Late 1990s. December. After three years, I write “The End” on the last page of my tough-guy, hard-boiled, noir crime thriller. All I need now is a great agent – someone who will believe in me – someone who will champion my talent – get my book published. Hope springs eternal . . .
And not in vain! A couple of weeks later, I luck out! Thomas Ganer, a hip, young, celebrated literary agent with a now-defunct agency in the DeNiro building in downtown NYC, takes me on! Wow! He takes me to lunch. He cautions that the book will be a tough-sell. But, he’s on-board. By the end of lunch I’ve signed the contract. Oh, joy! I’ll soon be a published author! Big Time here I come! I’ll be laughing all the way to the bank . . .
Or not. I wait a couple of days for Thomas to call with the good news. I can’t wait to hear him say the words: Black Lizard, Vintage, Ecco, they all want you! He doesn’t call. I wait another day. But my Great Agent doesn’t call, again. What the f*#%! My schizophrenic ego pipes up: You’re not good enough. No, you’re too good. I manage to hold these opposing positions at abeyance for another day. After all, Thomas represents other writers, I tell myself. (But really, who cares about them? asks a shameless little voice in my head.) I spend the following day waiting, staring at the telephone. Literally. (This is the first time I experience “waiting” as an action verb.) The day comes and goes. No call from Mr. Great Agent. Nada. Bupkis. I manage to contain the obsessive egotistical beast that’s just this close (hand gesture) to blowing its top, for one more day.
In the morning I pick up the phone and I call him. (What a novel idea!) I get his assistant, introduce myself (as if I really need an introduction!) and am told that “Mr. Ganer is not available.” I protest, “But it’s me, Bonne Kozek, calling.” And he repeats himself – a little louder this time. Ouch. My eyes start to puddle up. Oh no you don’t! I fight back the tears, swallow a big lump of pride, and leave a message. After I hang up I take a big breath. (Hmm. How long has it been since I last took a breath?) I blow my nose and throw cold water on my face. I’m surprised: I feel oddly anxiety-free. I mean, Thomas is definitely going to call me any minute now because as soon as he gets my message he’s going to drop whatever it is that he’s doing and make himself available to me immediately. (In fact, he’ll probably give his poor dumb assistant the axe when he finds out that he was snippy with me!) So reassured, I once again settle into the arduous and exhausting task of waiting. And then . . .
The unbelievable happens: He doesn’t call, again. Six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock. Nothing. A chasm cracks my brain in two, and the blood rushes in. I can’t think. I can’t eat. I can’t speak. And I definitely can’t write. (I’ll never write again!) I stew throughout a sleepless night and by morning I’m simply beside myself. Literally. Something has snapped: I can no longer distinguish right from wrong; I don’t know what’s good for me. And it’s in this impeccably irrational state that I decide it’s high time that I take matters into my own hands. Ergo, I fax Mr. Big-Shot-Literary- Agent-Who’s-Such-A-Bigwig-Hot-Shot-That-He-Can’t-Even-Return-My-Call, an ultimatum – issued on a single sheet of paper and written with an extra-wide black Sharpie. And here it is: He can, 1) return my manuscript to me within 24-hours, or – here it comes – 2) “Or else.” Or else? Yep, “or else”! (And this is where I spell out what some people could interpret – if they wanted to be sticklers about it – a somewhat alarming threat to his person.) A moment later the fax machine spits out the confirmation: The fax has been delivered. Man, do I ever feel pleased with myself. No more waiting! No more torment! No more holding my breath till I hear from my Great Agent!
Half an hour later I’m catatonic. What did I do?!? How can I undo it?!? The doorbell rings. I shuffle over to the intercom. It seems that Mr. Muckamuck-Literary-Agent chose option number one: Mr. Thunderball Express won’t give me my manuscript until I sign for it. “Return receipt required.”
The next few days are a blur. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t speak. And I definitely can’t write. (I’ll never write again!) I’m filled with remorse, regret, and unbounded shame. I go into mourning. I’m miserable. Life is over. But wait! What’s wrong with me? Things aren’t so bad. I mean, when you really think about it, what I did was kind of amusing – maybe even hilarious . . . in an unfunny kind of way. And if I got one Great Agent, well surely I can get another one! (Rationalization and delusion are as alike as two peas in a pod.) But within a couple of days all my renewed hope goes straight down the toilet.
It happened at a fancy-schmancy dinner party at the home of a celebrated book critic, which party was attended by some of New York’s most legendary literati. At first things went swimmingly. I mingled. I participated in clever repartee. I even made some guy with thick black-framed glasses chuckle. And then the shoe dropped. Mr. Celebrated-Book-Critic took me by the elbow and excitedly introduced me to a rather large group of Very-Important-People. The introduction was followed by a curious and uncomfortable few moments of silence, which was followed by a shared rebuff, as they one after the other whispered, “Oh, she’s that Bonnie Kozek,” and summarily spun around on their heels and sauntered off. That was the moment I knew: I had burned all my proverbial bridges.
I had to face the facts: I wanted an agent. I wanted to be published. I wanted to write. Yet I was clearly incapable of making all three of these things happen at the same time – chalk it up to immaturity, lunacy, short-sightedness, arrogance, impulsiveness, egotism, the inability to separate myself from my work – or all of the former. So, since I couldn’t do all three, I had to make a choice. The odds of me finding another agent were slim to none. Plus, even if I did, I had to consider that the odds of me landing in the pokey for following through on what some people might consider – if they really wanted to be sticklers about it – a somewhat alarming threat – were definitely greater. (Becoming a convicted felon didn’t seem like a particularly good career move – although in retrospect, I’m not so sure about this.) I considered publishing my book, but at the time that wasn’t feasible. That left fact number three: I wanted to write. Now that was something I could do! And that is exactly what I did.
Fast forward. 2008. I’ve written three and a half novels, two oral histories, a lexicon for lovers, and a book of poetry. And, since no one can ever accuse me of learning from my mistakes, I even tried to work with another Great Agent: Sterling Ripley, of a distinguished Chelsea agency. Sterling is a wonderfully talented agent who, by the by, has a very dumb assistant. (I ask myself, Is being dumb a job prerequisite for an assistant to a literary agent? Or am I just bitter and hypercritical?) (Aside: See below for answer.) Things were swell for a while with me and Sterling. He said he loved the novel I was writing – and even used words like “remarkable” and “brilliant.” But in the end he changed his mind – right after his dumb assistant read the manuscript and told his boss he couldn’t follow it. (See above Aside for questions, to wit I answer: Yes. No.) When I received the final email rejection from Mr. So-What-If-I’ve-Been-Telling-You-The-Work-Is-Brilliant-For-The-Past-Two-Years, I went into shock – which may have accounted for the fact that I fell down two flights of stairs, drove my car into a ditch, and walked like a zombie into a stranger’s home and proceeded to join the bewildered little family at their dinner table where they were just about to partake of a really nice home-cooked meal – and boy, could I have used a really nice home-cooked meal right about then!
Anyhoo. 2008. I’ve got all this work – all these lonely books – piling up in my studio. And suddenly I realize: Hey, it’s 2008! Writers have choices! I’m a writer! I have choices! In fact, with a minimal investment a writer can get her work published and into the hands of readers who can decide for themselves whether or not her work is any good. And unless you are the kind of writer who just writes for herself – which I am no longer – that’s really all that matters.
A few months ago I took the plunge: I decided to self-publish. I got a website and, when the book went live (meaning it is in print and available online and in bookstores) I got a publicist. And now all I have to do is “wait” – Oh, joy! – for the reviews to come in!
In conclusion, and to answer the question posed in the title of this article, To Write, To Publish, or To Commit a Felony? My answer is this: Write and Publish. Hey, two out of three ain’t bad.
Note: The names of literary agents in this article have been changed in order to protect the innocent, the not-so-innocent, and the downright guilt-ridden.