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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Georges Borchardt

My wife and I did the same thing.
You probably had the same experience. It gets too cumbersome to always have to explain the situation. And your wife meets people who might ask her out for a date. It's just simpler if you're married. I remember we were at a party, maybe at Henry Carlisle's, and there were several people there. Somebody told Anne about this new firm that was starting: Atheneum. But by the time we got home, she'd forgotten the names of the people who were involved, including the name of the person who had told her, who had also asked her for a date, which she had turned down. I said, "This one you probably should have accepted! I want to know who's starting the firm!" [Laughter.]

Did you make any big mistakes when you were starting out that you look back on with regret?
I probably should have started to take on English language writers sooner. But I was sort of nervous about it. There were all these brilliant agents who had gone to Harvard and were members of the Harvard Club, where all the editors would meet. Everybody in publishing had gone to Harvard. Except the people at Scribner's, who had gone to Princeton. [Laughter.] I was a sort of outsider, and I thought I'd remain an outsider, so it took me a while.

How did you come to represent John Gardner?
We had a group of writers who came more or less at the same time that included Stanley Elkin, Bob Coover, John Gardner, and Sol Yurick. For some reason I seem to remember that Sol Yurick came to us through George Steiner. He was a very close friend of Bob Coover's, who had been with Candida Donadio but became disenchanted with her. Bob had met a marvelous editor named Hal Scharlatt who was at Random House at the time. He had a collection of stories called Pricksongs & Descants. He told Hal Scharlatt that he was sick and tired of agents and wanted to do the deal with him directly. Hal said, "You can't do that. If you do the deal with me directly, I'll have to screw you [on the terms of the contract]." Hal told him to come and see me. To humor Hal, he came to see me, having already decided to tell Hal that it would not work. But for some reason he decided to come to us, and he's been our author ever since. He also sent us Tom Boyle. They tend to come to us through each other. I can't remember exactly how John Gardner came to us.

Tell me about your experience with him.
His editor was David Segal, who was good friends with Hal Scharlatt. They both had been editors at McGraw-Hill and I think both of them had been fired from there. The three of us became friends. We were all sort of outsiders. They were interested in writers whom nobody else wanted, and I was interested in the same writers. And since nobody else wanted them, they were also the only writers I could get, particularly since people would probably discourage American authors from coming to us by saying, "Oh, isn't that the French agent?" If you say that in a certain way it becomes very negative. It took us a while to change that image. So John probably came to us through David Segal. I know that David had published one of John's books by the time John sent us two manuscripts, The Wreckage of Agathon and The Sunlight Dialogues. I also remember, quite vividly, that, being an extremely kind person, I gave Anne the shorter book to read, Wreckage of Agathon, and decided to work my way through the long one, Sunlight Dialogues, not realizing that I'd given myself the much better book. [Laughter.] And I loved that book. By then David Segal had been fired by McGraw and gone to NAL [New American Library]. The person who had fired him at McGraw had just been appointed editor in chief at NAL. David called me and said, "I'll be the first editor to be fired twice by the same person." He had probably called many people saying the same thing, and he didn't actually get fired, but I think agents stopped sending him books because they figured he would. Then he moved to Harper, which always seemed to have, at least briefly, a literary sort of editor, although they were mainly doing nonfiction. And he acquired nothing but duds. Not only did he publish John Gardner, but also Cynthia Ozick and Fred Exley and other people who lost Harper money. So he got fired again. Then he got hired by Bob Gottlieb at Knopf. But while he was at Harper I sent him Wreckage of Agathon and Sunlight Dialogues. He said, "I can do the short book but until this author acquires an audience we wouldn't be able to price the long one." So he only bought Wreckage of Agathon. When he left and went to Knopf, I sent him Grendel and Sunlight Dialogues and he said the same thing. I said, "You can't do that. You have to publish Sunlight, too. If you want to, you can publish Grendel first." So he talked Bob Gottlieb into giving us a two-book contract. They published Grendel, which did quite well—it probably sold about twelve thousand copies, which was good, then or now—and then David died, in his early forties, having pretty much drunk himself to death. Hal Scharlatt died at age thirty-eight, walking off a tennis court. Those were big losses, two superb editors with good taste and good noses. You need instincts in this business. It's so unscientific. You can never really explain why you love something. It's like any other form of love: you can't really explain why you're in love with somebody or something. I think of the often-quoted sentence by Montaigne, when he was asked about his friendship for La Boétie. He said, "Because it was he, because it was I." That's about as close to explaining it as you can get.

Did you become friends with Gardner?
We became good friends. I remember he and his first wife taking our daughter and their two kids to the circus when they were in New York. I remember going to Chinatown with them. They'd just been in Greece, and his daughter was being very obnoxious—she isn't anymore, she's very sweet—and trying to get attention by offering her Greek change to a Chinese vendor. I have letters from John saying, "I know I'm one of the major writers of my generation. All these people who don't recognize me will regret it." Of course he was right, and one of the admirable things about writers is that they really know they're writers. I mean, any normal human being would just give up. Why would you do something that nobody wants? But they do, and they have this sort of inner feeling. He was one of a kind. People often ask me, "What kind of relationship do you have with your authors?" Well, each one is different, just as you have a different relationship with each one of your friends. And you're not exactly the same person for each one of them, either.

Do you have any great stories about Coover?
One amusing story about Bob comes to mind. Some years ago he was asked by the New York Times to write an op-ed piece about the Intifada and Valentine's Day. The dates coincided. It was to run on a Monday, which was Valentine's Day. He called me on Friday evening to say that he had just heard from the editor that they'd killed the piece because some higher-up at the Times objected to its ending, which was something like "as the birds do, do." Evidently the juxtaposition of the two dos was just too much for the Times. So they killed it. Bob asked me what I could do. I said, "What can I do? It's Friday night. Valentine's Day is Monday. The most we can probably do is get a story about what the Times did published in a magazine. But that would be months from now."

I sort of tossed and turned all night, and the next morning I went to the office. It was Saturday morning. I remember that it was snowing. I called Jack Miles, who was also one of our authors and whom I'd met when he was the book review editor at the Los Angeles Times. Now he was a freelance writer for them and he knew everybody there. I told him the story and said, "I know the L.A. Times hates the New York Times. This is a very good piece. Do you think they could run it on Monday?" He said he'd make a phone call. I walked home for lunch in the snow. The minute I got home, Jack called and said they wanted me to fax the piece so they could read it. So I went back through the snow to the office. When I got there I realized I'd never used the fax machine, which at the time was fairly new. So I called Anne on the phone and eventually managed to fax the thing. By then I'd gone back and forth through the snow several times and wasn't in a very good mood. I knew nothing would happen anyway. We were having dinner with friends that night, and five minutes before we went off to dinner, the phone rang. It was the L.A. Times. They said, "We'd like to run the piece, but we can only pay three hundred fifty dollars." Well, the New York Times, at the time, paid two hundred fifty dollars, which I was going to make them pay anyway because they'd really accepted the piece. So now Bob would be getting six hundred instead of two-fifty. I said, "Oh, that's okay." [Laughter.] I remember telling the story at dinner that night. When I was finished my friend's husband said, "But how much money do you make out of this?" I said, "Normally we would have gotten twenty-five dollars before expenses, but this way we get sixty dollars before expenses." He looked at me as if I were totally insane. But to me this was one of the highlights of my career.

You also represent T. C. Boyle. Didn't he say somewhere that in his opinion you are the greatest person who has ever lived?
He tends to exaggerate, a little bit, from time to time. But most of the time he's right, of course. [Laughter.] When I first met him, he was the assistant fiction editor at the Iowa Review and Bob Coover was the fiction editor. But Bob had moved to England and Tom was doing most of the work. I think Tom was impressed by the fact that I was actually submitting short stories to the Iowa Review, which was paying something like thirty-five dollars a story. One day he wrote me and said he had a collection of stories. Many of them had been published in literary journals but also magazines like Esquire, maybe Playboy, but not the New Yorker, which at the time wouldn't have touched any of these authors because they were using words that the New Yorker didn't recognize. And we managed to find a publisher for his collection without too much trouble. Maybe three people turned it down. We sold it to Peter Davison at Atlantic Monthly Press. Then he wrote a novel called Water Music, which was also published by Atlantic. But Peter didn't like his second novel, Budding Prospects, so we had to find him a new publisher. We sold it to Amanda Vaill at Viking. Paul Slovak was the publicity director. He and Tom, both towering over everyone else, got into the habit of hiking together and became good friends. And then Paul later became his editor. Tom doesn't really require much editing. His books come in pretty much ready to go. And Tom and I have become close friends over the years. It's been great fun, and we've been able to get him published all over the world. He's a real writer. I often say to people in the office that the kind of writer I like to take on is somebody whose book you can open to any page, read a paragraph, and say, "Here's a writer."

You also represent one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Tracy Kidder. How did you meet him?
Tracy, too, is a superb stylist. And there, too, we've become good friends. He had written a book for which he had an agent. I don't remember who published it or what it was about, but it was a terrible experience and he doesn't want to hear about that book anymore. Then he wrote Soul of a New Machine, which he sold to Atlantic-Little, Brown himself. I don't know how he got my name, but I remember that he came to see me, feeling that he had made a big mistake, that he should have used an agent, that the publisher wasn't going to do anything for the book. This was before it was published. He was very upset. I said to him, "There isn't much I can do at this point. The first thing you should do is call them and ask what the book's advertising budget is." In those days publishers still had individual budgets for each book. Sometimes it was zero, but they still had it. Now they just advertise their two main books and do nothing for the others. But I told him that, and maybe one or two other things, and within two weeks—I think the book had become a main selection of the Book of the Month Club—he sent me a bottle of wine with his thanks. I had really done nothing. I explained to him that he was more grateful to me for having done nothing than most of my authors were when I actually had done something. [Laughter.]

Then he sent me three proposals for his second book. Two were business books and one was a book about building a house. Well, to me, building a house was of no interest whatsoever. In France, if you want a house, you buy some old stone thing and make something out of it. But putting all this wood together? I don't know. To me it was totally uninteresting. And, in addition, the obvious commercial follow-up to Soul of a New Machine was another business book. So he'd asked me to rank them, and I ranked the two business books first and House third. Two weeks later he called me and said, "You know, House is really the book I would like to write." I said, "That's fine. We'll get you a little less money, but we'll definitely get you a contract. Don't worry about it."

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