Coffee with a Literary Agent

Mid December and my son is flying to England for interviews at colleges in and around London. I’m selected to go with him, to act as a guide through the complexities of Southern and South West Trains and the London Underground.

I decide in a moment of heady optimism to contact the Literary Agency which ran the on-line writing course I took earlier in the year and ask for a meeting.  I don’t expect a positive response, but as ‘Tenacity, perseverance and a willing acceptance of rejection are necessities for the aspiring novelist.’ I decide to try anyway.

A short, casual email mentioning that I would be visiting London and suggesting I drop in for a coffee to say hello seems the best approach. Eight hours later and the casual email is ready to go.  As expected I receive no reply, but I persevere, with tenacity, willing to accept a rejection and I email again.

‘Thanks for your email Ralph, we’re very busy this time of year with Christmas and budgeting but please call us when you’re in London and we’ll see what we can do.’

I’m stunned.

A week later and the son is at the National Theatre buying books with titles of eye-watering pretension, and I’m pacing up and down the embankment, screwing up the courage to make the call. I’ve worked in telesales, I’ve cold called, but this call is different. My mouth is dry; my heart is pounding, and I’m feeling ever so slightly sick. I haven’t felt this way since the first time I rang my future wife and asked her out for a drink. I’m struggling to get the tone right and I’m floundering: when does confident tip over into arrogant? Or unassuming slip into obsequious?

A deep breath, one final rehearsal of my opening line and I press Call. No answer, inevitably.  More pacing, more rehearsals of the five most probable lines of conversation and I try again.  The call goes through to voicemail, with a request to leave a message. I haven’t rehearsed a message, so I panic and press end. Composing a short voice message is going to take some serious consideration.

I wait an hour, by which time we’re at Trafalgar Square outside the National Gallery. I pace, ponder, rehearse again, breath and press call. A voice answers, a male voice, not the M.D.’s voice, which immediately throws me. I panic but manage to squeeze out a few words in roughly the right order.  The male voice goes off to check if the M.D. is free, she’s not, but he suggests I try later in the week. I say Wednesday; he says okay.

On Wednesday morning I drop the son of at The Central School of Drama and pace the streets until I’m ready. I press call; it rings then flicks to voice mail. I know I shouldn’t leave a message, and then I do. I want to say something like ‘I’m calling to check if there are any gaps in the M.D.’s schedule today.’ At the last moment, I decide that ‘schedule’ sounds too American, and switch to ‘diary.’ The sudden change throws me and rather than saying “gaps” out of nowhere ‘holes’ appear. I say: ‘’I’m calling to check to see how holy her diary is today.’’

I let out a small yelp and hang up. I can’t believe I’ve just said: ‘holy.’ I’m supposed to be a writer, which means I’m supposed to be good with words. I call again to try to delete the message, but the male voice answers and yes she’s free in an hour.

I arrive early, and I’m pacing again. It’s just a chat. All I need to do is demonstrate that I could handle an interview or grace a panel and that I’d be a real sweetheart to work with, that’s it. Of course, I’ve done my homework; I know my 2016 book of the Year, and who on the M.D.’s list I admire most. I’ve even researched the books the M.D has  written. I am ready. Then the doubts come bubbling up through the cracks in the pavement: just how do you pronounce Hardinge? Does it rhyme with hinge, or is the e silent? Are my book choices trite and unoriginal? Should I have brought along a copy of her novel to sign? I steady myself: Agents need writers, they live off writer’s talent, they need me to survive.

I enter the building. White washed minimalist reception, two security women in uniform. The Agent’s office is on the fourth floor. I tell security I have a meeting, they ask for my name and then check to see if Browning is on the list. It is, and I’m allowed in. I guess they have to be careful. Otherwise, the Agency would have no end of desperate wannabes pitching up for a chat.

Now I’m in the Agent’s reception, sitting on one of the three art deco, brown leather sofas. I think of all the writer’s bums which must have sat on the same sofa as I am now. I stand and sit on the other sofa, to double my, ‘I sat on the seat that…’ bum coverage. The receptionist spots my Goldilocks move to the third sofa, and I sit back down quickly.

A young woman in a voluminous fur coat arrives, followed by a white-haired man wearing rimless glasses and a long cashmere coat. Both look like authors; I don’t. I’m in a gray ski jacket, black shirt, sand coloured jeans and board boots. I wanted to say mature, but not old, and still active; the kind of guy who could hang with the kids and knock out ten novels before dementia dragged me down. But now I think gray ski jacket just says anorak. To be fair, I had little choice: a crotch length double breasted leather jacket, which said over the hill Russian bouncer or a duffle coat, once all Oasis swagger but now more of a Paddington Bear role play prop. So the ski jacket it was. A wave of imposter syndrome sweeps through me. I picture the entire Agency filling into reception to point and laugh at the author of the ‘laughably hopeless manuscript.’

Then the M.D. appears and takes me to her office where the admin manager and her assistant await. They are charming, friendly and engaging. There are no interview, selection panel questions, just chatting about the weather, living in London, my son’s course, Turnpike Lane, Oyster Cards, and men’s novelty Christmas jumpers, God alone knows why I brought that up. All too soon it’s over. I’d failed to land any serious publishing points: no selling in of my manuscript, no mention of my other story ideas or my soon to be published picture book.

There’s just one nugget to chew over: as I leave, I say I hoped seeing me wouldn’t open the floodgates for all the other on-line graduates to pile in with demands for a meeting. The M.D. says to tell everyone she only agreed to see me because I came from so far away. The phrase ‘’tell them,” repeats in my head. Did she mean that was the reason she’d seen me or was that the excuse I should give? Combing through that one could keep me occupied well into New Year.

They leave me at the lifts. I admit I did take a photo of the company logo on the wall as a souvenir. I didn’t take a selfy. I will send a thank you note, but I won’t add a link to this blog, definitely not.

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