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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Writing "AmericanRama, Part 15: A literary agent nibbles the cheese, I turn mouse

Charles Bukowski said, "Fante was my god." 
 By Hugh Gilmore

             Lately, I've been seeking a literary agent to represent me in selling a novel I've worked on for the past two-and-a-half years. In the first few weeks of May this year, I spent entire days researching several websites that list agents and their specialties. After creating a list of suitable agents, I composed letters to them, describing myself and my work, and included whatever samples they requested. I've been very formal, very to-the-point, and very careful not to waste what they are quick to tell you is "their" precious time. (Like doctors who keep you waiting an hour for your one-minute brush-off.)
            By the time I had sent out my 35th query, I'd already received my 10th robo-rejection letter and started feeling like Lucille Ball trying to keep up with the whipped-cream-cake conveyor belt. Discouragement is a constant temptation, but one must play the game as it is played and keep trying, hoping for a break.
            Late in the afternoon of May 19, I began browsing the website of an agent, whom we'll call Mister Goodtaste. I read his agency's statement and his brief biography. This man and his agency are definitely Top Shelf. Too big to be bothered with anonymous me. But then I read the list of his current clients. And I got very excited.
            This man represents Dan Fante! Dan Fante happens to be one of the best, most honest, angry, could-care-less writers in America. His novels include, "Mooch," "Spitting Off Tall Buildings," "86'd," and "Chump Change."
            But now the really big news for me is this: he helped Dan Fante get a publishing contract for his book, "Fante, A Memoir," (soon coming) a memoir Dan wrote about his relationship with his father, John Fante.
            John Fante (1909-1983), was one of the the greatest American novelists most people never heard of. Charles Bukowski said, "Fante was my god." If forced to describe my own writing novel-writing style, I'd say it was J.P. Donleavy ("The Ginger Man") meets John Fante. Nasty, but funny.
            And my computer screen had opened to Mister Goodtaste's website, I swear, just as the mail arrived, bringing me a package containing four John Fante novels I had earlier decided to purchase and reread.
            This was all too coincidental. I had an immediate hunger to read Dan Fante's memoir of his father and felt a deep regret that I'd have to wait months, maybe a year, before it came out.
            What the heck. I'd been sending very formal agent queries, being a good little wannabe writer all day. So I decided I'd write a letter just for the fun of it.
            I wrote: 
"Dear Mister Goodtaste:
"I probably have a snowball's chance in Haiti getting a nod from someone of your stature, but I wanted to part from my usual, methodical mode of querying and risk wasting a precious nickel by telling you something. I am really jealous that you've been able to read the biography of John Fante written by his son. If that book were published today, I'd beat down the doors of Barnes & Noble to get a copy. Congratulations on signing him. 

"Back to work: I'm seeking representation and contacting you because my novel features off-the-wall characters in a weird literary setting. In this story, normal, decent people stumble into a world where the rules are turned upside down. As it runs along, each character has a firm grasp of only one small piece of the big picture in a scenario resembling "The Blind Men and the Elephant" meet Tarentino (though not as raw and mean as the latter).

 "My novel's working title: AmericanaRama. Genre: Literary fiction with a whydunit crime and elements of Bibliomystery. 305 pages. 115,000 words. Status: Finished.

"HOOK: When Claudell and Patrick, two meth-tweaking, rednecked burglars show up in a Midwestern college town offering to sell a stolen library of rare Americana to Klaus Richter, an unstable, immigrant bookshop clerk, the mess-ups that follow expose some strange attitudes towards love, loyalty, and sex among the people drawn into their intrigue. 
            Within three days one woman will be murdered, another kidnapped, and a third, Darlene-the-fence, will spend the final afternoon sitting in a closet armed with two knives, awaiting the man she thinks wants to kill her. In the big showdown at Darlene's hidden cabin in the woods, an improvised auction is forced on two desperate booksellers. Three days of frustration, greed, lust, and anger culminate in Klaus's redemption just before the explosion from which only three people will walk away, changed forever.

            Okay, I wasted a nickel being a little nutty and forward. But, I can't stand sitting in a chair being serious all day. At 5 o'clock I knocked off for the day.
            At seven, masochist that I am, I checked my e-mail. Two more robo-rejection letters. Par for the course. And what's this? A reply already from Mr. Goodtaste. Holy Toledo! Here's what he wrote:

"Dear Hugh:
"This sounds strangely fascinating...can you send me the full after May 31 (I will be at BEA next week and just don't want to be drowning in manuscripts).

Just remain patient, Dan's book will come out soon enough!
Best, Goodtaste."

            I've been floating ever since. And busy. I arose the next morning and starting revising, refreshing, rediting my manuscript. I worked from six to ten hours a day for the next eight days. All of the rest of my life has been on hold.
            As I write this column on Sunday afternoon, Janet, my wife and fellow writer, is reading the story for the first time. For the past two years I have not shared a word about my novel with her, or anyone. I am excited. I hope she likes it and does not find too many mistakes. Tomorrow I'll make her suggested corrections and print a fresh copy. Then I'll box the typescript and mail it first-class on Tuesday morning and cross my fingers.
            Whether he takes a year or a week to read my novel, whether he likes it or he doesn't, I'll have had the pleasure for a while of having been told by a professional that my work "sounds strangely fascinating."
            That's all we folks pecking away down here in the basement need to hear.

(Note: "Goodtaste" is a pseudonym I employ, for many reasons.)

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