So, I’d sent the completed manuscript of Empire off to my agent, and another of these habitual long waits ensued. Mind you, if by this stage you’re not able to deal with long waits, then, well…
Actually, that’s bunkum. Hope is a curse. It inflames the senses. Sentence a man to ten lashes, and the eleventh lash shall break him, not because it falls on the back of the previous ten, but because he had hope (1). Hope is a terrible thing indeed. The government should ban it (2). To wait here, at the very brink, was torture. If the word had come back negative, I’m honestly not sure how I’d have taken it (3). I swore to myself, however, that I would not press the agent. Busy people, after all. Lots of irons in the fire (4). No way was I going to mess up my chances by annoying them. What a fool I’d be, after all, if they were standing with Empire in one hand, and Bloodthroes of the Minglords by Lupin Onpodswallow in the other, desirous of a new client but unable to make the choice, until some loon calls them up and harangues them over the telephone about it. Idiocy, surely, to poke them with sticks when all is at such a finely balanced state.
So you can see where that’s going. Yes, I called them. I was weak. I’m only human after all. I got to the point where, in my hyperattenuated state, I felt that I had nothing to lose, and I put a call in.
And they suggested I come over and meet up.
Actually, I can’t swear blind I didn’t call twice, the first time to be pacified with some pleasant chat. I am that stupid, honestly. However, I got the invite. Come over to London some evening to talk about your book.
Charlie, on uncovering the golden ticket in his chocolate, was positively restrained in comparison. (5)
We made a date, some evening after work. I had expectations. In my mind was a great glass and steel monolith, the interior of which would be partitioned into soulless offices, and I would meet some blank-faced suit who would have me sign things without reading them properly, and then turf me out. I was anticipating the cold whirr of corporate machinery. You must remember, my training is in the legal industry. I was expecting to have to jump through hoops.
I foresaw formalities.
I bought a coat. This was the extent of my forward planning. I was without a respectable garment, save for an old trenchcoat that flashers would have disdained, so I went hunting for a coat.
I had thought about how to present myself. A suit? Too formal. I was supposed to be the creative type. I looked for a writer’s coat. Ingeniously, I did this during the lunch-hour before the evening of the meeting, just to ensure that I had no real time to make a proper decision. I found something in green, vaguely military-looking. I thought at the time that it looked free-spirited and a little rebellious without being impudent. This opinion was not later borne out (6) but it was too late, then. In my new coat I went to meet my destiny.
My relationship with London has always been a strange one. There is a lot about London that grinds down the human spirit: the crowds, the traffic, the sheer crushing gravity that being the spiritual centre of the UK brings. However, my brightest memory of childhood is being taken to the Natural History museum (7), and there was one university night when a friend’s birthday party culminated in an all-night trawl down the embankment and across a London that never slept, but simply turned from face to face as the small hours ticked passed, as five drunken students in black tie lurched and staggered, unmolested, through a formerly unglimpsed world. Also, I recall my first experience of the tube train, on my way to Moorfields Eye Hospital at age fifteen. I had just read Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and fresh in my mind was the amorphous monster pursuing his protagonists through the tunnels of that sealed, alien city, the sour, cold air forced ahead of it by its onrushing bulk. When my very first tube train arrived it scared the crap out of me.
The street of agents, as I thought of it, was not a concrete and steel sort of place. There were little bars and restaurants, all subtle and expensive and looking as though the same family had owned them for generations. There were doors marked with nothing but a reserved brass plaque that gave a name and, sometimes, let you in on what manner of business was conducted there behind closed doors. Where the plaque omitted this information, if you did not know, you were not the sort of individual to make use of their services.
Eventually I plucked up the courage to ring the bell, and was asked up in my green coat into… the cave of wonders.
Well, all right, not the cave of wonders. That would have been silly. No glass and chrome here, though. No cold handshake and contract (10). Instead of the barren office, however, the room I was ushered into was a library, or perhaps a well-appointed professorial study. Certainly, there were a couple of computers quietly glowing away, but then they are a necessary evil in both libraries and university studies these days. However, most of what met my eye was… books.
Shelves and shelves of books. Floor to ceiling books. Stacks of books. Books I had read. Books I had intended to read. Books I had never heard of. Books in translation, in foreign languages, in foreign alphabets. Where the walls were not obscured by books, there were posters: choice slices of publicity from the agency’s history. For those books were not just idle reading matter: they were hard-won medals from the skirmishes of the publishing industry. They were the books of the agency’s clients, each one a testament to a victory: no less triumphant, and considerably less gauche, than the heads on a game-hunter’s wall.
Well, all very florid, but it made it real, standing there, surrounded by those actual books, seeing names I knew, titles I had read, and knowing that this office had brought them about, that the man showing me around was part of the magic (11).
And so: was it contracts and terms and business?
Well, actually, agents are people too (unlike lawyers, some would say). So I ended up in thsi wonderful book-lined room with someone of about my own age talking about Dr Who and Blake’s Seven and looking up humour on the internet, and drinking. Mustn’t forget the drinking. It was my first introduction to Magners cider, which these days is all over the place, but will always, to me, be proper author’s cider. I had rather a lot of it, although not quite as much as was poured for me, owing to spillage. And we spoke of the book, of course, because an author’s ego is always hungry for talk of the book. We are not quite real, until we exist in the minds of others. Or something. Talk of possible publishers, of lists, of imprints. Dropped names. Expectations. All told, it was more of a night in with friends than a hard-edged business meeting, ie. infinitely preferable.
As we were wrapping up, I asked, with a certain trepidation, at what point he would be making the decision about whether to actually, you know, take me on. At the back of my mind there had remained some tiny splinter of suspicion, that it was all some kind of audition. I think an audition had been, at root, what I had expected. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
But no, no tests, at this point. No trapdoor abruptly opened beneath me. No Jeremy Beadle leaping from behind a stack of books like the twentieth century’s least-loved gargoyle. I was finally allowed to understand that I had crossed the Rubicon (12), and that from this point things would be different.
(1) One of my childhood’s absolute favourite books, Dianne Wynne-Jones’ The Homeward Bounders, has a very nice twist on this subject. Hope, indeed, is an anchor.
(2) Interesting thought. Has all the tedious, squalid, self-serving and outright lunatic legislation of the past century merely been a well-meaning government programme to rid us of the scourge of hope?
(3) True, I’d been in this position before with Flames of the South and survived the disappointment, and no doubt I’d have shouldered my way on if Empire had gone the same way, but I was older, when Empire was being weighed in the balance. More water had passed, irrevocably, under the bridge, never to be reclaimed. In fact, as chance would have it, I was approaching the age where, some ten years previously, I had sworn I would get somewhere with the business, or bust. What “bust” meant in this context I had never really considered, but bust was certainly what I was nearing, when I sent the Empire manuscript off.
(4) An interesting idiom. When would you need a number of irons in the fire, really? Sources suggest branding cattle, but the torture imagery is fairly persistent.
(5) One wonders what his reaction would have been if, after a particularly hefty bite of chocolate, he’d found half a golden ticket. Doesn’t bear thinking about.
(6) With the gold buttons done up I looked like the biggest soldier China never had.
(7) I cried when it was time to leave. No prizes for guessing that my time there was split between the great vaulted bones of the dinosaurs and the serried and intricate ranks of the insect galleries. (8)
(8) And gone, both of them, or at least the way they were when I was a child has gone. Now the cabinets of infinite wonder, the thousands of specimens of once-living things, and most of the great fossils too, have gone to make way for some kind of amusement arcade, that to my jaded eye is only peripherally amusing or educational. When I was a child… ah well, that’s the old complaint, but when I was a child, I was more captivated by the relics of the diverse wonder of life than any number of edutainment video games (9). And where have they gone, those testaments to nature’s charms? The collections broken up, the skeletons dismantled, in dusty storerooms, in drawers seldom to be opened, if ever again. Surely not thrown out? Are the appalling odds against any creature being preserved over the millions of years not enough to warrant a chance for children to marvel over those hoary bones. Did all those insects die for nothing?
(9) I am deeply horrified to find that “edutainment” is a word suitable for a dictionary, according to Microsoft. I demand my little red underlining!
(10) Signature in own blood optional.
(11) For some reason this puts me in mind of Mr Benn at the fancy-dress shop, but that has all kinds of connotations I don’t want to go into.
(12) One wonders how Caesar would have felt if the Rubicon had been receding from him daily for over a decade. Pretty pissed off, I can tell you