7 January 09 | Chad W. Post

From the New York Observer:

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, 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.

I have to say that this is pretty amazing. I’ve never heard of something like this happening, and although Lucki won’t speak about it, I’m willing to bet that Grass’s letter had a wee bit of an impact on his “rethinking” of the situation . . . (Or maybe thinking for the first time about the situation and the impending loss of some of the greatest writers of the past century.)

I also like the fact that Drenka will “spend the next several months working from her home to tie up loose ends in preparation for a proper retirement.” Yeah, HMH fired a legend who was about to retire. Glad someone developed a conscience there and are letting Drenka leave on her own terms, after seeing her books (especially the retranslation of Grass’s Tin Drum) through to completion.


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