at the end of 1979.
And when I moved, Salman Rushdie brought to me the typescript of Midnight's Children. I'd got to publish his first novel, Grimus, which had come to me because I was his lodger, at Gollancz; it had been a dismal failure for both of us, getting dreadful reviews and being remaindered, ultimately. But I'd felt it showed an extraordinary gift for language, and when he brought me Midnight's Children, I thought it was marvellous and that we couldn't not do it. It took a bit of persuasion at Cape to get them to take it on, but it was a high point of my life when it went on to win the Booker Prize. Cape was a great draw for authors - Anita Brookner and Julian Barnes brought their first novels to me there - and I published Brookner's Hotel Du Lac, which also won the Booker.
But I suppose by the mid-Eighties I had an interest in being part of a company that was starting from scratch. Though Cape was a very congenial place, I always felt it hadn't kept pace with changing times. So in May 1986, when the man who was to be Bloomsbury's chairman, Nigel Newton, told me of his plans to start a new company - and that I would be one of four founding directors - I was intrigued. They'd developed a business plan, and had gone to the City to get investment, and all that remained was for me to get on board.
We started in 1986 with pounds 2.3m and one author, Mary Flanagan, who I'd published at Cape. John Irving, Margaret Atwood and Nadine Gordimer also came from Cape later on, but there wasn't a mass exodus, by any means. Mainly, we've tried to build up new writers - people like Rupert Thomson, Will Self and Anne Michaels - and we've had one or two enormous successes with new writers, like David Guterson's Snow Falling On Cedars, which has sold over half a million copies in paperback.
It's the most interesting, challenging and pleasurable - though sometimes frustrating - thing to work with writers. But starting up a new company is like nothing else: you are going at it 24 hours a day. There's always a new book coming in and a new book being published, and it's hard to escape the feeling that you should be reading those six books piled up waiting for you. But I can't complain: I feel incredibly lucky to have landed a professional life that's so rewardingn
Interview by Scott HughesReuse content