Drenka Willen was just one of many individuals—including one woman seven months pregnant and another on maternity leave—to be hastily laid off last month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt amid budget cuts. She is, however, the only one among them whom the severely troubled company’s CEO, Tony Lucki, has since asked to please come back.
Ms. Willen, who had been working with Harcourt since the 1960s and had run her own imprint there since 1981, was as shocked by the news of her firing as anybody. Ann Patty, another longtime Harcourt editor who was laid off on the same day, said in an interview Monday that Ms. Willen was the “acknowledged soul of the company.”
“She was what publishing used to be,” Ms. Patty said. “She was the example of what we all went into this for.”
Ms. Willen, now 79, edited an improbable number of Nobel Prize winners over the course of her career, and accumulated a startling list of foreign luminaries that included Günter Grass, Umberto Eco, José Saramago, Amos Oz and Wislawa Szymborska.
Mr. Grass was apparently moved to tell Mr. Lucki exactly what a big mistake he had made by asking Ms. Willen to leave. According to several sources, Mr. Grass drafted a letter asking for an explanation, and had something like eight of the authors in Ms. Willen’s stable—Mr. Eco, Mr. Saramago and Ms. Szymborska among them—sign it in solidarity.
Though it’s unclear what role Mr. Grass’s letter had in Mr. Lucki’s decision to offer Ms. Willen her job back—Mr. Lucki did not respond to requests for an interview, and HMH publicity director Lori Glazer would not comment beyond confirming that Ms. Willen had returned to work—it is said to have been delivered about a week after Becky Saletan, who had just announced her resignation as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s publisher, visited her at home in Soho on the day now known as “Black Wednesday” to inform her of her firing.
Though she herself could not be reached for comment, Ms. Willen was by all accounts stunned when she got Mr. Lucki’s call to come back to work in mid-December. After thinking it over, she accepted his offer, and so will spend the next several months working from her home to tie up loose ends in preparation for a proper retirement.
“I think she felt a great responsibility to her authors,” said William Morris literary agent Bill Clegg, who had one client with Ms. Willen and considers her a close friend. “If she did hesitate, I can’t imagine it was for very long. She’s an amazing professional and has a sense of purpose.”
The fact of her reinstatement, said Mr. Clegg, is a “breathtaking, amazing thing.”
Chief among the tasks before Ms. Willen as she returns from her hiatus is a new translation of Mr. Grass’s The Tin Drum, which she is planning to bring out during the fall of 2009 in honor of the book’s 50th anniversary.