People ask me, “Where do the questions come from?”
I answer, “They come from people all over, usually via e-mail.”
People ask, “Are these questions all from your friends? Do you tell your friends to write in funny questions? Is this all a set-up?”
I answer, “Anyone who asks a question, funny or otherwise, is a friend. Only very rarely, and only when I can’t resist, do I answer a question when I personally know the asker. Rather, I always prefer and will give preference to those asked by you, dear readers unknown to me, via e-mail.”
People ask, “When will you answer my question?”
I answer, “Patience, children. All will have their turn.”
People don’t actually ask me the questions noted above. That’s just a little conversation I have in my head. When I imagine this conversation, I picture the “People” asking the above questions as a group of French children; they ask each question in chorus, with a slight accent, and wide, expectant eyes. That is why I say “Patience, children, all will have their turn.”
Actual people actually did ask me the questions below, and I have answered them, my dears, to the best of my poor ability. I do not picture the askers as French children. I picture each of them differently. I try to give each of them a certain interesting characteristic—a cowlick, a crooked smile, an eye patch, a long swannish neck, a certain shyness—so that I can personalize them and give to my answers the quality of an friendly, even intimate, discussion.
Please notice that this week I am answering no questions about The Lord of the Rings or casino quality clay poker chips or any other subject besides publishing and writing. The last question is the exception—it is about Cajun music. You, too, may ask a question, and on any subject, by sending e-mail to email@example.com. If you have asked a question and are waiting for it to be answered, I say: patience.
Lauren (no last initial given) asks: My name is Lauren and I was wondering if you could email me the summary of the novel I AM THE CHEESE by Robert Cormier.
John Kellogg Hodgman, Former Professional Literary Agent: Answering this question would require research on my part, and so I would rather provide you with this. It is a synopsis of THE CHOCOLATE WAR (which is not I AM THE CHEESE, but is a novel by Robert Cormier) as composed in two versions by the actor Robert Davenport, who starred in the major motion picture based on same.
I: THE CHOCOLATE WAR, a synopsis of the film.
When young Jerry (Ilan Mitchell-Smith of WEIRD SCIENCE), recently devastated by the death of his mother, declines to participate in his catholic school’s chocolate sale, he unleashes the wrath of the sadistic and ambitious school administrator Brother Leon (John Glover of LOVE, VALOUR, COMPASSION; SCROOGED; 52 PICK-UP). Things go from bad to worse for Jerry when Brother Leon colludes with Archie (Wallace Langham, VERONICA’S CLOSET), leader of the school’s notorious gang, the Vigils, to make Jerry’s life particularly miserable.
II: THE CHOCOLATE WAR, a synopsis of the film as seen by Robert Davenport.
Brian Cochran (Robert Davenport of TWIN PEAKS; CHIPS THE WAR DOG), treasurer of his catholic boys’ school chocolate sale, saves the day when he uncovers subtle anomalies in the sale patterns of boxes of chocolate. His tireless efforts and uncanny accounting insights earn him respect—and indeed love—from Brother Leon.
Justin K asks: I’m starting a book in which the main character is conceived on the night of the New Hampshire Primary by two drunk and giddy McCain supporters. Our hero is born nine months later, and the novel follows his picaresque life story in the near future. Will stories set in the very near future (and thus apt to be quickly discredited) work?
JKH, FPLA: I have never been the biggest fan of science fiction (or “sci-fi”) novels, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m not sure why this is the case. I used to love Battlestar Galactica, for example. Also, I enjoy any kind of talk about replicants or cyborgs. They’re great. But sci-fi (or “SF”) as a literary genre was never really a passion or specialty of mine, and so I suspect your near-futuristic thriller (or “nea-fut thri”) is not for me. Let me give you this advice, however, if you choose to write to other agents or former agents: cloning is not and never will be “hot.” I know you aren’t writing a book about cloning, but what I say is, nonetheless, important and true forever.
Coates B asks: What kind of car does a former professional literary agent drive? I picture you in a white, 1991 Acura Legend sedan. Am I close?
JKH, FPLA: Very close. I currently drive a 1988 Subaru Loyale four door that’s sort of metallic tan and used to belong to my mother. I park it on the street where I can see it from my living room window. I’m looking at that sweet baby right now, and it’s making me hot.
When I was a professional literary agent, I found that a very fancy and expensive car such as a 1988 Subaru loaned me a reputation for being very successful and, therefore, gave me an edge in negotiations. For this same reason, I would sometimes haggle over royalties from the back of a very fast motorcycle or jet-ski, or while cruising on a private yacht and drinking Cristal champagne. Now that I have left the profession, I still use my car to travel around the state, selling author’s copies of my former clients’ books directly out of the trunk, and pocketing the money for myself. This was, you may recall, how the author John Grisham sold his first book, THE GOOD LAWYER WHO GOT IN OVER HIS HEAD.
WriterFreakFAB asks: first, given that I have no skill at writing, how can I make it in the writing business? Second, in this modern civilization, do you consider the choice of an E-mail address, as far as the moniker of a writer’s persona is concerned, an important one?
JKH, FPLA: I’ll take the liberty of answering the second question first and of not answering the first question at all. Finding the best, writing-related e-mail address is probably the most important decision you can make as an author, except perhaps for deciding which writing-related clip art to feature on your letterhead (the quill-and-inkpot is a classic choice; yet I have always preferred a picture of a typewriter with a piece of paper coming out of it that has the author’s name written on it). The e-mail address you choose shows that you take yourself seriously as a writer and is critical to piquing the curiosity of editors and agents. Borrowing the name of a character from a timeless classic (firstname.lastname@example.org) will show that you are well read. And don’t be afraid to show off your whimsical love of language: “email@example.com,” or “firstname.lastname@example.org,” especially if you write scary stories, are good examples. Another is, of course, “WriterFreakFAB@xxx.com,” except for the “WriterFreak” part, which is what we call in editorial parlance “redundant.” Under no circumstances should you use anything even close to your actual name.
Christine C asks: I worked for a number of years as an assistant to an agent who represented Rap & R&B artists. Often we would run into trouble booking certain acts because they would be in jail or dead. As a professional literary agent, did you ever run into the same problem?
A: It is true that James T. McElroy, author of WE’VE GOT SPIRIT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AMERICA’S GREATEST CHEERLEADING TEAM was shanked in Riker’s, but that was before I represented him, and there is no truth to the rumor that I ordered the attack. But other than this, the publishing business is a gentlemanly business, and most are content to simply sip on some syrup and increase the peace.
Actually, the above is not true. What is true is that Matt Clark wrote a beautiful and brilliant and funny novel called HOOK MAN SPEAKS before he was very cruelly taken by cancer at the age of 31. I never met him, but I am devoted to his family in West Texas, and I am grateful to his close friends who brought his work to my attention. In the course of my submitting the novel and explaining the sad history behind it, many many publishers rejected it on the basis that the author would not be available for a book tour (on account of his being dead, you see). I don’t know which possibility I found more offensive or depressing: that someone would use this rather cold excuse because this person was too cowardly to say that he/she actually hated the book; or that someone who actually liked the book would be unwilling to publish it because the author’s tragic early death would make it difficult to get the publicity department “psyched up” for it; or that in either case this person expected me to pass this thoughtful explanation along to author’s parents. This is one of many reasons I am no longer a professional literary agent.
Gillian B asks: Do you like Cajun music?
JKH, FPLA: Yes, I do. But it is important to note the difference between Cajun and Zydeco music, which terms are often and incorrectly used interchangeably. If someone would like to explain in a few sentences the origin of each and the differences between them (I don’t have the time), and also the difference between Cajun food and Creole food, I would be proud to post that person’s analysis here soon and reward them in some fashion to be determined. If more than one person attempts this, prizes will be awarded in three categories: briefest, most correct, and most savory. Thank you and
That is all.
Former Professional Literary Agent