Celebrated literary agent David Godwin describes himself as a “car salesman”. “My job,” he says, “is to take the Mercedes from the garage of the publisher and put it into the garage of the writer.”
British self-deprecation? Godwin is, after all, a man to be taken seriously. His clients include two Booker Prize winners (Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai) and such A-list writers as Vikram Seth and William Dalrymple, not to mention Jim Crace, Simon Armitage and Alan Warner. Surely he doesn’t really see himself as a car salesman. But Godwin is serious. “I’m here to champion writers. I want to be a literary Robin Hood.”
Multitasker: Godwin is translating the works of N.S. Madhavan.
Seated in a cane chair on the lawns of the Diggi Palace hotel, the venue of the DS Constructions Jaipur Literature Festival, Godwin is on one of his two annual visits to India. He is obviously at home at the lit fest and is officially listed as a “festival advisor”, even moderating a session between authors Donna Tartt and Ian McEwan.
Godwin straddles the world of writers and the world of publishers but is dead sure about the side he’s on. A good agent, he says, simply has to be committed to the writer. “Without the writers there is nothing. They are the foundation of the whole project.”
As a former publisher (he worked with Jonathan Cape, among others), Godwin should know what he is talking about. He hated seeing fat cat publishers with their fat cat salaries and their fancy cars. “I thought that just wasn’t right. Writers need money, publishers have money. So why not just move the money around?” he says.
He got his chance soon enough. Jonathan Cape was acquired by a US company which decided it didn’t like Godwin—his style was too anarchic, he was not well organized and, worse, he was on the side of the writers. He was fired.
Godwin decided to switch sides and join literary agent Gillon Aitken. But that job was not destined to last very long either. “I was quite lazy,” concedes Godwin. “I thought the world would come to my door.”
And in a fantastic way, it did. After he was fired by Aitken in 1995, Godwin decided to set up an eponymous agency with his wife, Heather, looking after the business side. A friend who was a shipping agent offered him a desk and a phone at his office. “I was in my early 40s. I had no money. No salary. I had to live off what I had sold,” recalls Godwin.
Then everything changed. Godwin’s friend Patrick French (who would go on to write Liberty or Death) dropped by. “Patrick told me that Pankaj Mishra (then working for HarperCollins) had told him about a manuscript he had come across which was ‘the biggest thing since Midnight’s Children’,” says Godwin. It was written by a woman nobody had heard of. Her name was Arundhati Roy.
The manuscript arrived the same day. Later that night, half-way through The God of Small Things, Godwin made a call across the world. He loved the book, he told Roy. He was taking the first flight out to meet her.
A bemused Roy told Godwin to calm down, finish the manuscript and then call her back, if he was still interested.
Two days later, Godwin was flying out to a country he had never before visited—an event that has become so much a part of the folklore surrounding The God of Small Things that it is sometimes referred to simply as the “dash”.
But Godwin is less romantic about that dash and says with a sense of pragmatism: “I only had a desk in London. I thought it would be better for me to see her in India.”
Roy’s novel would go on to get a reported advance rights sale in excess of a million pounds and a Booker in 1997. In a strange twist of fate, Mishra, who discovered it, left HarperCollins and the book was finally published by a new imprint called India Ink.
What makes Godwin tick enough to get an average of 15 manuscripts—two to three from India—on his desk every week? His credibility, he says. “When I send a publisher something, it will be taken seriously,” says Godwin. Then comes the tricky part: putting a value to a book. There is no formula but once you’ve named a price, you stick with it, he says. “You cannot accept anything less.”
Godwin doesn’t like to talk about money—“keep the money private”—and says the hype about huge advances should “make you feel that the book is important. It shouldn’t get in the way.”
What next for David Godwin? He’s bullish on Indian writers. He says he plans to sell Indian books around the world and is working on a translation of Sahitya Akademi award-winning Malayalam writer N.S. Madhavan. And while he doesn’t say so explicitly, he’s clearly on red alert for new writers. It was at the Jaipur Lit Fest last year that he first met poets Tishani Doshi and Jeet Thayil. Both, he says, are now his clients. He’s also excited about representing Malaysian writer Tash Aw, willing to wager that he’ll go on to win a Nobel Prize.
Not bad going for a man who, after all, only sees himself as a car salesman.
Namita Bhandare is a Mint columnist who writes the fortnightly column Looking Glass. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org