Former Penguin top honcho David Davidar emerged from the eye of a storm only to set up a new publishing venture. It's little wonder then that his new book, Ithaca, ponders over the life and times of the publishing industry
David Davidar, former CEO, Penguin International, who left the publishing giant he had helped set up in India amidst much controversy, is out with a new book. Titled Ithaca (after CP Cavafy's 1911 Greek poem), the novel follows the rise and fall of publisher Zachariah Thomas, and through him, depicts the changes threatening to topple established names and well-worn practises within the publishing world. Excerpts from an interview:
As an editor turned writer, could you tell us a bit about the writing of this book. Did the subject of the book -- on writing, the commerce and wistfulness -- influence your choice of form? What editorial choices did you bring into the writing of this book?
That's very perceptive. The day to day business of publishing doesn't give you the space for nuanced reflection on what it is all about, and that is why I decided to write a novel about it. The triumphs and tragedies of writing, and those who help bring it to the outside world. I've followed the same writing process for all my novels. Once I have the plot and the main characters worked out in my head (and then transferred to paper -- I still write my first draft in long hand on paper), I try to write for a fixed time every morning.
Ithaca, David Davidar, published by HarperCollins, Rs 499. Available at
I'm a morning person so I usually wake up early, write for a couple of hours, and then look through what I've done the previous day. I spend the rest of the day researching and thinking about the next day's writing. When I have the first draft done, my wife Rachna, who has been my first editor on all my novels, transfers it to a computer (she types way more efficiently than I do, and makes suggestions as she goes along, so it works quite well), and I then begin revising. The book takes its final shape in the fourth draft.
What's the role of a "first editor"?
Rachna is an excellent 'reader' the essential pre-requisite to being a good editor, and she suggested ways to improve the plot, characterisation, narrative pace and so on which I incorporated into my revisions.
Do you advise your writers to write about what they know best? Is that the reason for having written a book set in the publishing industry?
Yes I do. Although, often the world they know is just the jumping off point for the stories they weave. What works best is to create a parallel universe to the lived life -- it's the only way you can impart any sort of depth and complexity and pace to your fiction. You have to be free to invent, otherwise you should just write a memoir. But to answer your other question, the reason I set my book in the publishing industry was because it is a world I know well.
With Aleph, your publishing venture, you plan to take books into the digital arena. In fact, that is one of the issues facing the publishing industry that you speak of in the novel. How immediate is the concern?
Yes, the digital revolution is the single biggest challenge and opportunity facing the publishing industry everywhere in the world. It will test our collective mettle but I think the industry will survive -- albeit in somewhat altered form, we don't know the full extent of that yet. I can certainly see the book going digital at some point and it will be available with online vendors, but initially it will be distributed through traditional channels.
Many would assume that the character of Zachariah Thomas is modelled on a younger David. There is a strong readerly sense to this book, almost as if it is also telling us of you having made peace with the publishing industry, and your journey through it.
The novel is not autobiographical. What I was trying to do was recreate, in fictional form, a world that I have been immersed in for a quarter century. It would have been extremely limiting to model the protagonist's life on my own, it wouldn't have allowed me to examine all the various aspects of writing, publishing, and the author-editor relationship. I am trying to say through the medium of Zach that life is all about the journey not the destination.