• Henry Martin

Interview with John Calder, 2010

In 2010 I interviewed #SamuelBeckett's publisher and friend #JohnCalder (1927–2018) for #SohoHouse Magazine. Here is a little of the interview.

Translator and publisher, John Calder, 83, is a historic figure in 20th-century literature. Calder published #HenryMiller’s Tropic of Cancer, the works of Samuel Beckett and #WilliamBurroughs’ Naked Lunch, facing prosecution. Calder continues to hold readings at the Bookshop Theatre, on The Cut in #London. He has also received the French Order of Merit.

Can you remember the best advice you ever gave as an editor?

It’s a very difficult thing to tell people how to write and what to write. What you can help them do is to be self-critical.

What is it about writers that scares those in power?

Writers have a long term influence. Politicians, in particular, are always thinking about their heritage; what they’re going to be remembered for. Because of writers, the politician’s final reputation - the way they’re seen, and their authority - can be completely destroyed. They know they’ll be remembered from what writers say about them.

You tell a story about Samuel Beckett fuming because a guard at customs greeted him with ‘Welcome back Paddy’. Was Beckett proud of his heritage?

Oh yes. He was very #Irish. Even when he spoke French, Beckett had an Irish accent. But he didn’t realise he had an Irish accent. It was a typical #Dublin accent.

People keep saying that pretty soon books will cease to exist?

People who like #books are not going to stop liking books. The satisfaction you get from a book is quite different from the satisfaction you get from anything else.

Have you any favourite artists?

Yes. But you’re aware of different people at different times. There’s something about certain artists that always strike a chord, like #Rembrandt’s self portraits. They say something that nothing else does, because he manages to convey exactly what’s going on in his mind.

#KennethTynan wrote that art was the ‘happy moments of unhappy men.’ Why was it that Tynan didn’t like Beckett, whose work, I think, presents us with those moments?

He didn’t understand him. He was a champagne socialist who just sort of wore socialism on his sleeve. I said to him one day, ‘How can you call yourself a socialist when you only go to the most expensive fanciful restaurant, and only ever want to be in whatever the big fashion of the moment is. How can you square that with calling yourself a socialist? ‘And he turned to me and said, ‘Oh, #Marx never said anything about sacrifice’.

What kind of traits does a good theatre director need?

Talent, and above all a willingness to be faithful to the author.


You recall in your book, someone like #PeterBrook, who is not faithful to the author.

The trouble with Peter Book is he’s a frustrated writer, and he just cannot sit down and face a blank page, so he works with other people.

What was your biggest challenge as a #publisher?

The biggest challenge always was to publish someone you believed in, who got no good reviews, who nobody else understood, and finding a way of establishing them as a writer. One example was Blind Owl by #SadeghHedayat. It faired badly so I sent a copy to a list of people whose names I got out of the ‘Who’s who’; #BertrandRussell, #GrahamGreen, people like that. A good many of them responded, read the book, liked it and gave it excellent quotes. I was able to take ads in the Sunday papers with the quotes, and it worked: in the end I was able to bring out another edition, and sell the rights to other countries. It’s no good just publishing a book, and sending out review copies and sitting back. You have to get out there.

© 2020 Henry Martin.