BEGINNING WITH ANOTHER
FASCINATING SELECTION FROM MY
Here is a true story about a former client and vampires. When I was a Professional Literary Agent, I represented the memoirs of a professional movie actor who had starred in a series of very popular horror films. I will not reveal his name. I will only note that he starred in a movie called The Evil Dead, as well as its sequel, The Evil Dead 2, and that his first name is Bruce, and his last name is Campbell, and his book is available now at most respectable establishments.
When I last saw him, this unnamed mystery star was appearing at a horror film convention at a hotel in New York City, and for some professional reason he was pretending not to know me. So I wandered among the crowd, mingling with his ordinary fans, but not actually touching them.
I got to talking to two young men who were waiting in line to get the mystery star’s autograph. They were aspiring filmmakers, and they had written a screenplay. They explained that when they got to the front of the autograph line they were going to give the screenplay to the mystery star and ask him to star in their movie—a plan that could not fail.
I asked them what the script was about. They told me it was the first part of an action-horror epic that would have nine parts, with “you know, vampires, werewolves, everything.” Naturally my interest was piqued. I asked them: do you mean to tell me vampires fighting werewolves? Because that would really be exciting, while also addressing a major social problem of the day. And they looked at me proudly and said: yes.
For a moment I experienced that bright, buzzing thrill of discovery that I had not felt since I left the publishing world to become a professional dilettante and public speaker. It’s an addicting sensation, this stumbling across something undeniably new and important and exploitable, and every agent knows it well. It keeps them in the game. Thankfully, I had knee surgery recently and thus was able to trade this addiction for a mild dependency on Vicodin, a prescription painkiller known on the street as “sweet Vicodin, now my dearest friend.”
But in this case, I could not resist. I explained to them that I was the mystery star’s former professional literary agent and as soon as he stopped pretending not to know me, I would be happy to pass the script along to him. Then, I assured them, they would be very wealthy, and I would take a percentage of their wealth for the rest of their lives, a standard arrangement that they shouldn’t worry about or question. And I really meant it. But unfortunately, as often happens in the agenting business, I accidentally left their screenplay in the garbage while strolling through the merchants’ area of the convention, admiring some very nice pewter figurines of Pumpkinhead.
I can only hope that they heeded the advice I give to all young authors: save your work on a computer diskette. Here is another story, a very famous story that everyone knows but bears repeating. In 1922, in a Paris train station, a suitcase was stolen. This happens to everyone. But this suitcase happened to belong to a young man named Ernest Hemingway, and it contained the unique copies of a large number of Hemingway short stories. What number? 17,000. Can you imagine how much richer our lives would be if we had an additional 17,000 Hemingway short stories to read? No, you cannot. Now, this world tragedy of literature would not have happened if Hemingway had simply saved the stories on a computer diskette. Because of course computer diskettes cannot be stolen. Or I should say, you can steal one, but you will then suffer a gypsy’s curse causing your hands to freeze and become as hard a marble. For this reason, no self-respecting cat burglar will touch one.
An interesting footnote to this story that few people know is this: the missing stories? All 17,000 of them were titled “The Big Fish.”
Now everyone is asking questions, and here are the answers.
Liam P asks: What exactly is an automatic deadman seat switch? Does Saul Bellow own one?
JKH, FPLA: I have never heard of an automatic deadman seat switch. I can only presume you mean an angle grinder deadman switch, which cuts power to the grinder the moment the hand is released from the grip. This is an important function, as the angle grinder is one of the most dangerous tools available today. Anyone who operates it risks deadly kickback and the possibility of having metal lodged in his or her eye. As WorkSafe of Western Australia advises: where a safer alternative cutting tool is available or can be obtained… AN ANGLE GRINDER SHOULD NOT BE USED AS A CUTTING TOOL." Sadly, Saul Bellow never learned this lesson, and that is why the Nobel Laureate is often referred to as “Sauly Metal-in-his-Eye.”
Andrea R asks: I really do like reading a good memoir and would like to write one. But my childhood was painless. My boyfriends have all been nice. My hair has a healthy flip. What can I write about that won’t make people throw down my book in disgust?
JKH, FPLA: Aspiring young memoirists who are not world leaders or important millionaire CEOs or recovered drug addicts or abuse survivors or professional wrestlers face a difficult task: how do I convince the world of my worth as a human being? My first recommendation would be to write about your career as a famed horror movie actor with an avid cult following. Failing that, you may have to do some actual writing: observe patterns and thematic echoes in everyday life; reveal hidden conflicts; find a plot in random events that give life the illusion of forward motion and actual purpose. This is what fiction writers need to do; indeed, most MFA program fiction is actually memoir, and all memoir is actually fiction. But this approach is difficult and tiresome and easily avoided if you can become famous. See my chapter on becoming famous in my own forthcoming memoirs-in-progress, currently titled “My Hair Has a Healthy Flip.”
Wendy B asks: Someone told me recently that the Empire State Building, in New York City, has two elevators: one that only goes up, and one that only comes down. He told me that this eliminates lineups. You have been to New York. Is this true?
JKH, FPLA: The Empire State Building actually has 73 elevators that move swiftly through seven miles worth of shaftway. Many years ago, a former colleague and I took a three-hour break from our professional literary agenting to go the top of the Empire State Building. It was the first time I had ever been, in fact the only time, and it was a wonderful sight. It was a clear and cold day on the balcony surrounding the old zeppelin terminal, and we stood with the city curving away beneath us. Fathers held their small children, maneuvering them through the guardrails to thrust them out in the open air, their little legs kicking gleefully over 86 stories of empty space. My friend and I each put a penny in a machine that stamped them with the image of the building itself, and we pitched them off the side—a famous tradition—to crack the sidewalks far below. My friend said we should never descend, we should never go back, and she was right. But the truth is, each elevator is specially designed: capable of both upward and downward motion. And while there is always a line to go up, there is never a line to go down.
Thomas H asks: I am a writer but I do not write. All I can manage is writing emails and occasionally, letters. Second, I am a worker but I do no work. I think I work, I seem to be doing things, but then I look at my To Do List and cannot cross off anything. Third, I am a dancer but I do not dance. If I danced here in this office, people might look at me funny. Last, I am a singer, but I cannot sing. People hurl things at me when I try to sing. It is not fair. I was born to sing. What am I?
JKH, FPLA: Every educated person will immediately recognize this puzzle as “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” posed to Oedipus (“angle grinder” in ancient Greek) at the gates of Thebes. To enter the city, Oedipus had to give the correct answer: “I am Thomas H.”
But we shall not fault Thomas H for his creative recycling of an ancient text. In fact, it brings to mind a curious mystery that has arisen regarding a recent letter from Zachary R. You will recall his fantastic tale…
“I have this idea for a book. The year is 2096. A new technology has been developed which in principle works as a teleportation device. When a world leader or assassin needs to travel great distances across space for reasons of diplomacy or assassination, he or she is replicated genetically and psychologically (complete with memories) at their destination point while the original him or her is painlessly euthanized and then incinerated…”
Since answering his question (correctly), I have received two intriguing letters. First, Ben B claims to recall this cloning-as-teleportation scheme from a short story and radio play by the science fiction author James Patrick Kelley. Mr. B says he cannot remember the title of the story, but that it involves dinosaurs. Meanwhile, Rachel K attributes this concept to a science fiction author named John Varley, and that it appeared in a short story titled either “The Ophiuchi Hotline” or “Picnic on Nearside” (Ms. K’s memory is also somewhat fuzzy here).
Now don’t get all hot: I am not making any accusations. As Ms. K pointed out in a second letter to me, “ideas in science fiction tend to have a disturbing synchronicity,” and because I am not an expert in the genre, I take her word for it. I am only curious to know how this particular theme managed to infect at least two distinct stories, as I think it serves as an interesting example of the unconscious play of literary influence and the uncanny effects of coincidence. It also illustrates why one should never write about cloning. Ever. On the subject of dinosaurs, however, I am neutral. They are fine.
I wrote back to Zachary R, asking for his comment. To date, I haven’t heard back. But he originally wrote me long ago, and I suspect he has moved on to a new e-mail address. If he is reading now, I would welcome his clarification on the matter. And if you, dear reader, have anything to add on this subject, I hope you will contact me.
As always, questions may be directed here, and I will answer them as soon as I can. Some of you have been very patient, and I promise that your patience will be rewarded. I will also be answering a few questions on stage at the Galapagos event that is described here. If you are going to the event and are waiting on a response to a question that you have submitted, perhaps you will politely remind me and we can complete our business then and there. As well, if you happened to accidentally videotape a certain Quizno’s Subs TV ad featuring cavemen and sharp sticks, I would appreciate your bringing it with you. I will not explain why.
I cannot ask for more. That is all I can ask for.
That is all,
John Kellogg Hodgman
Former Professional Literary Agent