On 8th July, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient was named the Golden Booker winner; the best novel to have won the prize in its 50-year history. Liz Calder, co-founder of Bloomsbury publishing, tells Natasha Onwuemezi how the business came to sign the book, and the reason for its enduring appeal.
How did you come to buy The English Patient?
I met Michael Ondaatje at the Adelaide Literary Festival in March 1988. I had loved his early work, and we quickly became close friends. In 1991,when his new novel The English Patient was finished, his agents—Ellen Levine in the US and Caradoc King in the UK—sent it to four UK publishers: Jonathan Cape, Faber, Picador and Bloomsbury. We were invited to make one blind offer and submit a publishing plan.
I read it overnight, completely captivated by the thrilling stories it told, the vivid landscapes and settings, the poetry of the language and the unmistakeable underlying humanity of the author's voice. My colleagues at Bloomsbury—Sarah Beal, Lucy Juckes, Alan Wherry and Nigel Newton—responded with the same utter conviction. Our publishing plan was detailed, ambitious and imaginative, and involved the whole company. The money was not the issue. Our wild enthusiasm and originality won the day.
How did winning the Man Booker in 1992 change the trajectory of the book?
The win, albeit a shared one [the novel was announced a joint winner, with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger], created a huge international audience for the book and for Michael's work more generally. Until then, his writing had been passionately read by a small, discerning readership, but the Booker made him a bestseller.
When you acquired The English Patient, did you have any idea of the critical and commercial success that would follow?
Of course one never knows what the future will hold for a beloved book. It is a huge affirmation that such a literary masterpiece should be the popular choice of the UK public [for the Golden Booker].
What is it about The English Patient that made it the people's choice?
There is a timeless appeal in the novel's two ill-fated love stories, and in the hugely romantic settings and the focus on an unusual element of the Second World War story in Italy. Most of all, Ondaatje's appeal lies in his ability to tell a story with all his heart and mind. It is wonderful to see Bloomsbury still publishing great literature with such panache and triple-crown success.
Liz Calder and Michael Ondaatje after his 1992 Booker win