The Mag This Week

In this week’s Books page, we’ve got reviews of

There’s also an interview with literary agent David Godwin who has just written a book, Breaking 80. Godwin was in Mumbai for Tata Literature Live! and made some time to chat about his book and more. You can read selected excerpts of the interview here. If you’re interested in reading everything he had to say, read on.

Why this book now?
Well, I started playing golf because I found out I had diabetes, and I entered a competition and I played very badly. Someone said to me, a publisher, “Well, do you think think you can get better? Do you think you can really break 80?” Eighty is a sort of legendary score for an amateur golfer. And I thought, well, yes. I’m always up for challenges. And also, I had a genuine interest in the idea that you can get better. That whole principle of getting better applies to golf, it applies to cooking and it applies to writing. So for me, it was a particularly interesting venture. The other thing is that as an agent, you’re spread very, very widely over many different projects at any one time. So I thought it would be quite interesting to apply myself to one project over a long period of time that was kind of mine in some way. So it had many challenges for me.

Interestingly, in Breaking 80, you don’t present golf as a metaphor for life or anything like that.
I’m a golfer and there are other things alongside it in the book, but I don’t think golf’s a metaphor. I’ve had people say to me, for example, that golf reveals character. It doesn’t. It’s quite untrue. I’ll give you two examples. I play with a very good friend of mine who is the most conservative man imaginable. On a golf course? Reckless. Me in life: reckless. In golf, very conservative, very cautious, I plan it all. Head towards the green, and I’m very very organised.

Golf is almost an adventure sport considering the conditions in which you play which isn’t how we imagine it, given how golf courses are in India.
I played up in Scotland, quite recently, and basically the old tradition is that you’ve got nine holes out and then you turn around and come back. It was pouring with rain. We got to the end and I was completely soaked and we couldn’t play any more so we had to turn around and walk back. It was a bit like you’re walking and someone takes a bucket of water and pours it all over you, again and again. You stand there and you wonder, “What on earth am I doing?” And you’re wearing waterproofs and it makes not a blind bit of difference. So it is an adventure sport.

Did you know golf was going to be this challenging?
No, I didn’t think so. But like this one time, I’d driven for 10 hours, stayed with a friend to play golf and then the next day there was a storm. And I thought, I can’t not play now. So we went out and we were on the golf course for an hour and came back. It was absurd. I have to say, playing in the rain — not a lot of fun. I’m not going to make a case for it. It’s not character-building or anything like that but it was the only opportunity, since I don’t live in Scotland, so you take it.

Those rain and chaos bits are also some of the more funny parts, because you’ve got it all planned and —
Then it all goes haywire.

These are very English stories, aren’t they?
It’s kind of like PG Wodehouse for the next generation. Things go wrong, but that’s what happens in England. More so than anywhere else. It is a very English tale. Like for example, I went for dinner with my old schoolfriends and they know about India but only from about a hundred years ago. I tried to impress them with the writers I represent and they didn’t know any of them, so that fell on stony ground.

Instead you were asked about Twinkly Bottom.
Precisely. And no, I don’t know about Twinkly Bottom. Why on earth would I?

Were you nervous about the actual writing of it?
Yes, I was. I was nervous about whether I could do it, but I knew from watching people write and giving advice to people, that if you can write clearly and plainly and make sure there aren’t too many adjectives and adverbs — that’s generally the best way. Keep the sentences short and sharp.

So I thought that, well I’ll just apply two rules. One is to keep it as simple and plain and truthful as I can. So don’t embellish things, don’t use any metaphors if you can help it. Secondly, keep doing it. Watch people, listen to people’s comments. People felt some bits didn’t work, listen to them, respond to it and make it better. Actually I was a bit worried when I sent it out to people who wanted to know, people I represent. But actually, people have been incredibly nice about it. Maybe they’re just being kind to me, that’s possible. But they have been, in a way that I’ve been really amazed by. Whether it’s Arundhati or Vikram, they’ve been so generous.

I think you know how hard it is to do it (to write descriptive prose). Arundhati’s book is such a dazzling book and it is all in the telling. I think the worst thing is if you, you’ve either got to do it absolutely as perfectly as she does it. If you can’t do it as well, it is catastrophic. It’s like baking a cake and you get it all wrong. In that case, better not to take a risk. My story is in the tale and not  in the telling. So I wanted to be as clean and plain as a piece of glass.

Do you think writing reveals something of the writer?
That’s true. People complain that I send very, very short emails to people. It really is alarmingly short because I write a lot. I think people find it quite disconcerting. “No I wouldn’t do that.” “Good idea.” or “Yes.” In a funny way, I think that is my natural voice. Also I’m very sentimental but I’m not emotional. I think I’d be a better person if I was more emotional and less sentimental. But there you go. So in a funny way, trying to find some way, I wouldn’t think of it myself as revealing my character, but I suppose there must be some connection.

You’ve packed a lot into Breaking 80 — from memories of childhood, to your career, to golf.
Well, I wanted to have some variety in there. That’s the way it turned out to be. I knew it was a quest. I knew it had to have a beginning and an end. But in between, I knew I could do some things. Also, to explain things a bit more so it’s not just for golf people because the same things that drive my passion in agenting was also there in the golf. It’s the same energies. I do get very committed to things. I hope I’m committed I’m as committed to Jeet [Thayil] as I am to golf.

My life is about commitment and seeing things through. Agenting is a very long term business. People think it’s about selling a book. It kind of is but it isn’t really. You’re there at the very, very beginning of a career. And I’m there at the very end. I’m the guy who’s sweeping up the room at the end, when everyone’s gone home after a party. Agents are there right through. Sometimes you come into the frame, sometimes you’re less important, but you’re there.

You once described yourself as a Robin Hood of Indian literature.
Not as much as I was because I’m older and I can get what I want for people without screaming as much as I did. There was a lot of twisting and shouting. Also, when you change from being a publisher to an agent, publishers think you’re going to be on their side because you know how publishing works. So when you turn out to be more passionate on the writers’ side, that can cause some distress. I think I was always ready for a fight in the old days. I find ways things around things now rather than just bashing my head. Jeet’s a very good example. Jeet’s book was turned down by everybody except one. Now in the old days, I’d just be enraged. I’d shout about it. But now I thought, ok well I can’t change their mind so I have to go around it. So we sold the book to Faber, Penguin distributed it very well here and it all worked out fine. So you think, don’t fight battles you can’t win. Just turn back. I’m more inclined to do that now.

Do you find what attracts you to a book has changed?
It’s like a certain kind of voice, of a book. There are different books but they have the same kind of irresistibility about them. When you are very passionate about one book, the price is that you’re less passionate about others and that’s the difficulty. I really find that hard to deal with because I’m also quite truthful. So when people ask, “What do you think of it?”, it’s very hard to fake it. But writers always want their last book to be their best book. And you can never say this is not as good as the other one. That’s a difficult area, to find the balance between truthfulness and passion. Sometimes people are erratic.

In India, you’ve got an almost iconic status. Before your representation, Indian writing didn’t have that kind of exposure. Is there pressure?
No. I just do my job. I certainly wouldn’t want to claim any kind of hierarchy. I think I’ve been very lucky and I do greatly believe in luck. I think luck is very important and that one thing leads to another. All I can do is provide a platform to help; bring my experience, credibility. It means when I’ve got something I like, people are more likely to read it. But it doesn’t mean to say they’re going to like it. For all the history, it comes down to one book, one publisher, one moment. That’s just repeated endlessly. It’s nice to take risks. If I do new things, then the whole project goes on. I just think I’ve been very fortunate.

There’s often an anxiety about the lack of variety in Indian fiction and Indian writing in English.
You think that about English writing here? Come to England. The Booker, how depressing that was. There was Will Self, who’s done something original. And they give the book to Hilary Mantel. I’m sure she’s a good writer, no criticism about that, but it was just the same English Tudor history. And it’s history. As she says herself, it’s not invented. She sticks to the facts. It’s a great skill. But at the end of the Booker dinner, when they said and we’re giving the Booker to Hilary Mantel, it was like “Oh no! Really?” After all the hype about new writers, new publishers, they were very pleased about themselves. Everyone in the room thought the winner was going to be Will Self, including Will Self. I thought it was a terrible anti-climax. I think the books that win, they’ve got to end well and they’ve got to sustain re-reading.
We [David Godwin Associates, Godwin’s literary agency] do very few British novels, actually. Partly because I don’t think that many people have come through in the past 15 years, which is terrible. In comparison look what’s happened here in that time. Whether it’s Arundhati or Aravind or Jeet or Nilanjana, there’s extraordinary work. Britain, what have you got? Hilary Mantel? Another novel from Ian McEwan? It’s exceptionally good, but very few people have broken through. Who’s emerged in the past ten years as a major writer from Britain? It’s a small list. Where are the London novels? I’ve been trying to find a cosmopolitan novel set in London for years. Have I found it? No.

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