What on earth am I doing: David Godwin

Sunday, 4 November 2012 - 12:54pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

David Godwin may have written a book, but as far as he’s concerned he’s still a literary agent first. He tells DNA about his recently-launched memoir and why he’s disappointed by British fiction.

David Godwin lives in London, but he’s a legend in India. In his kitty are some of the most famous Indian authors: Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Aravind Adiga, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Nilanjana Roy, Aman Sethi. “I think I’ve been very lucky,” he said, speaking about his Indian authors.

The almost mythical status that Godwin has in India is evident if you see him at a literary festival. People hover around him, desperately keen to either impress him or reproach him for rejecting their manuscript. When his book was launched in Mumbai recently, an audience member demanded he supply a ball-park figure of the advance he can secure for a first-time author. Godwin first demurred and then replied, “Anywhere between 3,000 and a million pounds.” The audience sighed.

Godwin set up his literary agency, David Godwin Associates (DGA), in 1995. India noticed him soon after, when he took on an author named Arundhati Roy and she won the Booker Prize for her debut novel in 1997. Since then, he’s embodied the pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow for aspiring writers.

This year, Godwin has something in common with his clients: he’s written a book. Breaking 80 is a slim memoir in which Godwin recounts his experiences as an amateur golfer who starts playing competitively. Scattered among Godwin’s golfing travails are vignettes about how he became an agent and his experiences in publishing. (Roy has a cameo.)

Breaking 80 isn’t complex, inventive or particularly literary. It’s a simple, easy read and richly amusing in parts. Godwin comes across as an endearing man who hovers between being perplexed, awkward and drenched. He encounters challenges that are sometimes daunting and often modest. From being asked whether he knows Twinkly Bottom in Calcutta, to copying Tiger Woods’s “bum angle”, having to overcome an aversion to men in pinafores who serve breakfasts at a B&B, and negotiating a golf course during a storm, a lot in Breaking 80 will make you smile. Godwin is often very funny and he manages to make golf seem like a genteel adventure sport.

Here are selected excerpts of an interview with Godwin, in which he spoke about Breaking 80 and much more.

People often make golf out to be something like a metaphor for life.
You know, I’ve had people say to me that golf reveals character. It doesn’t. 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.

You make golf seem like an adventure sport rather than a meditative game.
I played up in Scotland recently, and basically 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. We couldn’t play any more so we had to turn around and walk back. It was like you’re walking and someone takes a bucket of water and pours it all over you, again and again. You’re wearing waterproofs and it makes not a blind bit of difference. You stand there and you wonder, “What on earth am I doing?” So yes, it is an adventure sport.  But the same things that drive my passion in agenting are also there in the golf. My life is about commitment and seeing things through. I hope I’m as committed to Jeet [Thayil] as I am to golf, for instance. You see, agenting is a long term business. People think it’s about selling a book. It isn’t really. You’re there at the very beginning of a career. And you’re 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.

A lot of people complain about the lack of variety in Indian writing in English. How do you react to that?
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 it to Hilary Mantel. I’m sure she’s a good writer, 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 after all the hype about new writers, new publishers, everyone thought the winner was going to be Will Self, including Will Self. I thought it was a terrible anti-climax.

We [DGA] 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, there’s extraordinary work. Britain, what have you got? Hilary Mantel? Another novel from Ian McEwan? Who’s emerged in the past ten years as a major writer from Britain? 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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