Who is Alan Wherry?
Perhaps no one has asked the question more than he has over the years.
Wherry, who’s 59, retired Nov. 30 as head of Bloomsbury Press USA, the U.S. wing of the high-end publishing company founded in the UK in 1986.
Bloomsbury publishes, among other things, literary fiction, one of the publishing success stories in recent years. Indeed, few people two decades ago would have said there was a market for so-called “intelligent” fiction.
The answer to who Alan Wherry is has been an enigma even to himself. In conversation, he sounds sometimes bemused, surprised at where he has ended up in life.
“Me, a Belfast Prod who can barely turn a hand,” he said with a faint smile, adding that sometimes he thought he hated working so much that he had “singlehandedly exploded the myth of the Protestant work ethic.”
It has been a long road from East Belfast to Broadway and 23rd Street, where Bloomsbury’s office nestles on the third floor of the elegant, early 20th century skyscraper. Especially, when, as Wherry says, he tried often to do as little as possible. And perhaps he found a way to do that, as he explained.
Along the way, there were a series of appalling jobs, Wherry said. He had left school at 16 and never went to college, ending up like so many of his countrymen in dead-end jobs in London.
“Most of the first jobs I had were dreadful ones,” he said. “Singularly awful. It was good to get about six of those out of the way. You learn from being on the wrong end of it, what bad management looks like.”
There were a few good moments as well, including one with the Electricity Board in Northern Ireland.
“If you’re driving a big truck down to the Mountains of Mourne to stick telegraph poles in the ground, it wasn’t all bad,” he said, recalling a lighter moment in his life.
But if he could have, Wherry said, he would have preferred not to work.
On a recent Friday, Wherry was rushing off to attend a parent-teacher meeting near his home in Riverdale, in the Bronx. His stepson, he explained, had failed all four classes at high school in the past semester.
“So I asked him, ‘Why have you failed?’ ” said Wherry, again with the ghost of a smile on his lips. “And he said, ‘I enjoy not working.’ And in a way, I had to agree with him.”
A supposed commitment to hard work has been one of the signatures Ulster’s Protestants have left on history. Wherry broke that mold early on.
“When I left school I didn’t really know how to work,” Wherry said. “I hadn’t a clue. So I was quite puzzled as to what you were supposed to do all day, and what demeanor one should offer your coworkers.”
Out of that puzzlement with life’s conventions, Wherry said that he questioned life in a way that perhaps his peers did not.
An illumination of this comes up in a story he tells of a recent business trip to Venice.
During a break, the group of publishers he was with attended a string octet performance.
“It was done amateurly, really. The lead violinist was out of tune. And clearly several of them didn’t know what they were playing very well,” said Wherry. He paused, and then added, “But I liked that.”
Life’s experiences has led Wherry to conclude that it is ultimately an imperfect business: that even in Venice, a capital of culture and Renaissance beauty, one might have to listen to a fairly shoddy string octet scraping away off-key.
A Wherry colleague, Bloomsbury USA book editor Karen Renaldi, said that it was typical of him to take pleasure in life’s oddities and imperfections.
“Book publishing often doesn’t make sense, and he adds a great sense of play,” she said. Wherry’s demeanor, she continued, “is his sense of mischief that is often mistaken for inscrutability.
“He illicits very many different responses from different people. He isn’t afraid to stir the pot.” In publishing, she said, having a colleague like Wherry who combines a sense of play with “understanding the limits of what publishing can achieve,” made him “the best boss that I ever had.”
Wherry’s sense of play has been shaped by his working life. He makes his argument about the imperfections of life forcefully, but carefully, with frequent references to his own experiences in a series of jobs, middle-management experiences that echo the popular office horror cartoon series “Dilbert”.
Once, during a long time living in London (Wherry has been in New York since 2000), he was selling soap products for Proctor and Gamble.
“I have a lifelong hatred of planning,” Wherry said. “When I worked at Proctor and Gamble, you had to have as a sales manager, shortterm, medium-term and long-term plans. And they had to be governed by certain measurements. For example, you couldn’t just say, I’m going to get bigger [detergent] displays.”
He continued the story, almost relishing the memory.
“They had to have silly mnemonics, like ‘base objective method measurements.’ So you had to fit it quite neatly into that. And I used to make these things up. Because I couldn’t be bothered. And I had no faith in them either.”
Warming to his argument, Wherry reached the logical conclusion of the experience.
“Because life by its own measure is imponderable. And random and arbitrary. And clearly unfair. And that being the case, you may as well get on with it.”
The remark ends with the smile once again, as if his conclusion is both an unassailable fact and a joke at the same time.
Perhaps it is both.
Wherry is now a Buddhist. It is a faith — or a philosophical position — that suits his temperament. He often reminds his listeners and colleagues that he “lives in the moment,” and therefore what the future may hold is irrelevant until it happens.
It is a useful accompaniment to his other article of faith, that “even when you do everything right, it might not work.” Luck has always played a role in his life, he said.
After several woeful sales jobs, including Proctor and Gamble, he had reached the end of his tether. Somehow, he landed a job at a publishing company, Corgi, in London. It was just luck, he says.
A few years later, he had moved to Penguin and one day discovered that a neighbor’s son had made himself a minor celebrity by solving the Rubik’s Cube, the infuriating cubic puzzle that was a craze in the 1980s.
He got the boy, a mathematical whiz, to write a book about solving the cube and published it. The moment of inspiration ended up in millions of copies of the book sold.
“But I could have decided that it wasn’t going to work as well,” he said. “Then it wouldn’t have happened.”
There is one event from his childhood that Wherry points to as a formative moment.
The neighborhood bully terrorizing his street frequently tackled Wherry as well. One day, his grandmother met him at the door of the house as he came home crying.
“She told me to go out there and find him, and to hit him,” Wherry said. “She said: ‘and if you come back crying again, don’t, because each time I’m going to push you outside to hit him again.’
“I remember hearing her say, ‘and after you keep hitting him, you’ll feel him weaken. And then beat the crap out of him.’ “
He did as he was told. The bully vanquished at his feet, he ran home and “she danced me round the room like a hero.”
His working life behind him, Wherry is preparing to start on a new venture, as a consultant to the publishing world. And he will continue to practice the Buddhism that has become his new faith. There are also his yoga classes, which he teaches in Washington Heights.
So what is he feeling now, after a life that teetered on near failure and ended up an almost accidental success? No longer having to wonder who he is or what he should do, Wherry’s answer is one word, and then he walks away.