Sit down with the world’s hungriest agent.
Freethinking writer of metaphysical thrillers muses whether to sign with the world’s most powerful literary agent over an intimate dinner at Caravaggio.
Admired and loathed in equal measure, Andrew Wylie is slight, courteous and stunningly ruthless. A man who still wants to change the publishing industry for ever.
“My Dinner with the Jackal” is a delectable literary story. A serving ripe for the times.
Will the innocent writer succumb to the agent’s devilish charms?
‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’ Mahatma Gandhi
‘Smart slice of writing where the characters, modeled on their real selves, are fictitious in nature.’ Rosemary Bronzini
‘Cryptic caricature of modern American manners.’ Nick Lundy
4,000 words / 16 minutes of delectable reading pleasure
If you like, you can read the free copy below at your leisure.
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“MY DINNER WITH THE JACKAL” (FREE STORY)
Naturally, signoro, but do you have a reservation for tonight?
The ASSISTANT MAITRE D’ glances down at the reservation book. I glance over the half–empty, modern Italian restaurant. A deep, narrow room flanked by a long bar. Coved ceiling, textured silk wallpaper, black leather sheafed chairs, serious white linen. Plumes of homemade grissini and small bread baskets of woven silver sit on each table.
I’m dining with Andrew Wylie.
You are with Mister Wylie? Of course, signoro, this way.
The assistant maitre d’ escorts me to a round table in the back corner where ANDREW WYLIE sits alone. He lifts his empty scotch glass and nods it towards me.
I was five minutes early, but the world’s most-feared literary agent was already there, waiting.
I hope this meets with your approval. Only a year old, and already one of my favorites. I could eat here every day.
Love the name.
Caravaggio is the Bruno brothers’ intimate, Upper East Side restaurant. Just off Madison Avenue, among the lonely art galleries and vacant boutiques. A restaurant named after a sixteenth-century Baroque master, whose life was filled with turbulence and murderous excess.
In the center of the room, a portly GOURMAND with a handkerchief in his breast pocket grips his gold-tipped cane. To his side, an elderly STROKE VICTIM has homemade ravioli spooned into his mouth by a UKRAINIAN NURSE.
I used to love San Domenico. So did the President of Italy whenever he was in town. But once it moved, and changed its name to SD26, it lost something.
Seven letters, I think.
The food? It became a little too fussy for my tastes. Trying too hard to be modern.
A BEVERAGE WAITER places a fresh scotch on the table.
Cosa volete bere?
Grey Goose, fresh lime, tonic. Thank you.
Andrew Wylie seems smaller in the flesh. His shoulders hunched tight, his voice calm and soft spoken. The English-tailored, pinstriped suits have given way to a darker, deeper cut. The shirt is a crisp white. The tie smooth.
His face is pallid, his eyes watery blue. The glasses changed through the years as his literary agency grew. From hefty Swifty Lazar cast-offs in the early years, to his current, thin, tortoiseshell frames.
He is bald, save for a receding hairline scraped back against the top of his head.
I assume he’s going for the expensive-defense-attorney look, but in the restaurant’s low light, he comes across as an expensive undertaker.
I raise my glass.
We clink our drinks.
Lo parlo male, ma lo parlo.
Non troppo male.
I go to Italy a lot. Six, seven times a year. I like to keep our Italian operation up-to-date. We’re in all of Europe, and Asia too.
The Wylie Agency had long prided itself on complete representation in all territories for its writers. No parsing subagents, no passing rights. It’s all or nothing.
Even in the early days of his ascent, when he habitually wrote letters to authors explaining why it was in their best interest to take up with him instead of their original agents, Wylie took no prisoners. The London press famously dubbed him the Jackal after he poached Martin Amis from his longtime agent, who also happened to be the wife of his best friend.
I’ve no idea where the name or reputation come from. I mean, I don’t shy away from aggression on behalf of our authors. How can I? The representation of good writers had been less professional than the representation of bad writers.
Everyone seemed to think you were more than aggressive?
Ambitious? Determined? Aspiring? And you’re not? All I did was bring discipline and coherence and a global strategy to a business that had been in the hands of dotty old ladies in shapeless cardigans.
Andrew Wylie built his empire in less than thirty years. He was always the formidably bright and assertive son of Boston aristocracy. The Wylies go back to the American Revolution. On his mother’s side was money and banking. On his father’s, books and publishing. He married the two.
In those early days, the money went from publisher to agent to author. Agents felt they were in business with the publishers. The authors were treated as talented but dysfunctional. I thought about it, and I decided this was corrupt. An agent is hired by the author. An agent is the gardener on the author’s estate.
I sip my vodka. Wylie licks his drink.
The publisher is not your friend. There are people in New York with whom I’ve done business for twenty years, who have no idea what my office is like. It amazes me. I know their offices inside out, I know where they buy their socks, I know who they sleep with.
Wylie leans forward.
And they have no idea who I am or where I come from.
I laugh softly.
You can always tell the clever ones. They say — Noooo, Andrew. I’ll come to your place. But there aren’t very many of them.
And so, the relationship is one in which I have more information than they do.
It’s admirable to see how one man can change a business by sheer will. His list is spectacular. Martin Amis, William Burroughs, Salman Rushdie, David Mamet, Elmore Leonard, Larry McMurtry, Oliver Sacks, Andre Malraux, Allen Ginsberg, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, John Cheever, Robert Lowell, Norman Mailer.
Still, a remarkable number of agents prefer to do the publisher’s bidding.
A SLIM WAITER sets down two menus side-by-side.
I’ll admit, in building the agency, I was forced to be more aggressive than I think is pleasant, or even interesting. It’s sort of dull, childish, obnoxious, tedious, and annoying, but here I am.
Here you are.
Nowadays, I think of myself as aggressively charming. Sweet, gentle, diplomatic. I’m generous to a fault.
I’m more of a pussycat. Ask Salman.
Someone once said Andrew Wylie had a smile like the handle on a coffin. I can see why.
Do you know Salman?
I only met him a few times.
I wonder if I should tell Wylie that, on each occasion, Salman was wearing the same, putrid-green velvet jacket with matching bow tie. That his pants were far too tight around his waist, the top button was frayed, and the zipper was not quite zipped all the way.
I wonder if I should tell him that I’ve yet to read any of Salman Rushdie’s work. I’ve tried, of course. Who hasn’t? He’s one of the most well-known and important novelists of our time. But the work is so dense and oddly pointless. It makes you wonder why you should even bother. Marvelous titles though.
I learned a lot about security during the fatwa. I hired some members of former Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino’s security detail. Watch the hands, they said. Whatever distractions an attacker might conjure, he can kill you only with his hands.
Wasn’t Aquino killed by an assassin’s bullet?
Shot in the head after being escorted from a plane by military personnel.
Wylie examines his clean, perfectly manicured hands.
It’s funny. When I started out, I had a picture of how I wanted things to be. I thought, well, it would be nice to operate an agency based entirely on representing just the writers you wanted to read.
If I like the text, then I’ll represent the writer. If I don’t like the text, it’s completely irrelevant whether it would sell for a lot of money. My decisions are based entirely on whether I want to wake up the next day and read more of the writer’s work.
He leans in.
I’m a book person. Of course, I have a Kindle. I used it for an hour and a half and then put it in the closet. I’m not interested in mass culture. When I started out, I saw nine out of ten people head for the door marked money, commerce, trash. I chose the door marked quality, interest, significance.
Is your Kindle still in the closet?
Yes, where it belongs. I suspect the trashier the book, the more likely it will sell as an ebook. You don’t have a desire to save James Patterson in your library. Those who want to keep a book for a long time will buy a physical book.
Those who want to hold on to a memory?
Exactly. Online booksellers, like Amazon, and independent bookstores will be the future of bookselling. The chains will go out of business because their model doesn’t work. They actually cut their own throats with net-to-order and razor-thin margins. It was suicide.
I marvel at the fact that Wylie has yet to even broach his reason for inviting me to dinner.
Discount stores underwrite low prices of new books as loss leaders. It’s not really so much a business model as an advertising ploy. All very good if your Danielle Steele, but the future will be with Amazon and the independents. Amazon has one copy of every book available on a revolving belt. They have a larger investment per copy in their backlist than the chains do. Independent bookstores will come back because they know their neighborhood, they know their readers.
And yet, you still went ahead with Odyssey Editions?
Backlist digital rights were not conveyed to publishers, so it was an opportunity to do something with those rights.
Wylie established Odyssey Editions to market and release ebooks from his clients. “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “The Naked and the Dead” by Norman Mailer, “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie, “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson. “Junky” by William Burroughs.
Random House was appalled.
But what could Random House do? Sue its authors? Sue the widows and children of its authors? Sue me?
Four years earlier, Random House had tried suing an ebook start up that had acquired digital rights to books directly from such lions as Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Parker, and William Styron. The courts rejected its position. Random House filed an appeal, and the court turned it down. A second appeal was rejected too.
I want to ask Wylie whether he thinks his spat with Random House was key to forcing publishers to raise their royalty rates on ebooks, or whether he thinks it was a reaction to the agency pricing model. Or whether it was purely about ego.
I want to ask him whether his authors will start freaking out, now that their agent is becoming their publisher. Whether the conflict of interest is too great. Whether the authors will be the ones paying the price.
I want to know whether he thinks Amazon has such a head start with its digital catalog, sales platform, and brand loyalty, that it will be impossible for anyone else to overtake them.
And was it Amazon who approached him, or did he approach Amazon?
You really should try the vitello tonnato. It’s far better than it’s given credit for.
I might skip the antipasti.
You’re flying out tomorrow, aren’t you?
I nod as I look over the seafood choices on the menu.
Pan-roasted monk fish on the bone, served over roasted zucchini spaghetti with a basil and livornese chutney. Roasted wild striped bass, with yellow corn, sauteed pea shoots, and fresh English peas, finished with a yellow corn sauce. Slow-cooked, whole branzino, flavored with rosemary, thyme, garlic and parsley, and served with broccoli purée, grapefruit sauce, and upland cress. Roasted Maine sea scallops and Maya shrimps, served with fresh heirloom tomato sauce.
I smile up at the waiter.
E ‘possibile che lo chef per preparare un piatto molto semplice. Niente di complicato.
Filetto fresco del basso, alla griglia su letto di spinaci saltati. Pepe, sale. No aglio.
The waiter turns to Wylie.
And the same for me.
Naturalmente. Alcuni Contorni, forse. Un po ‘di vino?
Vodka’s fine, thank you.
Scotch for me, Alessandro.
The waiter takes the menus away.
Do you know the story of the Brahmin, the tiger, and the jackal?
Wylie shakes his head.
One day a Brahmin was walking along a country road when he came upon a tiger locked in an iron cage beneath a banyan tree.
The tiger looked up at the Brahmin and said, Oh, Brother Brahmin, Brother Brahmin, please let me out. I am so thirsty, and there is no water here. Not a drop.
The Brahmin replied, But brother tiger, if I should let you out, you would pounce on me and eat me up.
Never, brother Brahmin, the tiger promised. Never in the world would I do such an ungrateful thing. Please let me out for just a little minute to get a little, little drink of water.
So the Brahmin unlocked the door, and the tiger sprang on the Brahmin, teeth bared, ready to eat him.
The Brahmin pleaded, But brother tiger, you promised you would not. It is not fair or just that you should eat me after I set you free.
The tiger insisted, It is perfectly right and just, and I shall eat you up. All up.
The tiger leaned forward and licked his teeth. The Brahmin continued to argue until the tiger raised his paw and agreed to ask the first passerby whether it was fair for a tiger to eat a Brahmin.
An old bullock approached but turned to cross the fields before they could ask his opinion. An eagle soared high overhead. They called to it, but the eagle flew on towards the mountains. An alligator slipped down a stream without going anywhere near the Banyan tree.
After while, a little jackal trotted towards them. The Brahmin and tiger ran out to meet him. Oh, brother jackal, dear brother jackal, could you spare us your opinion? Do you think it right or fair that this tiger should eat me, when I set him free from a terrible cage?
The jackal replied, Beg your pardon?
The Brahim raised his voice. I said, do you think it fair that the tiger should eat me, when I am the one who set him free from his cage?
Cage? the jackal asked.
Yes, yes, his cage. We want your opinion. Do you think —
Oh, you want my opinion? The jackal seemed to finally understand. Then I beg you to speak a little more loudly and make the matter quite clear.
Once again the Brahmin asked, Do you think it right for this tiger to eat me after I set him free from his cage?
The little jackal blinked.
What cage? he asked yet again.
Why, the cage he was in. You see —
But I don’t understand, the jackal repeated. You set him free, you say?
Yes, yes, yes! the Brahmin insisted, with some frustration. I was walking along, and I saw the tiger —
There was a cage?
Why, a big, iron cage.
Well, that gives me no idea at all. The jackal made a suggestion. See here, my friends, if you want my opinion, you’d best show me the cage.
So the Brahmin, the tiger, and the little jackal returned to the cage under the Banyan tree.
Brahmin, where were you? the jackal asked.
I stood here by the roadside.
Tiger, where were you?
Why, in the cage, of course, the tiger answered.
The little jackal blinked.
But how were you in the cage? the jackal wanted to know. What position were you in?
The tiger leapt into the cage, annoyed.
I stood here, with my head over my shoulder, like so.
Oh, thank you, thank you, the jackal said gratefully. That is much clearer. But I still don’t understand why you didn’t come out by yourself?
With great impatience, the tiger replied, Can’t you see the door shut me in?
The jackal turned to the Brahmin. Could you show me how the door works? How it shuts?
The Brahmin pushed it closed.
Yes, but I don’t see any lock, the jackal continued. Does it lock on the inside?
As soon as the Brahmin snapped the lock tight, the tiger frowned, and the little jackal smiled. He waved goodbye as he trotted calmly away.
Wylie taps the tips of his fingers together.
Did you know jackals mate for life?
I shake my head. What I don’t tell him is that I do know they pick over the kills made by larger carnivores. I don’t tell him I know they’re considered opportunistic omnivores.
In France, I’m known as Le Chacal. Which sounds better, don’t you think?
Definitely more charming.
They don’t have a tradition of literary agents in France. I can pick up the phone and tell Antoine Gallimard I think a writer is important. Because we’ve known each other for years, he’ll pay attention.
Wylie pulls lightly at his shirt cuff.
We also look at getting a writer’s rights renewed, often redesigned. We’re quite a bit more diligent than our competitors at that side of the business. Their focus is more national. Our bet is, if you’re going to represent quality, you must do it internationally, and it must be a long-term bet.
When did you sign Sarkozy?
Before he was president.
French presidents need global representation?
Especially French presidents. You never really know where a writer’s work will succeed first. Look at the Philip Roth we all love and admire today. With his last book, he succeeded first in France, second in Germany, third in England, fourth in the States, fifth in Italy, and sixth in Spain. Now, most agencies would only be able to tell you it’s been working nicely in the States.
Wylie shakes his head.
But when you see the French go crazy for a book, critically and popularly, and next the Germans do it, then the Brits, then the Italians — well, this makes a very big difference. It changes the way you relate to all markets. It changes your passion.
It’s all a question of passion. When you represent someone’s work, if you’re sincerely passionate about it, that comes across. No one can resist passion.
Like Jay Mandel at William Morris?
Jay might be good for you. Or Binky at ICM.
Can’t I call her Amanda?
Not unless you’re going to marry her.
What about Nicole Aragi?
I think you deserve better. Perhaps Philippa Brophy at Sterling Lord Literistic.
You’re kidding me?
Well, she must be good. She landed a book deal at Simon & Schuster for former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
From Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey to Gordon Brown.
It’s sad, isn’t it?
Justin Bieber has his memoir coming out with HarperCollins.
Lindsay Lohan works on her memoir in jail.
And Kevin Morrissey kills himself. Leaves his apartment shortly after eleven in the morning, walks down Water Street, calls the police to report a shooting at the coal tower, and then shoots himself in the head.
At the next table, the beverage waiter softly pours wine from a glass decanter.
The high-risk game is the commercial end of publishing. It’s high-risk for everybody because, when it doesn’t work, there’s a tremendous loss. There’s a loss of face, a loss of money.
The beverage waiter silently sets the decanter on a table.
We’re the soft and gentle side of the business. What we sell is going to earn out sooner or later. Quality always pays.
Wylie’s enthusiasm is breathtaking.
I still know seventeen pages of “Finnegan’s Wake” by heart.
Written in Paris over a period of seventeen years, and published in nineteen-thirty-nine, two years before the author’s death, “Finnegan’s Wake” was James Joyce’s final work.
Wylie’s ability to recite great swathes of Joyce’s masterwork was why Norman Mailer signed with him.
William Burroughs signed with him after he secured a seven-book deal with Viking Press. The money allowed Burroughs to purchase a small home in Lawrence, Kansas. More importantly, it allowed him to buy some peace of mind.
Burroughs the outsider became the insider when he finally agreed to induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Burroughs died from a heart attack and was buried in St. Louis, Missouri — a thousand miles from the ashes of his only son.
Mailer considered Burroughs the only American novelist possessed by genius.
Has Macmillan released anything of yours?
Then you wouldn’t have seen the letter they sent to their authors. It asked them to sign over all electronic rights to backlist titles.
Wylie wags his finger in the air.
The letter went out to authors, and not the agents or agencies.
The publisher is not your friend.
Would you like to see some numbers?
Wylie pulls out a small, black, leather folio from the pocket inside his jacket, clicks a thin sterling-silver pen, and jots down a number on a personalized card. He slips out the card and slides it over to me.
Is that a one?
That’s a seven.
That’s what I can get without pushing too hard.
He writes a second number on the card.
That’s what I’d like to go for.
It’s a number far higher than any other agent has discussed.
People who write well deserve to be well paid. So, our first goal is to get as close to the second number as possible. As for representing your new and future work, I’m sure we’ll be able to perform as aggressively as any other agency, both here and internationally.
The master of understatement. Everyone knows that Wylie, unlike any other agency, can increase foreign revenue by three-hundred to five-hundred percent.
The waiter places our meals in front of us. Fresh fillet of bass, grilled on a bed of sautéed spinach. Pepper, salt, no garlic.
I wonder if Wylie expects an answer tonight. I wonder how to tell him I’d like to sleep on it.
I take a sip of my vodka.
Wylie’s glass of scotch is half-full.
I can have the papers ready tomorrow, if you like.
I’ll call your office on the way to the airport.
Wylie smiles that smile.
His office sits high above Central Park.
You can see the future from there.
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