After graduate school I drifted into a glamour job as a publicist for a well-known book publisher, where they paid me a pittance to write press releases and book jacket copy. It was fun for a while, until I went to my high school reunion and someone said, “I thought by now I’d be reading about you in the New York Times Book Review.”
“No,” I said, cringing. “I’m the publicist who makes sure other writers books get reviewed there.” I’d been editor in chief of our school yearbook; my poetry had been published in the school literary journal. My classmates remembered me as a writer; I was the one who’d forgotten.
So I signed up for a fiction writing class at the New School with an instructor who’d once written for the New Yorker. I’d never written short stories before. I turned one in; the next week, he returned it with a note: “I have several strong feelings concerning the story’s marketability. Rather than go into them here I ask that you telephone me so that we may discuss those possibilities.”
He wanted my permission to give the story to his agent, Candida Donadio, a name I knew from my work in book publishing. She was legendary, a hard drinking, potty-mouthed, tough old broad who’d been the agent of her generation, representing Thomas Pynchon, Mario Puzo and Phillip Roth. I felt like a fraud. I’d written exactly one short story. But I told the instructor yes.
A week later Candida sold the story to Cosmopolitan magazine for the dazzling sum of $1500. She invited me to a celebratory lunch at the Russian Tea Room. I’d pictured her as a cultured, elegantly dressed older woman; the maitre d’ showed me to a table where a short, heavy-set woman with hair coiled in an unfashionable bun atop her head sat chain smoking.
“Why you’re just a baby,” she rasped. We shook hands. I could barely breathe, let alone eat. I was kneeling at the altar of literature. All through lunch she fed me publishing tidbits. The first book she’d ever sold, she said, had been a novel by Joseph Heller called Catch-18. They changed it because Leon Uris was already publishing a book called Mila-18. “He switched it to ‘Catch-22 because Oct. 22nd is my birthday,” Candida said.
What was I doing there? I was an imposter. This was a fluke. Should I come clean? “You know,” I ventured, “I don’t have a body of work to show you yet. This is my first story.”
She cackled. “You’re full of shit,” she said. A month later she sold my second story to Cosmopolitan.
It’s not supposed to be this easy, I thought. And of course it wasn’t. Over the next few years I wrote several more stories, amassing a collection of encouraging rejection letters from the New Yorker and the Atlantic. Each Christmas I sent a gift box of fruit and cookies to Candida’s office. “You’re a honey for thinking of me, and I send you in return good wishes for the New Year in which I hope to see a novel by L.C.,” she wrote.
I produced that novel. Candida hated it. She returned the manuscript to me with a note so crushingly painful it still makes me shudder. It ended, “I regret so much. And after all the years of pears and cookies. Lordy!!”
Eventually I scraped myself off the floor.
Even if I wasn’t a novelist, even if the most high powered literary agent on the planet told me I was full of shit, I was still a writer. Isn’t a painter still an artist even when no one buys his canvases?
“It is necessary to write,” Vita Sackville-West said, “if the days are not to slip emptily by.” I still fill the days with words, because I cannot imagine doing anything else. Writing calls me home — to myself.