People always ask me why I work in publishing. I usually admit that I ask myself that question every day. As an agent, so much of the work we do with the author is on spec; there’s no salary – we live off the commissions that we make and split with the agency. If I can’t sell your book, and lately that’s a very real possibility, then 15 percent of nothing is nothing. But while it can be a financial bummer, there are parts of this job that I just wouldn’t be able to experience if I switched to advertising. And what happened last week was a prime example why.
A couple months ago I got an email from a student at a liberal arts college I’d never heard of down South. His email was personal and to the point: we had never met but he had researched agents thoroughly and realized I had worked on a couple books he especially liked. He listed some recent personal accomplishments and mentioned that he would be in NYC on a field trip the following month. Could he buy me a cup of coffee to pick my brain about writers and writing? Something in his tone made me want to help him (he called me ma’am), so I agreed to meet him for coffee when he was in town.
With writers, you just never know. I’ve seen people drop by the office with their unsolicited manuscripts on their way to Bellevue. But once I saw this baby-faced kid leaning up against the door of the coffee shop, his hair a tumble of curls, a briefcase at his feet, hands in his pockets, I knew it would be fine. He had the immediate authenticity of youth. He was unpolished, clean and hopeful, but not at all affected or "cool." He ordered a hot chocolate and a piece of apple pie. I sat back with my tea and listened.
What happened next has probably already changed my life. It’s certainly given me a little more hope for the human race (hope that I can stop believing there’s no hope). He told me the story of his life. As you might expect he’s survived and overcome personal hardship, poverty, violence and too much responsibility way too soon. “I had to write it all down, I think,” he said, “so I could understand what happened to me. So I could let it out.” I nodded. I hear this a lot from people writing their own stories, and it’s something that I understand intuitively; readers are like therapists for writers. Once the story is read, it’s finally real, the writer is unburdened, the reader a witness.
It would have been enough for me to have met the real Gilbert Grape, heard his incredible story, talked books with him - I wasn’t really expecting anything else. But 90 minutes after we met he opened his briefcase, the one procured at a pawn shop for this visit, and produced a perfectly formatted complete memoir. I read it that night in awe (for one thing, there was nary a typo). In some ways, it was a mess – it really was structured like the personal exercise he said it was – but the writing itself was transcendent. It was thoughtful and funny, profound but spare, and most of all bare and full of color. There were several anecdotes that could inspire a book of their own. I wept with gratitude and wrote him immediately offering representation, and to help him craft a proper memoir. “I think I know how to help you,” I said, and realized I was saying these words to someone not used to hearing them.
What a predictably selfish motivation, and yet, this is why I do it. It’s a thrill to get to discover someone’s voice, hear their story for the first time, help them shape it, introduce it to New York, to The World. It only takes one heartbreaking passage to know you’re alive. As Denis Johnson wrote in my favorite book
, I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.