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Making elephants fly


Philip Roth does his research
Peter Mayer Publisher
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Philip [Roth] called me, as he did a couple of other times on different matters. You couldn't say we were close friends but you could certainly say that I don't think we'd ever had a problem and we spent a lot of social time together, partly through a lady that he lived with for quite a few years, Barbara Sproul, and also through his friendship with Philip Guston who also lived in Woodstock, as did I. And I think maybe he had been in the army with Marty Garbus, who was my lawyer and my friend, I don't know.

But Philip called me and said can I sit down with your father? So I said, why? He said well, I've met him a couple of times here in Woodstock and he's an interesting man. I said he was indeed, what would you be sitting down with him about? I can't give you permission, you can just telephone him yourself, he's a big boy, he'll say yes or no. He said well, I'm interested in his background as a book publisher… glove manufacturer, and I said well, he's not doing that now – because I think he wasn't any more, it must have been after my dad was 71 and working at Overlook, but living in Woodstock. I said I'll ask him, Philip.

So, I asked him and he said yes, he'd be glad to talk to Philip. I think Philip had said he wanted it as background for a character he was writing about, don't know if he said for a novel called American Pastoral, he probably didn't, and my father said, 'Well, shall I do it, Peter?' I said, well, of course you should do it, but I think you do have to be careful about personal things that you say because… personal things you can say but professional things, I can't imagine any problem but I said Philip has sometimes used material in a personal sense.

I think in most cases the person was disguised but certain characters are interesting in life and interesting in fiction, and... but my father didn't have any relationship to Philip so there was no part of my father's life that would have affected necessarily anything that Philip was writing, but who knew? And I said he wants background on the glove manufacturing business, and my father had two or three sessions, maybe more but I think two or three with Philip, and he came there with pad in hand, the great Philip Roth and my unassuming but very charming father, storytelling father – he was a great storyteller, and I think they got on.

It was only when I read American Pastoral I said, there's a lot of connections between this character and my dad, and I remembered that Philip had taken all these notes. Now, there were some major differences. The glove manufacturer in the novel, I don't think he had a German background or German or Luxembourg background, and he was also in the leather goods area, and my father may have imported leather goods, but I don't think he ever made leather goods, so he would not have been an expert. And there's quite a lot about the leather good… making gloves business in the novel, so Philip must have got quite a bit of information from other people or at least another glove manufacturer. But there were significant parts, and probably the character is an amalgam in some ways; I've never even talked to Philip about it.

Peter Mayer (1936-2018) was an American independent publisher who was president of The Overlook Press/Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc, a New York-based publishing company he founded with his father in 1971. At the time of Overlook's founding, Mayer was head of Avon Books, a large New York-based paperback publisher. There, he successfully launched the trade paperback as a viable alternative to mass market and hardcover formats. From 1978 to 1996 he was CEO of Penguin Books, where he introduced a flexible style in editorial, marketing, and production. More recently, Mayer had financially revived both Ardis, a publisher of Russian literature in English, and Duckworth, an independent publishing house in the UK.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: American Pastoral, Philip Roth

Duration: 5 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2014-January 2015

Date story went live: 12 November 2015