Although not a household name in America, editor and writer Robert McCrum has had an enormous impact on the current state of literature. In his 20 years as Editor-in-Chief at famed British publishing house Faber & Faber, McCrum transformed a largely mediocre fiction list into a roster that included such successful and influential novelists as Peter Carey, Paul Auster, and Vikram Seth. In 1996, McCrum turned a semi-regular stint writing for the British newspaper The Observer into a fulltime position as literary editor, where he remains today. Somewhere along the line, he found the time to publish six of his own novels, co-author a best-selling history of the English language, and research and write a critically lauded biography of English humorist P.G. Wodehouse.
After graduating from Cambridge's Corpus Christi College on a history scholarship, McCrum set off across the pond with a post-graduate scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. He earned his MA, and then left the world of academia forever, opting instead to take a one-year extended tour of America in his Buick Skylark.
Back in England, McCrum took a job as a publicity assistant at Chatto & Windus. McCrum's intelligence, charm, and competitive streak quickly put him on the map as a rising star in British publishing. In 1979, a mere two years after starting at Chatto & Windus, McCrum began his successful run at Faber and Faber.
Never one to settle for complacency, McCrum published his first novel the following year, a thriller about the inner workings of British national intelligence called In the Secret State. His second novel, A Loss of Heart, was released in 1982. Two years after that, yet another novel, The Fabulous Englishman, was released to solid reviews and sales.
McCrum's biggest success came as co-author 1986 publication of The Story of English, which was released in tandem with a 10-part PBS documentary of the same name. McCrum's work on the series earned him an Emmy and a Peabody award, and the book became an international bestseller that still sells briskly in its 3rd revised edition.
And so McCrum's seemingly charmed life continued into the 90s. A fourth novel, Mainland, came out in 1992, and McCrum was putting the finishing touches on his next novel, Suspicion, when tragedy struck. In the summer of 1995, he awoke to find his entire left side paralyzed by a devastating stroke. Only 42 years old, McCrum's world shifted overnight. The writer's natural curiosity and need to communicate persevered, however, and in 1998 he released a critically-acclaimed memoir of his year spent in recovery entitled My Year Off.
Shortly after the publication of My Year Off, McCrum launched full-force into work on Wodehouse: A Life. Research for the biography of the famed English humorist would take him all over the world, from Wodehouse's homes in California to the German camp where he was interned during World War II to New York City. "It seems to me that you can't begin to understand someone until you see where they lived, what they saw out of the window when they woke up, and the kind of people they were living near," McCrum has said.
Four years spent traveling and reading Wodehouse's vast amounts of published and unpublished works paid off with a biography that critics have hailed as the definitive chronicle of the life of P.G. Wodehouse.
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Some outtakes from our interview with McCrum:
"I'm a) tall b) speak English c) like a drink."
"My first job was looking after a parrot in a zoo."
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In the winter of 2004, Robert McCrum took some time out to answer a few of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The works of Shakespeare: the supreme volume of English poetry and prose.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Impossible to say what are my top ten, but here are some contenders:
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome -- One of the funniest books ever written.
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter -- Creepy children's book.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll -- A surreal masterpiece.
The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson -- A contemporary classic for children.
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh -- A brilliant satire on English journalism.
The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse -- His finest novel.
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky -- The great Russian novel.
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson -- An 18th-century masterpiece.
Roughing It by Mark Twain -- A comic tour de force.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville -- An indispensable American novel.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
The last film I saw is often my favorite.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
All kinds of music, from Dylan to Debussy. I hate listening to music when I write.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I wouldn't have a book club.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Get up. Go to desk Pick up pencil. Write on lined paper for two to three hours.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Twenty-five years. No horror stories, really.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
I would not wish this fate on any serious new writer.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep writing, regardless. Listen to your voice. Write for yourself.
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