An Agent Unveiled
For several months I was involved with a small Canadian literary agency with one principal, a former practicing contract attorney (I’ll call her Virginia, though that isn’t her real name), and her associate Sandra, a woman who claimed to have years of experience in the New York publishing scene as an agent and editor. Before email became ubiquitous, ours was largely a relationship by mail—post cards, letters, faxes, and, occasionally, phone. With my home in California, the physical distance prevented us from meeting, so I had to form my impressions by other means—the tone of the letter, the timber of voices, phrasings, silences. It was a thoroughly modern partnership, and like many modern marriages, it offered no promise of permanence, satisfaction, or financial stability.
Since this was my first agent, I had nothing to compare the relationship to except idealized sketches I’d read in articles and books on how to choose an agent. But it was nothing like the descriptions I’d read of the ideal agent/writer contract, where the agent acts as buffer and muse, encouraging the writer to write, write, write, leaving the driving to us.
I signed a contract with my agents based on a biography for children I had written. I assumed that since both were enthusiastic about the biography, with the prospect of a series, this unanimity would continue. However, I was disappointed when they asked me to wait a few months before submitting a novel I had completed, a coming-of-age story. They claimed to be overloaded with manuscripts.
A couple of months later, Virginia finally wrote me. I opened the letter slowly, trying to guess the contents, preparing myself for the worst—they wouldn’t like it. The letter’s tone was negative and even angry: the biography hadn’t sold yet, a surprise and a disappointment to them. While it wasn’t stated, the message was that they might stop sending out inquiries any minute. And I’d only reached the end of the opening paragraph!
I couldn’t believe they would give up so easily after only sending out the manuscript for two months. Where were these heroic agents I’d heard about that persist until a publisher finally makes an offer, Amazons pushing past all obstacles?
Eventually, I reached the paragraph where she told me that the novel had caused her and her associate to have one of their rare disagreements: Virgina said, “Sandra likes it; I don’t.” Well, that response was clear enough. No easing into the negative. No softening the blow with some recognition of the work’s worth. No building up of the writer’s fragile ego so she can keep writing in the face of rejection. Her critique was that the narrator had a “curious tone.” Curious? That didn’t tell me anything.
I decided to phone, wanting to communicate my response to the letter’s negative vibe and to clarify some vague statements. When I did get through to her (she was out of town for a few days), her voice was warm, she didn’t sound angry, and she seemed quite reasonable, unaware, apparently, of how curt and discouraging she had sounded in the letter. (I had my husband and a friend read the letter to make sure I wasn’t overreacting; they each had the same response I did.)
After Virginia gave me a lecture on tone and audience that I respectfully listened to, noting her own tone and unawareness of audience both in her letter and in that phone call, she gave me Sandra’s home phone number so I could get her take on the novel.
Sandra didn’t sound surprised when she heard my response to Virginia’s letter. In fact, she appeared to be expecting my call. While Virginia was warm on the phone, she was still all business and aloof. Sandra was the opposite—emotional, stream-of-consciousness, slightly hysterical.
I found out that Sandra had done damage control many times for Virginia, this not being the first time correspondence had generated a reaction from clients similar to mine. Sandra also told me that the agency was having “cash-flow problems” and she had been cut back to one day a week. Not encouraging, but she insisted they were not going under.
A new agency, only about two years old, they already represented some fine writers. While Sandra had been in the business for years as an agent and editor, Virginia hadn’t, except as a writer herself of a published non-fiction book. Hence Sandra constantly had to shore up pessimistic Virginia, who, apparently, was unaware that agencies often go through long dry spells. As Sandra said, it takes at least five years for a new one to stabilize.
I felt relieved to learn that I was not just being ultra-sensitive; Virginia had alienated other clients. Unlike Virginia, Sandra told me everything, more than I wanted to know: about her chronic depression and how ironic it was that she ended up encouraging Virginia, about her family’s floundering finances, about her troubled kids.
Yes, the honeymoon was over. No longer were these women the invincible, removed, godlike humans I’d imagined that would hang in there through thick and thin, advocating for me, eventually selling my work. They were as vulnerable as I, only more so in some ways.
While I have only my own rejections to deal with, agents carry the weight of all their writers’ failures. In addition, they are trying to support themselves in a business that has become increasingly difficult. The doorway into publishing seems to be narrowing for writers and their agents: there’s less room for risk, less interest in quality. As Sandra told me, business interests increasingly run the publishing houses, and publishers also are reducing their staff. The bottom line becomes the most important one—editors are being eliminated, changing the whole character of publishing. Sandra also insisted that had my main character in the novel been a boy, the book would be picked up instantly. Prejudice still exists against females in publishing as elsewhere.
After talking to Sandra for half an hour and hearing her woes, mine seemed insignificant. At least I still had the satisfaction of creating the work, of engaging it, of giving birth to something original. Whether I sold anything ultimately didn’t really matter, though of course I want to find my readers. In a way, searching for my audience is not unlike a religious seeker’s search for God. It requires the same dogged determination, the same religious devotion, the same certainty that the journey is worth it. It’s quite a love affair and may be an unrequited one. Seeing it in this light helps me to continue.
Though the honeymoon was over with my first agents, from then on I had a more authentic relationship with them. I felt part of the family, the child who finally wised up about her parents’ situation. Virginia came across as curt in her letters, but I recognized it was only her lawyer’s persona. Having labored under the notion that an agent should fill some ideal, a combination nurturing mother, aggressive father, enthusiastic listener, and cheering section, I realized that I might need to play these roles for them.
Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.
My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing. I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all. I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week. We are so fortunate here at the Lake now. The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript. Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.
Here is a synopsis:
Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.
A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.
Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.
In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.
Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.
But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.
Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.