Tom Maschler – publisher par ex­cel­lence

Tom Maschler’s hand once seemed to be be­hind ev­ery great lit­er­ary dis­cov­ery and in­ven­tion – in­clud­ing the Booker Prize. As he turns 85, he talks to John Walsh

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - John Walsh

He in­tro­duced UK read­ers to Catch-22, Port­noy’s Com­plaint, One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude and Mid­night’s Chil­dren. He launched the ca­reers of John Fowles, Edna O’brien, Bruce Chatwin, Anita Brookner, Martin Amis, Ju­lian Barnes and Ian Mcewan. He in­vented the Booker Prize. He in­tro­duced Roald Dahl to Quentin Blake; and Jef­frey Archer to a lu­cra­tive ca­reer out­side pol­i­tics.

In the late-20th-cen­tury lit­er­ary world, Tom Maschler was the most fa­mous, dash­ing, charis­matic and suc­cess­ful publisher in Europe.

He was chair­man of Jonathan Cape from 1960 un­til the com­pany was bought by the Ran­dom House con­glom­er­ate in 1988. To meet him at one of Cape’s leg­endary Christ­mas par­ties was to en­counter a whirl­wind of en­thu­si­asm, gos­sip and ge­nial in­sult. Be­cause of his year-round tan and dark, pierc­ing eyes, he in­spired pi­rat­i­cal metaphors: he was called a buc­ca­neer, a swash­buck­ler and a swarthy ad­ven­turer who wooed the finest writ­ers on both sides of the At­lantic into join­ing his edg­ily glam­orous crew.

Just shy of his 85th birth­day on 16th Au­gust, he’s not greatly changed. He’s deaf in one ear, walks with a Zim­mer frame, and re­lies on his moth­erly carer, Zlatka, to bring his cock­tail-hour pastis and Span­ish Niños cigars. She ac­com­pa­nies him on visits to his three homes, in Provence, in Mexico and the Welsh cot­tage where Bruce Chatwin wrote On the Black Hill.

His eyes, though, have the same ea­ger gleam and his rich, pa­tri­cian voice, un­muted by age, is punc­tu­ated by a high-pitched gig­gle. He’s much amused, in hind­sight, by the thought of how un-busi­ness-like he was at Cape.

‘I rarely at­tended board meet­ings, I never sat on com­mit­tees and I wasn’t good at read­ing bal­ance sheets,’ he says. ‘I ad­mit it wasn’t typ­i­cal chair­man be­hav­iour.’

He tended to leave de­ci­sions about fi­nance to Gra­ham C Greene, Cape’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor (and nephew of his nov­el­ist name­sake).

‘I wasn’t re­ally buy­ing books with a view to mak­ing money,’ says Maschler. ‘I knew I was lucky. I was lucky to pub­lish John Fowles be­cause some­one sent me a man­u­script one day. And what’s the point of dis­cussing bal­ance sheets about The French Lieu­tenant’s Woman – some­thing so well-writ­ten and end­lessly en­ter­tain­ing? It’s just non­sense.’

He re­calls one re­mark­able board­room meet­ing. Maschler had taken on Jef­frey Archer’s first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, in 1976 – a rare flight into thriller-land for a house that had pub­lished T E Lawrence and Ernest Hem­ing­way – and seen it and a sec­ond novel be­come best­sellers. For his third, Kane and Abel, Archer told Maschler through his agent that he’d need a huge ad­vance. So Maschler asked four of his di­rec­tors to read the book and de­cide col­lec­tively what to of­fer. They set­tled on £50,000. Maschler of­fered it to the agent, Deb­o­rah Owen, by phone.

Af­ter a long de­lay, the re­ply came: ‘Jef­frey wants to know whether you re­ally ad­mire the book.’

The re­ply was blunt: ‘I said, “Of course not, Deb­o­rah. How could I ad­mire it? It’s crap. But we’re still of­fer­ing £50,000.” ’ The ne­go­ti­a­tion came to an abrupt end. The book made a for­tune for an­other publisher.

Maschler had a rep­u­ta­tion for rude­ness to staff, agents, ri­vals and oc­ca­sion­ally au­thors. Was it well­founded?

‘Well, it’s true that I re­duced end­less sec­re­taries to tears be­cause they were stupid.’ For in­stance? ‘Oh – putting a cru­cial let­ter into the wrong en­ve­lope and send­ing it to the wrong per­son, that kind of thing. But peo­ple didn’t like the fact that I was suc­cess­ful. They called me “bump­tious”. When we sold the com­pany for a great deal of money, peo­ple dis­ap­proved of that too.’ Was he too di­rect with au­thors? ‘I can’t pre­tend. I just say what I feel. Edna O’brien once wrote a novel about an East Euro­pean coun­try pop­u­lated by lit­tle peo­ple nine inches high. I rang her to talk about it – and, to this day, she says I was crass and rough with her. She left us and went to an­other publisher. And, I might add, no one ever pub­lished that book.’

He tells many sto­ries about books he com­mis­sioned af­ter an over­heard re­mark or a chance en­counter. One con­cerns his meet­ing with Des­mond Mor­ris.

‘I was liv­ing near Re­gent’s Park, and Des­mond was cu­ra­tor of mam­mals at Lon­don Zoo – not the most promis­ing au­thor. But at a party I heard him talk­ing with great en­ergy about eth­nol­ogy, the study of hu­man be­hav­iour from a bi­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive. He sud­denly used the phrase “the naked ape”. It struck me as a mar­vel­lous ti­tle. I said, “If you turn this into a book, it’ll be so suc­cess­ful you’ll never again be taken se­ri­ously by sci­en­tists, but you’ll be very rich.” ’

It took three years but The Naked Ape was pub­lished to global ac­claim and made Mor­ris wealthy enough to live in Malta with a Rolls-royce, a grand villa and a full-size bil­liard ta­ble.

An­other way­ward suc­cess was Mas­quer­ade, a col­lec­tion of mys­te­ri­ous paint­ings, whose im­ages and words held clues to the where­abouts of a hid­den golden hare and sent thou­sands of read­ers on a na­tional trea­sure hunt through fields and gar­dens across the UK. The book sold a mil­lion copies. It be­gan when Maschler saw a pic­ture by the artist Kit Wil­liams in the win­dow of the Por­tal Gallery in May­fair, and asked the own­ers to in­tro­duce them.

The son of Aus­trian Jewish par­ents, Maschler was born in Ber­lin in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. The fam­ily fled the city when Kristall­nacht cov­ered the streets with smashed glass from Jewish shops. They ar­rived in Vi­enna but, soon af­ter, so did the Nazis. The Maschlers es­caped a sec­ond time, tried for Amer­ica but wound up in the English coun­try­side.

Tom was schooled by Quak­ers but vis­ited the New World at 17. He hitch­hiked across Amer­ica with $13 in his pocket, and then wrote about the ex­pe­ri­ence in the New York Times. Early in his ca­reer, he es­tab­lished strong con­nec­tions with Amer­i­can agents, and brought the ma­jor league of US nov­el­ists to the eyes of British read­ers: Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Pyn­chon, Kurt Von­negut and Wil­liam Sty­ron. He signed up Latin Amer­i­can nov­el­ists in the 1970s when they were vir­tu­ally un­known.

‘The au­thor I’m proud­est of hav­ing pub­lished is Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez,’ he says, ‘be­cause he was a ge­nius. Do you re­alise that 30 mil­lion Span­ish-speak­ing peo­ple have read One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude? In Eng­land we prob­a­bly sold 100,000 copies.’

His 30-year ca­reer at the top co­in­cided with a wa­ter­shed in British lit­er­ary cul­ture, as the old-fash­ioned lit­er­ary novel evolved into daz­zling new forms and styles: sple­netic Amer­i­can com­edy; high-oc­tane Amisian prose; mag­i­cal re­al­ism. Of what sin­gle turn in his ca­reer is he most proud?

‘It must be the Booker Prize,’ he said. ‘Be­cause it changed the whole scene for fic­tion. When I was young, I vis­ited Paris and heard about the Prix Gon­court – ev­ery­body would read a Gon­court win­ner. That didn’t hap­pen in Eng­land. We had the Som­er­set Maugham Prize which amounted to £250.

‘I mas­ter­minded the whole thing. I said we’ll have a short­list, which no other prize had, and so it be­came a horse race in which the short­listed au­thors ben­e­fit. The Booker’s now 20 times as rich and im­por­tant as the Gon­court.’

Was he pleased when the or­gan­is­ers ex­tended the scope of the prize to in­clude Amer­i­cans?

‘No! When I heard, I thought if Philip Roth is run­ning against Ju­lian Barnes, it’s no con­test, be­cause they have gi­ants over there. It pissed me off ter­ri­bly. If only they’d asked me, I’d have said, “Don’t do it – it’s not right!” ’

And Maschler thumped the an­tique ta­ble be­side him, and made it rat­tle, as he once shook up the book world. There’s still plenty of swash and buckle in the great buc­ca­neer of British pub­lish­ing.

‘I thought if Philip Roth is run­ning against Ju­lian Barnes, it’s no con­test’

Tom Maschler had them all cov­ered: books and au­thors that re­ally do need no in­tro­duc­tion

Tom Maschler at home in Provence

Au­thors in­debted to Tom Maschler: (from left) Ian Mcewan, Edna O’brien, Anita Brookner and Bruce Chatwin

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