April: Call My Agent
Updated: May 5
Some of you know that for the past six months I've been writing a spy novel. I'm happy to say that it's now finished, and has been sent to seven agencies for review. This has left me in a position I last occupied in 1986, when I was trying to finish a dissertation and interview for a job that would keep me gainfully employed for 32 years so I could retire and do something else. A position of exhilaration and fear. Will anyone out there want to take me on? As a graduate student at Princeton, I used my deeply-faked knowledge of BASIC to create a spreadsheet with 38 rows, each representing a university that had been sent my dossier. 36 rejections later, I was the world champion at being rejected, in a year when there were more jobs open for fewer candidates in the history of the MLA. It didn't matter, because one university believed in me. At least, it did then.
Now that that's all behind me, it's time to try again. And the process is strangely familiar. Using my half-assed comprehension of EXCEL, I have borrowed a Weekly Chore Schedule template and it keeps not allowing me to move rows around. No matter. I have found a site called "Jericho Writers" which tells me to subscribe to their site and get access to Agent Match. I pay the $43 a month because Jericho is the place in Oxford next to the Port Meadow where Lyra goes wandering among the Gyptians, and where Jude goes to stay when he ends up in Christminster. And they seem genuinely helpful, so when I write to their Ask Jericho concierge service to see if it's OK to use a pseudonym or if agents would balk at someone who couldn't use their real name, they write immediately back to say that they will get right back to me with a real answer. They still haven't come up with one, though they send a useful tip about something every day, so I guess I'm getting my $43 worth.
Their Agent Match is great, except that all the agents look like Dolores Umbridge or Professor Lupin. There was one I liked who looked like Luna Lovegood, but she moved agencies and is closed to submissions. (Closed to Submissions - now there's a phrase to be reckoned with.) I did find about 12 agencies to write to, but because 7 is a lucky number and because I have a set of 7-sided drinking glasses modeled after the Royal Family's set in Copenhagen, I wrote to 7. The lucky seven are all reading some version of my manuscript. At least, that's what I keep telling myself.
What's it about? Elevator pitch: an account of an actual British and American spy plot in Finland in August 1940. Click here to read more. Or keep reading: the plot involves the last boat to leave neutral waters before the German net closed in. On that boat, along with the military asset, were the Crown Princess of Norway, with whom FDR was in love, the Danish comedian Victor Borge, and 893 other refugees from all parts of Europe. The boat leaves from a tiny port town on the top of Finland, before the area was taken by the Germans and then given back to the Russians. The ship is called The Queen of the North (in real life, it was called American Legion). Everything else is made up.
So now you want to read it - go over to the other site to subscribe. (Yes, I paid for the domain name. Lucas is the name of the grandson of the two people the book is dedicated to, and Kino was our name in Poland before we left the shtetl in the 1860s.) And wish me luck finding an agent. I've never been so nervous. Or at least, I was back when I was 25. I seem to have both gained and lost confidence since then. But this feels new and right, and I really liked writing the book. 500 words a day for 5 days a week, every week until I was done. By the end it just grew and grew, like one of the mustard seeds in Jack the Beanstalk's pocket. I had three wonderful readers - Adam Hayward, Alex DeTillio, and Janette. And a whole crowd of people urging me on. I farmed out naval information to Wayne Redenbarger, aeronautical information to my two uncles in England and Switzerland, and the Rilke one-time pad code sequence to Geert Lernout. No help from my children, who refused to read the sex scenes, though my godfather's daughter said the first one was "hot." (Go, Jen!) This is what it must feel like to be a runner in a marathon, except I can stay fat and lazy and get all my information from Wikipedia. At one point in October Wikipedia was doing one of its fundraisers and it said "You have visited Wikipedia 29 times in the last 6 hours. Won't you contribute something?"
I'd like to thank the Academy in my mind - all those bits of quotations that ended up in the book on their own. "My mother is a fish." "As well you as another." "Looking into the heart of light." "Wait." "The primroses were over." (For those of you paying attention, that's Faulkner, Joyce, Eliot, Conrad, and Richard Adams.) It is an absolute blast to be in communication with the writers who are always in my head anyway. The bit about the message concealed in a place other than the obvious newspaper at the cafe was stolen from Le Carre. The bit about the emergency carburetor repair was lifted straight from Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia. I am a thief in the shadows, stealing bits of other people's phrases. A thieving magpie. And it has a trick ending even the agents won't see coming. They told me to put the spoilers in the synopsis but there's no way - they will just have to find out for themselves. If any of them get that far. Fingers crossed...