So there is the usual line up of men on C-Span. Why is it always men? Most especially on history, foreign affairs, and in the following case: terrorism. The author, a pleasant fellow, was not talking about “Cold Zero” a book I’m not recommending because he never got around to it, but rather speaking of what befell him-- before this book.
He was not boring, nor eccentric, not posturing, but a man so excited to finally have been published that it was hard for him to talk of anything else except his publishing difficulties and confusions.
This gig was his first leg of his book tour-- in fact, it was his very first reading, at Olsen’s books in Washington. D.C. I thought he was either a fun professor or at least a proficient public speaker in addition to being an FBI spook. Why? Because he was so at ease, also very funny-- clearly not inexperienced with large audiences.
Why bring him up? Because the first thing he said was that he had no idea how any book of his had finally gotten published. He reminisced at length and vividly about his first book-- a novel that did not make it.
He told the usual twisting tale; how he had contacted every writer he knew with an agent. Then how he received 90 rejection form-letters, the gist of each being, “We are very busy with our own authors. Sorry,” which was funnier (and far more touching) as he spoke than on this page.
Then he continued detailing those indelible if jumbled details about the unpublished book’s saga: How he, after two years, finally had a literary agent. True, she was in remote Canada, but she actually called him, which thrill was the last of his good fortune-- though he did not know so at the time.
At the time he only worried about how powerful was the Canadian agent, and would she have the “reach” to get him published and reviewed in the USA.
“Ask my wife” he said for the third time, “We cannot, either of us, reconstruct how we finally got here, what I’ve been dreaming about all my life“-- this said while beaming impishly at his audience (both in the bookstore & on C-Span.)
I suppose he dimly sensed that this Washington D.C. crowd, a mere three nights after 9/11 , were shell-shocked and only wanted to know about terrorism as in: ‘ If and when another attack.’
But I found his compulsion to rehash his old publishing woes fascinating and so I dove into his excitement--which got my mind blessedly off bomb/planes/ & bio fears, onto publishing, which yes, was totally off topic for his audience, but with which any writer would identify.
Soon, hands were waving back and forth, so many they obscured his body on the C-span screen–this audience urgent with questions about terrorists. Which was, fair enough, the topic of his timely book
Meanwhile, I happily followed his emotional trajectory, and understood that he had to finish the horrid story of his non-published book, which went something like this:
Writer: “So I figured since she called me, and since she was in Saskatchewan or some such place, this was a done deal. My wife and I debated if she, the agent, had clout, while celebrating with champagne that the long ordeal, getting a book published, was over. Celebrating that soon we'd have that book in our hands, and out into the world.
The assembled group be damned, he focused --perseverative would not be too strong a word--on the northern plains/ Canadian agent.
”The next call was from her secretary. She told me to turn on my fax machine right away. In a flurry of excitement, of course we did so, both of us so nervous we accidentally turned it off and then back to on. Elated.
My wife, she’s here, she’s in the back row, she can vouch for this, how I was yelling," 'the contract, the contract.'" Here he paused for dramatic effect–lost completely on his audience, who were one by one ducking down before the cameras, and leaving. “ It.was.not. a. contract," he said.
“The page that rolled out was instead the last rejection from someone who lived six hours from any city, not close to Anywhere, USA.
He continued: “She was rejecting my novel, because, and these are her exact words, she claimed that she in no way could represent me. Because, she wrote, "I have a curious, Freudian aversion to chicken coops.”
This excited man, who’d just published at a truly fortuitous moment--was far more obsessed with his long ago rejection, than with his audience or faking a rational speech.
I leaned forward on my bed, all empathy and maybe the only one who knew why he could not budge from the dead book and onto the live one. Which was the subject du jour, likely to be the subject de siecle. Or de many siecles.
He waved to the cameras as if to say, okay this will be a wrap. Then he pleaded with his diminished audience,
“If there is a psychologist here tonight, I would very much like to decode what that agent might have meant. I am telling you that I used the phrase “chicken coop” (here you could see the residual obsession of every unpublished writer with a loved manuscript) "in one fleeting scene and those two words never recurred again." (aka: chicken coop.)
Which story really did have to be derailed because now he was getting hissing and boos, with many more walking out on this whole crazy segue-- while I was thinking just how hard it IS to remember how a book is born, how to track in hind site the sequences. I was thinking of all those odd steps and missteps; up, down and sideways; of the truly bizarre cast of characters met along the way, what any first book by a new author undoubtedly does encounter en route to getting (or not getting): published