It was midday on a Monday in early August of the year 2000 and the bidding on my first novel had reached six figures, then paused for people to track down more cash. I was 32. I’d never made over $12,000 in a year.
by Alex Shakar
“We’re closing in on a deal,” my agent told me on the phone. “I’m just turning him upside-down now and shaking him for loose change.”
It was midday on a Monday in early August of the year 2000. The Nasdaq, rested from its breather in the spring, was sprinting back up over 4,000 toward its March peak. Vice President Gore, demolishing the Bush son’s early lead, was pulling even in the polls. TV commercials depicted placid investors being wheeled on gurneys into operating rooms, stern-faced doctors diagnosing their patients with dire cases of money coming out the wazoo.
The previous Friday, bidding on my first novel had reached six figures, then paused for people to track down more cash. I’d later learn one editor spent the weekend trying to reach her boss on his Tanzanian vacation, finally getting through via the satellite phone of a safari boat on the Rufiji river, but that he wouldn’t OK a higher bid because he couldn’t get the manuscript in time.
I was 32. I’d never made over $12,000 in a year.
I’d signed on with my agent only a couple of weeks earlier. He was about my age, a clean-cut, preppie-looking guy named Bill, just making the transition from being an assistant to having clients of his own. He’d walked me through an open-floored office, agents and subagents stepping out from behind their iMacs and glass walls to shake my hand. We’d sat down in a sunny conference room, and after a few minutes I knew he was thoroughly attuned to my work; moreover he’d put his finger on a couple of remaining weak points, about which I agreed entirely and was eager to go home and address.
“How soon do you think an editor might read it?” I asked. I’d met with another interested agent a few days before. She’d told me it was the summer and things were slow, but my novel was so good—and so timely—that she knew an editor at Grove she was almost sure would read it in as little as four to six weeks.
Bill looked out the window, thoughtful. “It’s the summer, things are slow. Everyone’s hungry right now. We’ll give them the manuscript to take with them to the Hamptons to read over the weekend. Then the following week, you’ll meet with them and we’ll see who we like.”
It might have taken a week for the editors to read rather than a weekend. But the week after that I had meetings with editors scheduled every day.
This was, perhaps—after eight years as an itinerant grad student, sending out writing and waiting months to receive boilerplate rejection slips—somewhat overwhelming. By the first meeting, at a well-respected independent house, an all-too-familiar seasick feeling was coming on, as the editor introduced me around. Somehow over the last few days, nearly everyone in the office had read the manuscript. An assistant told me she loved how the metropolis my novel was set on the slopes of a smoking volcano, how no one who lived there ever brought it up or seemed to care. She asked me if I’d ever been to Hawaii, where she was from. Everybody there seemed smart, energetic, likable, young. I tried to smile as they crowded around me, aware I wasn’t saying much, got through my goodbyes, and made it to the bathroom, where I shat blood, and managed not to throw up.