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How Salman Rushdie helped the world discover Harry Potter

Life frequently works out stranger than fantasy. And so it proved in the case of Salman Rushdie and his friend and editor Liz Calder. An act of greed on Rushdie’s part, which he regretted for years, eventually worked out for the best and helped the world of muggles discover a young wizard by the name of Harry Potter, the hero of the bestselling book series and a hugely successful movie series.

All that, though, was far in the unforeseeable future in 1986, by which time Calder had been Rushdie’s close friend for 15 years. In fact, for almost three -and-a-half years, she had stayed as the lodger in a small house in which Rushdie lived with his first wife, Clarissa. Calder would sleep at night in the room in which Rushdie wrote his first novel, Grimus, by day.

Unknown to him, she would sneak looks at the manuscript. She was promoted from the publicity department at the publishers Victor Gollancz and became an editor just as he finished ‘Grimus’. When it was done, she published it and so his first novel as an author was also her first novel as a publisher.

Then in 1986, Calder left Jonathan Cape, the publishing house where she was working, and became one of the founders of a new publishing house, Bloomsbury, just as Rushdie was giving the finishing touches to his new novel, The Satanic Verses.

As Rushdie describes it in his recently-released memoir, ‘Joseph Anton’ (in which he writes about himself in the third person), “Because of their friendship, there was an assumption that he would follow her. His British agent was the highly respected Deborah Rogers, also a close friend of Calder’s. Deborah quickly agreed with Liz that ‘the new Rushdie’ would go to Bloomsbury for a modest fee, as the new publishing house couldn’t afford high advances. Andrew Wylie (his agent in the US) told him that if he accepted a low figure in the UK, it would ruin the book’s prospects in the US. After much hesitation, he agreed…The sweetheart deal was cancelled, Liz and Deborah were both deeply hurt… His love of his chosen friends had sustained and nourished him, and the wounds his actions had inflicted, even though they were justifiable in business terms, felt humanly wrong.”

Rushdie goes on to add, “After Zafar (his first son) was born, they had all holidayed together in France. That was the connection he had broken for money. What did that say about him?…But when the storm broke over his head, both Deborah and Liz at once set aside their grievances and behaved towards him with spectacular loyalty and generosity. It was the love and loyalty of his friends that enabled him to survive those years, and yes, their forgiveness too.”

Once he went underground following the issuing of a fatwa against him, Rushdie was, for a while, forced to move from one location to another, never staying at one place for more than a few days at a time. During this period, he often stayed at Calder’s home while she was away on work or vacation (he met the woman who would become his third wife, Elizabeth West, a colleague of Calder’s, when she came in to feed the pet parrot, Juju).

But while Rushdie remained contrite, Calder came to believe that it was probably just as well that he had not given her the rights to the book. In his words, “Liz came to feel that she had dodged a bullet. If she had published the ‘Satanic Verses’, the ensuing crisis, with its bomb threats, death threats, security expenses, building evacuations and fear would very probably have sunk her new publishing venture right away.” Instead, Bloomsbury flourished and eventually went on to discover an obscure, unpublished author who had been previously rejected by 12 publishing houses. The author’s name was Joanne Rowling. The rest is publishing history

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