May 10th, 2013
For years I used to go along to the professional consultations at my local writer's conference, which just happens to be the prestigious Aspen Writer's Conference. It was my annual shot at securing an agent. I used to have fantasies about agents signing me there and then on the cool patio of some hotel under umbrellas next to many other such tables under other umbrellas shading other earnest writers and cool agents or editors. I noted from former years what cool lady agents and editors wore and tried to wear the same casual but sophisticated jackets and sandals.
But it's hard to stay cool when you're led by a young intern across a room of earnestness to a waiting agent who has all the balls in their court. Balls seem to desert you as you advance, shake hands and sit down, hoping your dream might come true but a little leary of this one because she hasn't looked up at you from your pages yet, despite the shaking of hands.
It's hot in late June in Aspen. I would drive my car to the consultation with the windows shut despite the fact that the air conditioner was broken. It was a choice between runaway hair and sweaty forehead. I usually opted for the sweat, which probably didn't improve my odds of winning anyone over.
I would check in with the eighteen year old intern and wait with the crowded others trying my best not to look like them. I never knew anyone and have never done well in the company of strangers. I also have the kind of face that shows every tiny fluctuation of emotion, a trait that has made people ask me from time to time if I am feeling all right. I imagine I looked somewhere between distressed and humiliated. People were probably trying not to stand too close to me and definitely trying not to look like me.
There was usually coffee on hand or milky lemonade with slices of lemon floating in it. The idea was to provide refreshments, but fat chance of me trying to pour any liquid into a cup under these conditions, let alone trying to negotiate it down my gullet. If I had spilled coffee on my shirt, I might as well have left right there and then. I remember one moment of "what shall I say next" when talking to a young female agent, when both she and I stared down at an un-waxed one inch square of leg just below my skirt and feeling that this probably wasn't going to be "a good fit", as they say.
As the years rolled by, I began to look more and more like the others, like the middle aged women with their memoirs of self-discovery after menopause. Mostly in these rooms the female sex is over represented. The agents and editors must really perk up when a man is brought to their table. They're probably thinking,"Now, this might be a good fit," and I bring that phrase up again, because it annoys me only slightly less than getting letters back from agents who don't think you're right for their "list." Their shopping list? Their laundry list? What the hell kind of list might I not be right for?
So you sit there under the umbrella (with the sun in your eyes nevertheless) trying to make meaningful eye contact with the agent or editor, groups which are also over-represented by the female end of things. She is usually younger than you, and you can tell that under the right circumstances she could be really catty, but you need her on your side so desparately, you are willing to let go of your principles and suck up.
Sometimes they even seem excited by your work; sometimes they are flat out rude. What do they have to lose? One (male) agent once told me to send him everything I had, which was three novels at the time. I sent him one. I didn't hear back and he didn't respond to phone calls or e-mails. Ever. Surely it couldn't have been that bad.
They are cool these people. There is no other word for it. They are cool because they are young and have got quite far already in the publishing industry. They get to leave the patio with the umbrellas and have cocktails with the real hot shots at writer's conferences (which aren't the ones under umbrellas with the sun in their eyes.) They are cool because they are playing with a full deck of silky playing cards and you have only one scrubby three of clubs.
So, why did I go through all those years of being frog marched over to the table with the cool person under the umbrella? Because you have to hope, and you have to hold onto the idea that against all odds someone is going to take your three of clubs and turn it into a shining star that you can wear on your forehead and then you won't look anymore like the middle-aged folks with the memoirs. Sometimes it happens, and you have to believe it can.
So, why am I going on about this? I'm telling you all this, because I just signed on to be in Pulitzer Prize winning Paul Harding's advanced fiction class next month at the Aspen Writer's Conference. For part of the fee, I am told, I get two free sessions with the agent or editor of my choice.
But guess what? I don't need to use them! Some agent or editor will be sitting there in my time slot glancing at their watch, wishing that Claire McDougall would be brought to them, and I'll be off somewhere else sipping a Martini in the cool shade under some umbrella. So there.