I can never explain what Barbara's teachings, mentoring and friendship have meant to me. This small post does not even scratch the surface of my debt of gratitude. She is an amazing writer, a wonderful teacher and generous of her time and experience.
I am thrilled today to share an excerpt from NY Times bestseller author, Barbara Rogan's latest work, A Dangerous Fiction. This week it released in paperback, just in time for your summer reading list. So get a copy for the beach, the pool, the mountains...wherever you retreat to this time of year for relaxation and the pleasures of a good book.
“ Start at the beginning, Jo,” he said, opening his pad just like a TV detective. “What happened first?”
As if I knew when it began. Endings are unambiguous—a slammed door, a final chord, the vacant, glassy stare of the dead—but beginnings are always a matter of perspective. Sometimes you can’t tell where a story begins until you reach the end. That’s fine if you’re writing fiction, but in real life, it’s too late.
I explained this. He said, “You’re making it too complicated.” “‘Just the facts, ma’am’?” I said.
He smiled as one does at an oft-heard joke. I looked at him properly for the first time. The boyishness was gone, but the lines around his eyes and mouth suited him, lending gravitas to his face. His eyes were green, but a darker, warier shade than I remembered, rain forest instead of meadow. I wondered if he’d ever married. His ring finger was bare, which meant nothing. Hugo and I exchanged rings when we married, but Hugo never wore his. It chafed him when he wrote, he’d said.
“A series of incidents occurred,” I said. “But I don’t know how they’re connected, if they even are.”
“Just tell me what happened,” he said. “Let me make the connections.”
How strange, I thought, that Tommy should be giving me the very advice I give my writers. “Just show what happens,” I tell them, “don’t explain it.” He waited patiently, his pen motionless against the pad. I saw that he was a man who understood the uses of silence.
“It began,” I said unforgivably, “on a dark and stormy night.”
In the well-ordered world of fiction, murder and mayhem never arrive unheralded. For as long as men have told tales, disaster has been foreshadowed by omens and signs. But if there were portents the day my troubles began, I never saw them. True, the city sky was overcast; but if every passing rain cloud is to be taken as a sign of impending calamity, we might as well all close up shop, don sackcloth, and take to Times Square with hand-lettered signs.
If anything, the day had been remarkably ordinary. It was the first Wednesday of July, and we’d all stayed late for our monthly slush-pile session, gathering in my office around a battered old conference table piled high with manuscripts and query packets. I presided at the head of the table in what I still thought of as Molly’s place. To my right sat Harriet Peagoody, currently the only other literary agent in the firm. Harriet was a pale, bony, gray-haired woman with long, restless hands, an Oxbridge accent so well preserved it smelled faintly of formaldehyde, and an air of martyrdom for which I was to blame—for until my prodigal return, she had been the presumptive heir to our little queendom. Her assistant, Chloe Strauss, sat on her other side. Chloe was an Eastern cultivar of the West Coast Valley Girl, dressed in a short, swingy skirt and one of those baby-doll shirts all the girls wear these days. Opposite her sat Jean-Paul Devereaux, our intern and resident hipster. Beneath his sports jacket, his T-shirt read: eternity: when will it end? Twenty-two years old and fresh out of college, Jean-Paul was a tall young man possessed of such extravagant good looks that our bestselling client, Rowena Blair, had asked him to pose for the cover of her latest blockbuster, an offer he had declined. He had dark eyes, olive skin, and luxuriant black curls. Chloe, two years older, was pale, blond, and petite, and I thought they’d make a pretty couple, but Jean-Paul never paid the poor girl any attention.
Lorna Mulligan backed into the office clutching a loaded tray in plump, efficient hands. Today she wore a boxy white blouse and a plaid skirt, a parochial-school outfit that added fifteen pounds to her not-insubstantial frame. Although Lorna was my secretary—she scorned the title “assistant”—it wasn’t actually her job to make coffee. Office policy was that whoever finishes one pot makes the next; it lent an egalitarian gloss to the agency, though of course the distribution of profits was anything but. Still, Lorna had herself taken on the task of fueling our monthly conferences. She distributed the mugs and handed around a box of doughnuts. I took my favorite, lemon-filled: a little tartness to balance the sweet. Harriet, as always, chose the old-fashioned doughnut with no cream or glaze, then looked enviously at mine. Chloe passed, and Jean-Paul took two. Lorna never ate any her- self, though she must have had a sweet tooth; she took her coffee with four sugars. Now she seated herself at the foot of the table and opened her notebook.
We began, as usual, with the hopeless cases. Other literary agencies don’t bother keeping notes on rejects, because office time is better spent serving actual clients than discussing those we’d rejected. But Molly had always kept records, saying that sooner or later every agent overlooks a great book, and when it happened in her shop, she wanted to know whom to torture. After she retired, I kept up the tradition. Eventually I’d put my own stamp on the agency, and these meetings would be the first thing to go; but for now I preferred to follow closely in my mentor’s size-9 foot- steps.
Jean-Paul and Chloe took turns reading out titles, explaining in a sentence or two, sometimes from the work in question, why they recommended rejecting it. They were our first readers of all unsolicited submissions, and most often they were the last.
Chloe opened with a book called The Autobiography of a Nobody. “The title says it all.”
Then Jean-Paul. “The Secret Life of Gerbils. You don’t want to know.”
“Oh, but I do,” Chloe said. “Is it kinky?” “If you’re into rodents.”
“Speaking of gross, my nomination for submission of the month: To Pee or Not to Pee, by Dr. Wannamaker.”
Even Lorna the Dour laughed. “You made that up,” Harriet said.
“I swear on my mother’s urethra,” Chloe said.
From A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Barbara Rogan, 2014.
Both a seasoned author and a former literary agent herself, Barbara Rogan knows the publishing world fromall angles. Fans of Lisa Lutz and Jaqueline Winspear will adore Jo Donovan and Rogan’s wickedly sharp tale that skewers the dangerous fictions we read—and the dangerous fictions we tell ourselves.
Want to read more of A Dangerous Fiction...you know you do. You can get your copy by clicking the book's Amazon link