Andrew ‘the Jackal’ Wylie reveals how he became the feared king of the literary jungle and agent to the book world’s biggest names – Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth and Martin Amis

This weekend the London Book Fair is attracting a stream of literary agents, publishers and bibliophiles to Olympia for an event that now rivals Frankfurt as an international literary marketplace. Among those roaming the aisles, there will be the numerous foot soldiers of the Wylie Agency, the most feared and most influential authors’ representatives in the world of Anglo-American publishing. These are the agents who report to the elusive figure of Andrew Wylie, an American literary bull on first-name terms with many of the greatest writers at work today, from Salman Rushdie and Chinua Achebe to VS Naipaul and Philip Roth.

Their boss is an enigmatic figure. He is also undeniably one of the most powerful man in the books industry. On the eve of the London event, he gave the Observer a rare and fascinating interview in a surprisingly anonymous Manhattan office.

We spoke in the late afternoon, but most mornings in New York City, Wylie is up at 5am, “staggering about in the dark”, he says, before settling down to tackle between 40 and 50 emails from as far afield as Tokyo, St Petersburg and Cairo. This self-professed global literary agent, who represents about 700 writers, dead and alive, including Martin Amis, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Alaa al Aswany, Arthur Miller and Art Spiegelman, certainly has the spooky pallor of a man who does a lot of business in the dark.

Today he comes to greet me in the tranquil, overheated hallway of his 12th-floor office as the day closes and the evening light merges into the fluorescent glare of uptown off-Broadway. In person, Wylie is slight, courteous and soft-spoken – as if with his dark suit and formal good manners he can live down his reputation as competitive, self-willed, transgressive and ruthless.

The contrast between his polite self-presentation and his erstwhile reputation as a hell-raiser and “a lizard” makes for an edgy formality. But it doesn’t take long for his sardonic bad-boy self to break through the mask. Wylie’s minimalist office displays several promotional copies of the Nabokov backlist in various foreign editions. When I comment on the number of literary estates (Borges, Mishima, Waugh, Lampedusa and Updike, to name some of the most prominent) controlled by the Wylie Agency, he says, with a mirthless laugh: “People are dying like flies.” It’s at moments like this that you can see why, in the Anglo-American book world, he is known, simply as “the Jackal”.

Once a more than slightly feral predator, however, Wylie has now become something far more menacing in the literary undergrowth. In a business environment where many of the principal publishers, booksellers and rival literary agents are reeling from the remorseless depredations of recession and digitisation (the IT revolution), he can make a good claim to be the most powerfully composed and uniquely global writers’ representative on either side of the Atlantic, a king of the book publishing jungle.

Wylie, who has become the equal of the corporate players such as ICM, William Morris, Curtis Brown and United Agents through aggressive willpower, is not like them. He’s a lone wolf who has built his empire, from nothing, in less than 30 years. A late starter, at odds with his privileged background, 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, there was money and banking; on his father’s, books and publishing (Houghton Mifflin).

This complex dual inheritance took him to Harvard to study French literature and then, because he has a horror of boredom, to New York in the city’s death-rattle years during the 1970s. A would-be writer and journalist, he hung out with Andy Warhol, took drugs and wrote some terrible poetry, hustling a living as a cab driver until, just after his 30th birthday, he set up the Wylie Agency in a bleak little room downtown. His first client was the great American socialist IF (Izzy) Stone. “Once upon a time,” he says, “I had idle afternoons.” A wicked smile illuminates the pause for effect. “That’s not a problem any more.”

Publishing was in his blood but as a contrarian and a zealot, he was appalled by its complacent cosiness. “In those days,” he remembers, “the money went from the publisher to the agent to the author. Agents felt they were in business with the publishers and were somewhat condescending to the authors, who were treated as talented but dysfunctional. I thought about it and I decided: that’s corrupt. An agent is hired by an author. As the agent you are the gardener on the author’s estate. I think it was a significant realisation that I was working for the author and not the other way round.”

At this point the phone on Wylie’s fanatically tidy desk comes to life. “I have to take this,” he says, switching into polite mode. It’s Al Gore. “Al, hi! You in Cairo? My favourite city. I was just there…” While he talks, I take in the iconography of his office, dominated by a replica New Jersey street sign in green and white with the legend Philip Roth Plaza. In his early days, Wylie had no big-name clients, but he wanted to escape what he saw as the genteel shabbiness of the book trade. “I saw businesses with dying spider plants in filthy windows. Was it not possible, I asked myself, to have clean windows, with even a view, while reading very good books?”

The more he talks, the more Wylie’s innate puritan zeal comes to life within the clerical black of his undertaker’s suit and tie. “I’m a books person. Yes, I have a Kindle. I used it for an hour and a half and put it in the closet. I’m not interested in mass culture. When I started out I saw nine out of 10 people heading for the door marked Money, Commerce, Trash. So I chose the door marked Quality. Interest. Significance…”

Say what you like about the Jackal, he’s not short of self-belief or, to put it another way, classic New England hustling. The cocktail of fierce competitiveness, literary belligerence, thwarted literary ambition and his passion for “authors” soon paid dividends. Declaring war on the “corrupt” relationships of agents and publishers, he hit the headlines by tearing up the unwritten rule that agents did not poach their rivals’ clients. “A card-carrying shit” was one of the more printable things said about him.

Wylie loved it. Now he could be both a pariah and a champion of contemporary writing.

The turning point came in 1995 when Martin Amis left his long-time agent, Pat Kavanagh of PFD, the wife of his old friend Julian Barnes, over the £500,000 contract for his novel The Information. “Yes,” says Wylie now, “that was probably when ‘the Jackal’ thing started. I’ve no idea where it came from. I don’t shy away from my aggression on behalf of authors. The representation of good writers has been less professional than the representation of bad writers.” Part of what he’s doing now, he claims, is to bring discipline and coherence and a global strategy to a business that has been in the hands of dotty old ladies in shapeless cardigans.

He affects, unconvincingly, to have no real power and claims he’s taking a back seat. “I’m the Ronald Reagan of the operation now,” he jokes. “When I meet some publishers here, the staff give me a script. Hello. How. Nice. To. Meet. You.”

After a generation in the business, he insists that “the Wylie Agency is not about one person. It’s a matter of 50 people. The succession is all arranged. Scott Moyers in New York and Sarah Chalfant in London. I want people to understand that we [the agency] will be around after my demise.”

For the moment, at a youthful 62, Wylie keeps up a fairly brutal schedule. “We meet every morning at 7.45am and we have an hour five days a week to talk about everything. So…” [another smile, less feral and more like the handle on a coffin] “we’re pretty granular about things. We’re very international. We think very closely about each territory. There’s a lot of flying around. Moscow. Asia. Europe. We don’t receive information passively. We put a group of people on an individual case study. We put writers and their work on a grid. We have very well-developed computer systems which produce reports by crunching numbers. Contracts. Royalties. Territories. We decide what we want. We discuss it with the client [the author] and then we go out and get it.”

After another call from Gore, he starts to talk about his new-found passion for Alaa al Aswany, the author of The Yacoubian Building and Chicago. Suddenly, he’s excited, almost journalistic. “I went to Egypt. I rang him up. I explained who I was. He invited me to visit him at seven o’clock. We were still talking about his books when we went to dinner just before midnight.” Now Wylie has sold The Yacoubian Building across the world in many editions, and will sell literally every word al Aswany writes to the highest bidder.

It’s at moments like this that you can see how he came to represent Rushdie and Naipaul, who recently left his long-time agent (and former Wylie co-agent) Gillon Aitken.

Why did Naipaul do that? Today, Wylie redux allows himself a thin smile and a very discreet, lawyerly expression of satisfaction. “Let’s say, I think Vidia felt it was time for a change.”

He says he could not do the “mothercare” and hand-holding side some agents specialise in, though I happen to know he worked very hard to support Rushdie during the worst moments of the fatwa. Essentially, the Jackal is not a social animal.

“I like to see my wife and kids. I like to go to bed at nine and get up at five. No one in their right mind keeps those hours. I don’t Twitter or blog. I’m bad at small talk, and don’t have good ‘chat’. Talk to me about publishing and I can go on for hours.”

This, I realise as he unwinds in conversation, is our old friend, the ego of no ego. Wylie is basically a both shy and arrogant man whose lifelong obsession makes him a big character. His life is driven by what he does. He concedes no interest in music or food (“it’s just fuel”), and: “I don’t go to books for sex. I go home for sex.”

And he’ll be up at 5am for the first of those global emails from distant time zones at the far end of the English-speaking world. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds