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“I’d sooner go to a discotheque looking for a writer”: Wylie Interview Outtakes

I interviewed literary superagent Andrew Wylie over the course of several hours and two separate sit-downs in his midtown office. We only had space for 2,000 words in the magazine, but Wylie supplied a pretty much endless stream of bon mots. (To quote a tweet from Dwight Garner, the man is “incapable of uttering a boring sentence.”) So here are some notable scraps from the cutting room floor:

On giving his banker friends book recommendations: "They keep asking me what to read. I say, 'Knausgaard.' They say, 'Really? What about Gone Girl?' I say: 'Forget it. Not interesting.'"

On self-publishing: “It’s a bit like self-treating if you have an illness.”

On the prospect of scouring Twitter for new literary voices: “I’d sooner go to a discotheque looking for a writer.” 

On cover letters that warn him when a book is not worth reading: “‘Dear Mr. Wylie, have I got a book for you!’ NO. ‘How would you like to make money?’ NO. ‘This is the Satanic Verses meets John Grisham.’ NO! ‘It’s conventional, but it’s set in India.’ NO. ‘It’ll bore you silly, but it’s set in India.’ NO.”

On his wife, who is a potter: “She’s nice, I’m not. She’s dark-haired, I’m not. She’s Italian, I aspire to be Italian.”

On how they met: “We were on a plane in the late ’70s. She looked interesting. I said, you must come to a party I’m giving Saturday night. So I invited her to a party that I wasn’t going to have. She accepted, so I held the party.”

On the literary agent as chameleon: “Given the choice between being myself and the other person in the room I’ll take the other person every time. Perhaps that sounds creepy, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly creepy; it seems quite self-effacing to me. I borrow people’s penmanship. I cracked a joke after supper with Susan Sontag: you wouldn’t know who was Susan and who was Andrew. She was so interesting to me that I would just absorb her lock, stock, and barrel.”

On how publishing is like any other business: “You have the good and you have the bad. You have good neckties at Hermès and you have the bad neckties at Macy’s.” 

On his affinity for fashion metaphors: “Oh, I’m a fashion slave. I always grab ‘W’ before my wife gets to it.”

On Spain: “Nobody has gone to work for 100 years. Revolting country. You have to sleep with people if you want to achieve anything.”

On the legitimacy of Amazon’s publishing operation: “Their publishing business and my horse will soon get married. I don’t have a horse.”

On his reputation: “Martin Amis once accused me of having good manners. And I thought, goodness, that’s exciting.”

On how he justifies poaching from other agents: “I was the guy with the scalpel. I didn’t think it was rude to say, you’d do better in surgery with me with my scalpel than with this other person with the shovel. Because after all, the patient is dying.”

On the prospect of being bought by CAA: “I don’t aspire to stand in a room with a bunch of film stars. It would make me so anxious I’d faint.” 

Why: “Because they’re so attractive. I prefer ugly people like William Burroughs and Kissinger.”

On megabookstores: "The message is that what’s in the front of the store is what we’re selling, and only a lunatic would wander into the back. You walk into a store and say Susan Sontag, and the clerk thinks you’re taking about the cleaning lady."

On agents who sign on as producers for film versions of the books they represent: “I’d rather be hit by a bus.”

On feeling like he didn’t have enough to do when Scott Moyers [now publisher of Penguin] worked for him as an agent: “One day I booked myself a massage.”

On Amazon’s White Glove program, which guides authors and agents through the self-publishing process: “It sounds like a concierge service in a second rate hotel.”

On why he prefers not to deal with Amazon: “It’s a distribution channel. You hire people to talk to distributors. It’s like groceries. You hire people to receive groceries. What’s that truck that shows up with all the green vegetables? You call out for Chinese, and you call out for Amazon. I don’t deal with it.” 

On Amazon as print publisher: “Bullshit. Hogwash.”