The mane man

THICK, black, lace-up boots: the toe a fat, satisfying curve, uppers dulled with the thin veneer of dust from the streets of Edinburgh and London.

We meet in the quaint, characterful Canongate offices, crammed down a lane off Edinburgh's High Street. It's 8am. Now that is proper bossman behaviour. It's an unlikely place for the approaching birth of one of publishing's most ambitious projects. But Byng, who has just had a BBC film crew follow him for a documentary, has persuaded top writers around the world to rewrite ancient tales, myths and legends, to be simultaneously published in 33 countries around the world. Margaret Atwood writes a funny, feminist version of Penelope and Odysseus, while Jeanette Winterson reworks the tale of Atlas to suggest our burdens are partly self-inflicted. David Grossman writes a psychological profile of Samson, whose strength lay in his hair, and whose weakness lay there too. And in women, of course.

I am not yet sure of Byng's weakness - though he is on two wives at 36 - but his strength is pretty obvious. He cares, and he makes others care. He understands how to motivate writers, how to inspire them. Simple, really: he takes only writers whose work he loves, and his confidence becomes their confidence. This year, his passion is for James Meek's The People's Act of Love. A few years ago, it was Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which became the Booker prize-winner after publication by Canongate. Martel's first two books had gone nowhere. But Byng read Life of Pi and wrote Martel an impassioned letter explaining why he loved his book, why Canongate should publish it. Martel said that if Byng matched his offer from Faber & Faber, the book was his. Byng did. "I think what we offered was something you can't put a value on, which was commitment to the book in terms of time and passion.

"Your love, your excitement, is not something you can just turn on. You either have that feeling or you don't - and if you don't, you shouldn't be involved. Find something you are passionate about. That has to be the benchmark that you always live by."

Byng also loves music. As a student, he ran Chocolate City, an Edinburgh nightclub, one night a week. So why did he ultimately choose literature? "Books contain everything from dreams to desires to hopes... to everything. Within books you are able to understand how different people live and think and feel. There's a lovely Hebrew proverb that says, 'Open a book and you are a pilgrim at the gates of a new city.' That's a great way to describe the delights that unfold. That whole sense of being somewhere you didn't know existed, but somewhere deeper down you recognise. You have a strong sense of dj vu, or a strange sense of connection with the writer, because it manages to articulate what it is to be human. That's what all great books do."

Byng's fate was sealed when he walked into Canongate for the first time to work on a voluntary basis. His own personal coalface. The feel of it, the excitement. The low-ceilinged, higgledy-piggledy offices with manuscripts piled high on the floor. But Canongate, then almost exclusively publishing Scottish books for Scottish audiences, was struggling financially. In 1994, Byng orchestrated a management buyout with the company's Scottish sales rep, Hugh Andrew.

Byng is the son of an English earl, but his parents were divorced and his mother had remarried a wealthy businessman, Sir Christopher Bland, a former chairman of the BBC and now chairman of BT and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Bland agreed to invest in the company, as did Andrew's family and the father of Whitney McVeigh, Byng's wife, whom he had married just the month before. There were snide comments about Canongate becoming a rich boy's toy, but Byng transformed it. He established the Rebel Inc imprint and made the Bible a bestseller with Pocket Canons. Successful. Quirky. Independent. International. Jamie Byng or Canongate? Both. One became synonymous with the other.

BYNG'S childhood home was big and sprawling, set in countryside outside Winchester. It had fantastic gardens, ending in sloping lawns that dropped down into fields and woodland. On the right was a big orchard, and along the bottom ran the river Itchin. Byng was happy there, but had no particular sense of privilege. "Although the house was big, it wasn't grand. It was kind of dilapidated. In a way, it was incredibly privileged compared to other people's lives, in that there was a lot of space to run around, but my mother and father weren't wealthy at all. They had this great big house, but could barely afford to live there."

His father was a gardener, spending his days working for someone else at the local nursery: tying up roses, cutting and trimming. "He had this shitty little van that he drove. My dad was as un-earl-like a person as you could imagine." Later, his father became a keeper on the stretch of river that flowed past the house, a job he still does though he's now 70. Ironically, part of the river has been bought by Byng's brother with inheritance money, and so father now works for son.

Privilege is a strange thing, muses Byng. It depends what you see as desirable. His friend has a father who was in a band, and the friend now owns a club. "He has been surrounded by musicians all his life, and to me that's one of the greatest privileges you could have." Yet Byng's eldest brother is a lord. "I am the Honourable James," says Byng sardonically, and laughs. It's not a title he uses.

Books were important as a child, but since he was the youngest of four children, all born within five years, there was always too much action to be constantly reading. His half-brother Archie, born to his mother and stepfather when Byng was 14, was the bookworm. Byng describes Archie as a child, reading with his mother and suddenly realising that the book he held was the key to all the others cramming the shelves of their home. All those books could be his. Byng had a similar feeling when he read To Kill a Mockingbird. He had been intimidated at first, but became riveted. "I remember thinking, 'There are all these books ahead of me.'"

He was 12 when his parents divorced. No trauma, he insists, though he admits it affected one of his siblings more than the others. "I don't think divorce inherently traumatises children. It depends how the parents handle it. I lost them being married together, but gained two step-parents, and in the case of Christopher, one who has had a huge effect on my life - a second father.

"You can change your life at any stage. Not always in exactly the way you want, but you can change it from what it currently is. I think that seeing my parents change their lives in such a fundamental way was living proof that change is always possible."

His parents continued to be "kind, gentle and loving" towards one another. "It wasn't like I witnessed this huge acrimonious split, and so to me it was a very positive and formative thing," he says.

Byng tried to do the same when he and Whitney divorced. The couple had two children, Marley and Leo. "My children are nine and seven and they didn't exactly jump for joy when they heard their mum and dad were getting divorced, but they see Whitney and I remain on very good terms with each other. We try to keep any arguments away from the children."

Byng and Whitney once wrote a newspaper article about each other. Reading it is like looking at someone's wedding snaps after they have divorced. Byng listens as I quote to him from Whitney's. "We looked into each other's eyes and, I really mean this, we saw into each other, inside of each other, beyond seeing, and there was a moment of total understanding and of total and complete love. A God-like experience that can only come from so much time with one another. It was like a meeting of the souls. We both felt it." Two years later they were separated.

Byng looks slightly taken aback, as though he had forgotten the detail. Bloody hell! He looks thoughtful. "It's intense. We were together for 12 years. I still love her in lots of ways."

But he has no regrets. "I just felt instinctively and intuitively that it was something I needed to do. That Emily Dickinson line, where she says, 'I dwell in possibilities'... I felt that wasn't happening. But I don't regret at all the decade we spent together. We had the most amazing time, the most significant of which is having Marley and Leo, who are amazing children.

'Amazing' is a word Byng uses repeatedly. Books are amazing. His children are amazing. His wife is amazing. Even his ex-wife is semi-amazing. It is the word of an optimist. It occurs to me that his optimism is, like Samson's hair, both his strength and his weakness. Constantly looking for amazing means constant change. And that's exhausting. Is that perhaps destructive of his personal life? "Publishing is one of those fields of work that can be incredibly all-consuming," he agrees, "because of the way books work on you and the way they kind of invade your brain. You're never entirely separate from it."

He has a house in Sutherland with no electricity and no proper road leading to it that he escapes to. And he loves cooking. But he and his new wife, literary agent Elizabeth Sheinkman, have a rule to help them switch off: no working beyond ten o'clock. Does it help that she's in the business? "Yes. But it helps more that she's an incredibly wise and brilliant woman. It's her wisdom I love more than her knowledge of the literary world."

But he spoke earlier about life changing, about being constantly open to possibilities, so why marry again? "Because within that commitment all sorts of possibilities exist. If you find someone who is your kindred spirit, you realise that together you can do more than you can do individually, and that's an incredibly exciting realisation."

A man I interviewed once told me that people couldn't be completely themselves in a relationship, and when I said maybe they could be more themselves, he dismissed me as naive. Byng gets cross when I put that to him. "Well, that's just cynical. I feel sorry for him. Of course you can have that attitude if you want, but f**k it, you can have all sorts of crappy attitudes and justify it.

"There are so many things to be negative about in this world. The way humans behave, what the world is turning into, the bankruptcy of politics, the way power operates, the way big business, corporate culture, has invaded so much of people's lives. But there are also so many brilliant things to celebrate and champion. The great thing about finding someone else with whom you feel an intense bond is that it gives you hope. With Elizabeth, it's an intensity of relationship through which anything is truly possible. Even more is possible. Not least the act of creating children."

But he doesn't have children with Elizabeth. "No, but I'll be surprised if we don't. Neither of us feels it would be a good idea right now. We've only been married two months, although we've been together three years. But there's no question, we want children at some stage. I'll be surprised if we don't have any."

Fatherhood altered his outlook. "It dissolves the ego to some degree. The ego doesn't go entirely. But being a father deflates your sense of self-worth, makes you realise there's something much more important than yourself, and I think it's hard to feel that until you have children. You start to understand truly unconditional love. You understand why someone wouldn't think twice about giving up their life for someone else. You can feel that about a partner as well, but I think you feel it with children in a way that's not even a question in your head. Well, it's not a question in my head."

That loss of ego has opened doors. "It can be incredibly liberating that you stop worrying about what you are going to do and think, 'F**k it, it doesn't matter.' You become even more fearless."

Fear is a brake. "You have to give children confidence or they will be fearful, and fear leads to stagnancy. I think the most important things for me to engender in any children I have are curiosity, confidence and kindness."

He is known for being a hedonist, though. He grins. "I love late nights. I love them. It's to do with some of the people who inhabit those early hours of the morning."

He describes drinking cocktails and swimming off Portobello beach at 5am. "You feel invigorated, rejuvenated. I know it's easy to go down a slippery slope, particularly with alcohol and cocaine, and particularly with heroin, which is something I have never really dabbled in, apart from smoking it a couple of times. I regard myself as quite bulletproof in some ways. I can get absolutely f**ked and then get up and work. But I have toned down my life considerably. It was time to. You have to look after yourself. It takes its toll in ways you can't tell."

ONE of Byng's first books as a child was a little blue paperback, The Myths of Greek Heroes. It's fitting to come full circle and publish the myths in his own way. It's what writers do anyway, Byng argues. "Every book is an attempt to comprehend the world. Creating the concept of afterlife was an attempt to understand what happened when the person you lived with - in the cave or wherever - died. Where did that person go? We're still asking. Science has never produced answers to our primary fears and desires. Myths are timeless and continue to ask the fundamental questions we ask ourselves. Writers, whether they are conscious of it or not, have always been retelling myths."

As we talk, Canongate staff drift in early, from shortly after 8.15am, waving at Byng through the glass window of his office. Their commitment is obvious, but is Byng's? He moved to London in January 2004, partly because his children now live there, but returns to Edinburgh fortnightly. The speculation is that Canongate will eventually move to London. Myth, according to Byng. "I came here when I was 19 and fell in love with this country and all that's in it - people, landscape, culture. I found it a refreshing change from the country I grew up in. Scotland has all sorts of scars on its national psyche, as does every country, but I find it more honest and up-front. Less bullshit. Less airs. People judge you less on what you look like and sound like. Of course, there are complete bigots in Scotland, same as everywhere, but in general I find it the most extraordinary country."

Had he gone to Mexico, New York, Amsterdam, perhaps other exciting things would have happened. But not the same things and not in the same way. "I have a fondness for what Edinburgh has done for me as a city and what its people have done. I'll never forget that or stop recognising that. It's home, more home than anywhere I've been."

But what does he say to those who criticise him for not promoting Scottish writing more? "F**k them," he says bluntly. "We support Scottish writers more by publishing them on a truly international list. Michel Faber is sold in 28 countries around the world. I don't think a Scottish publishing house should only publish Scottish writers. That's a blinkered way of understanding what a Scottish publishing house should do."

Byng is not blinkered. He has kept the widest possible panorama while remaining tucked down an Edinburgh alleyway, giving Canongate a very distinctive identity and outlook. Byng knows his own strength. Moving wholesale to London would be like Samson cutting off his own hair. "Canongate started here, and if it ends, it should end here," he says. "I don't see any reason why we would want to move it."

• The first two titles in Canongate's myths series, Weight by Jeanette Winterson and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, are published this weekend (12 each); Artworks Scotland (tonight, BBC2, 10pm) takes a look at the company's recent success

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