A large picture of a donkey presides over Drenka Willen's spacious office at Harcourt. The 73-year-old editor, who carries the legendary mantle of Helen and Kurt Wolff Books on her slim shoulders with the same light yet determined elegance with which she wears three delicate ornaments around her neck, laughs about the creature dominating her wall.
"Years and years ago, two Russian publishers gave me that picture. I haven't heard from them for ages, but the donkey stayed. I found it incredibly appealing," she says in an English laced with strong overtones of mitteleuropa. Her smile manages amusement and serenity at the same time.
Although Willen prefers reticence—except when talking about a book—pressed about this particular donkey, she confides: "Maybe it's a little symbolic of my survival."
Further symbolism is evident in Umberto Eco's Baudolino, Harcourt's biggest book for a long time. Willen has worked with the Italian professor since his first book, The Name of the Rose, was bought by Helen Wolff for $4,000 and burst onto bestseller lists around the world. She has also worked with four of the Nobel literature laureates from the past dozen years: Günter Grass (1999), Jose Saramago (1998), Wislawa Szymborska (1996) and Octavio Paz (1990).
Her list is of outstandingly consistent quality. It provides a rare home for translations—as well as the Nobel winners, writers like Arturo Perez-Reverte, Italo Calvino and Yehuda Amichai are there. It's also a berth for carefully selected writing in English, along the lines of David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars and Claire Messud's novels. What it doesn't provide is any room for dross.
Willen is a reluctant participant in PW's visit: "I always think an interview with an author is much better than an interview with an editor," she begins. But if it will help her beloved books, she'll talk about her 39-year association with one house.
That house has had many names. When she arrived in 1963, it was called Harcourt, Brace & World. By 1970, its name had changed to reflect its then center of gravity, William Jovanovich. After the company was weakened in Jovanovich's battle with a predatory Robert Maxwell, it was owned in the 1990s by General Cinema. Now it is part of Reed Elsevier.
Willen describes herself as "a Serb from a small Croatian town near Zagreb." This quiet woman grows quieter still when talking about her youth. "In 1941, I lost my father, brother and numerous relations. My mother, sister and I moved to Belgrade as refugees. During the war, we studied German. After the war, we studied Russian and English."
She was linguistically talented and went on to Birmingham University. "After all those wartime years in Yugoslavia, England seemed very stable to me in 1949," she recalls. She ended up teaching English at the University of Belgrade from 1953 to 1956, and married an American from New York. Once across the Atlantic, she got a job working on an encyclopedia yearbook.
Meanwhile, in 1961, after a celebrated career in Europe and then in America—where they had published Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea, Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard and so many other important works at Pantheon Books with their partner, Jacques Schiffrin—Helen and Kurt Wolff had accepted an offer from William Jovanovich to start an imprint.
Looking back from a world where imprints are an established part of the scene, it's jolting to realize that this was the first such arrangement. The Wolffs were based in Switzerland, where they had moved several years before the American publisher approached them. But after Kurt's death in 1963, Helen came back to New York.
Most people assume that Willen was brought into the company by Helen Wolff, whose successor she became in 1981. But Willen's life changed courtesy of two forces of nature: serendipity and Bill Jovanovich. In 1963, after she had the first of her two children, she left full-time work. While on a holiday back in Yugoslavia, she met a writer who had submitted a book to Jovanovich, whose roots were also in the Balkans. Willen explains, "It was his luxury to bring out some books by Yugoslavs. When I returned to New York, I sent him a note. Ivo Andric had recently won the Nobel, and Jovanovich had acquired a volume of his novellas. He asked if I'd translate it. I had no experience, but he insisted. I've been associated with the house ever since."
Willen says she hadn't worked for Helen Wolff before she took over the imprint, "although we were colleagues and friends." She worked for Jovanovich directly. "He was an interesting, brilliant man, willing to take a risk, appreciative of good literature and of a job well done. Mind you, he was very exacting," she acknowledges with a twinkle in her eyes.
"He would acquire certain books he didn't have time to see through, so I worked on those, and once in a while I'd come across something myself," Willen says. "For example, I worked on books by Danilo Kis, Milovan Djilas and Irving Howe. But it was largely after Mrs. Wolff retired that I started working with many others.
"I was bewildered when I was asked to take over the imprint. Helen Wolff was a legend. I didn't think I could do it. But William Jovanovich said, 'Why don't you try? If it doesn't work, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.' "
After Jovanovich left, Willen says, "It seemed perhaps none of this would be possible." She's referring to January 1994, when Harcourt's trade operation was decimated in a restructuring. Willen was one of two hardcover editors left standing. She made scores of calls the weekend after the firings to see if her authors would stay.
In the end, "the owners let me go on," she says, a tightness visible around her mouth. In part, it was "respect for the list." In part, it was Willen's habit of being "careful not to spend too much." She smiles. "Of course, there are some exceptions," Baudolino being one of them. But "in the darkest days the presence of Eco helped give security."
Since then, Willen has seen the trade operation revive. "I look back and ask myself, how did it all happen? One thing led to another, and I'm still here, with a new Eco, a new Grass and a new book under contract with Amos Oz."
She recalls the early days with Eco. "I inherited The Name of the Rose before the translation came in. Mrs. Wolff had had modest expectations, but found the work interesting. The author, of course, was more than interesting.
"The translation arrived one day from Bill Weaver, and when I read it I found it wonderfully exciting. I met Eco, but worked mainly with Weaver. The print run was 25,000 copies— terrifying. The book went on to sell 500,000 hardcover in the U.S.
"How it found an audience—I'd almost like it to remain a mystery. It's possible not everybody read the book all the way through, but you don't necessarily have to read the whole book to feel you are in the presence of something very special. Eco educates as he is telling a marvelous story. Readers like that. He combines a number of skills in extraordinary ways."
None of Eco's subsequent novels has sold as spectacularly as the first, Willen confirms, "but they have all done very well. For Baudolino, we have the largest expectations since The Name of the Rose. Here, Eco returns to the Middle Ages."
The novel follows the picaresque adventures of a 12th-century Italian peasant boy doubly gifted with the ability to learn any language and the talent to tell any lie. He becomes the adopted son of the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. The novel is the story of Baudolino's multiple quests—geographical, spiritual, linguistic—to find the legendary Prester John.
A large pile of books sits between us on Willen's table—all medieval chronicles and historical tomes. "We had to learn a great deal to do this book," the editor admits.
"But the miracle of putting together all these aspects into something so singularly readable, educational and amusing.... One wonders where it all comes from. It could be no one but Eco," she enthuses. "There's always something new, but also something remarkably consistent, a loyalty to his craft and to the people he works with.
"There's been wonderful continuity—Bill , Eco and I are friends. Eco was a publisher and editor himself, so he understands, what we're up against."
Looking at her list as a whole, Willen says, "I don't think my role has changed substantially. I've published 16 to 20 books a year for a long time. Although I have noticed one change—print runs in recent years have been higher.
"For example, for years we published Saramago and printed 5,000 copies. Then Blindness came along, and they decided to print 10,000. I thought we'd get 7,000 back instead of the usual 2,000. But they managed to sell 10,000 and reprint another 10,000—and that was before the Nobel."
As with so many of Willen's books, "There had always been wonderful reviews and modest sales. But we had the previous books in paperback—we retain paperback rights for all our books. Then Saramago got the prize, and the entire backlist took off. That was very rewarding for us all."
Similarly, she mentions taking on "an English translation of a volume of poems by a Pole. We worked hard and managed to sell 3,800 copies in hardcover. Then Szymborska won the Nobel. After that it was amazing."
Willen fiercely believes in sticking with her authors through bad times as well as good. She recalls "a period when Oz's books didn't sell so well—maybe 7,500 copies. But we continued, and we're printing 15,000 now."
As the morning winds down, Willen remains upbeat: "I think things have gotten better for literature in translation. There's more of an openness. To be sure, one has to make more of an effort to get attention with foreign books, and they are more expensive and more work. One deals with the author, the translator, the agents, the foreign publisher. I work very closely with the translator. There are so many things.... Here and there I tighten and even delete—but always with the approval of the author.
"Continuity in translation is very important. If it's a new person, even an established translator, I ask for a sample. Someone can have an affinity to one author, but take on somebody else and have a problem. So many of our authors are sufficiently fluent in English that they can tell if the job is well done. One gets a sense of whether it's right—almost instinctively."
Quality and hard work keep Willen's books afloat in an erratic market. "There are changes in the publishing business. It is much more difficult and unpredictable to compete, but what else can one do except make the effort? The book has to be properly edited and marketed. The luxury of having this backlist is that we are not in any desperate hurry to sign up a lot. The history of the house is important, but the books are there and that's history and that's more important.... A young editor familiar with the books and aware of how important history is can find a way of continuing. The authors speak for the list."