After Carr, Clegg

“It was something that kept persisting, and eventually I just stepped out of the way and let it happen,” said Bill Clegg, the prominent literary agent from William Morris. “It was something in me that kept wanting to happen.”

It was Monday evening, and Mr. Clegg was on the phone with Pub Crawl, talking about Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, a memoir he is writing about the crack habit that just a few years ago forced him to temporarily withdraw from the publishing industry. Earlier in the day, Pat Strachan of Little, Brown—who has edited such giants as Joseph Brodsky, Lydia Davis, Tom Wolfe, and Marilynne Robinson—had agreed to pay $350,000 for the privilege of publishing the book in North America.

At the time, people in publishing called Mr. Clegg’s disappearance mysterious. And it was, in a way: Before whatever happened happened, the young, boyish literary agent seemed to be at the top of his game, representing authors like Nicole Krauss and Susan Choi and thriving as one-half of a boutique literary firm that he and ex-Little, Brown editor Sarah Burnes opened in a fit of optimism during the spring of 2001. So, sure, it was a little mysterious when he stopped coming into work suddenly in 2005. And yet, it was clear enough to anyone who cared where Mr. Clegg was and what he was doing.

He’d been gone for about a year when he came back to the fold, clean as a cucumber, and joined the William Morris Agency. For all the success he has had there, however, the drug addiction that provoked his sabbatical has remained on his mind. 

His proposal was the talk of the town last week, when Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, Mr. Clegg’s boss at William Morris, sent it out to editors. She sent it in hard copy to make it harder for people to pass around*, and warned those who received it, in not so many words, that she’d take their firstborn if they dared spring a leak. “She doesn’t really have to do a lot to put the fear of God into people,” said one person who saw the proposal last week. “She eats puppies for breakfast, after all. They can smell the puppy breath through the phone.”

Despite the sensitive subject matter of his book, Mr. Clegg said he is not concerned with what other people in the business will think. “I’m not writing it for them,” he said. “The truth is that when I came back to publishing, the story of how I left was known to the people in the business. So when I came back, that was already something that mediated my interactions with editors and publishers and writers and other agents and my colleagues. The fact that I am writing a book that is, in part, about that experience is, you know, just another room in a house that already exists.”

He added: “This book, my writing of it, it’s something separate from what I do. … I think, as I would say to any writer, [how it’s received] is none of my business. My business is to make it succeed on its own terms as a piece of literature, hopefully, and let go of the results.”