ISO the Zeitgeist … and an Agent

After reading the bios of 353 literary agents, I’m considering writing a novel about an orphaned, emotionally damaged dragon girl who steals an ultra-secret spacecraft with time-travel capabilities to find a giant lizard shaman in a distant galaxy 5,000 years in the future who can excise her demons, and while there, falls in love with the shaman’s shape-shifting daughter, who is secretly plotting the overthrow of her planet’s evil kingdom. It ends happy.

Let me say first off that my amazing family would love this novel … my neurodivergent daughter, my bi-racial 14 year old grandson who proudly told me last week that he is pan-sexual, my transgender son, my queer daughter-in-law. They would love it. Characters who exist outside “the mainstream,” just like them. Characters conquering the unimaginable. Just like them. I am grateful for a growing tower of literature, written by new, underrepresented voices, that reflects the world as they see it.

The trouble for me is, I couldn’t actually write that novel. It’s not my world, my experience. The world I am writing about – the world inside the 102,000 words of my historical novel, the novel that has sent me on a quest to find an agent, and ultimately a publisher – is squarely in the mainstream, as out of favor, I am gathering from all those agent bios, as chewing gum.

I am a straight, white, 66-year old woman, one of about 100 million older women worldwide. From my deep dive into the hive mind of the literary agent community, I’ve come to think of myself and the other 99,999,999 as kryptonite. When I arrive in their inboxes with my query letter about a white family struggling through the Jim Crow south, the barren Montana prairie, California in the depths of the depression, their right index fingers are drawn to the delete button. I’m trying to come to terms with this, while still clutching the 102,000 words to my chest like a poultice.

There must be a way in. I’m trying to understand how agents work, what they could possibly want, aside from time-traveling dragons. What I could write them in my query that doesn’t sound like “old women debut novelists are people too!”

In “Funny Lady” the exquisite Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) is in her fancy train compartment, and Billy Rose (James Caan), desperate for her affections, is watching her rub lemon halves on her elbows. “What do you want from me?” he asks. “Am I supposed to go for your elbows, or what?”

That’s how I feel most days, sitting down to my agent research: my elaborate, meticulous spread sheet, my subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace and QueryTracker, my bookmarked Manuscript Wish List, my printed lists, stippled with cross-outs, my daily commitment (since August 8, 2022) to submit two queries a day. What can I say in a query letter to conquer the chewing gum brush-off? Should I go for their elbows, or what? What exactly is “voicy”? What constitutes a “commercial hook”? (See above: dragons.)

It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve failed to comprehend the zeitgeist. Like that day the nurse handed me and my first born child and a diaper and sent us home from the hospital. It took us a while, but the mother/daughter thing grew on us.

Querying is like a glory hole. You stick your query letter and first three chapters through the hole, and you have no idea what will happen on the other side. So you hunt for clues. You read the laundry basket full of articles on how to query, which often contradict each other like black socks and white sheets in the same load.

After weeks of whittling, rewriting and paring my query letter to the sparsest, pithiest I could get it, I came across this advice: “You goal is to establish a relationship …” A one-way relationship, sure, but … give it a shot in three paragraphs in which you roll out a riveting pitch line, lay out the plot, establish your writing cred, list comparable reads, and describe your audience.

Whoa, boy. There’s a tweet going around in the agent community of late as one agent after another announces that they’ve gotten THE QUERY from the rampaging writer who doesn’t want to fill in the blanks and just rants, “Read the fucking thing!” He’s the incel in the querying population and he’s not going to take it anymore.

I am not going there. I’m trying hard to understand – have compassion even – for the thousands of agents out there who face a firehose in their inbox each day, from people just like me, desperate to start a relationship in three paragraphs. Some of us are old ladies who know nothing about dragons. But we are audacious enough to think we know human nature. And what is a dragon anyway, but a lonely little girl in Riverbank, California, just trying to make her way through the heavens, to love and resolution, and maybe, a happy ending.

Maybe I do know how to write that book.

When Your Ex-Husband Calls

Answering the phone used to be thrilling. It was your best friend, or Publisher’s Clearing House, for real. OK, yeah, occasionally it was bad news. But when you picked up, you knew someone wanted you, the actual you, not a number on a robo call list.

Forty-six years since my first phone bill came in the mail, and my phone is now a tyrant, demanding my constant attention and adoration. I must jocky around the furniture to answer its insistent twings and twangs, an exercise that usually ends in radio silence on the other end after you say, suspiciously, “Hello?” because who the hell do you know in Syracuse? No one, apparently.

The other day I got a call that has me thinking the scammers must have watched the movie “Idiocracy” and taken it to heart. Because, duh, how could they think I am that dumb?

Phone tweedles. An Austin, Texas number comes up. An Indian-accented voice says,

“Hello, this is Dave, your ex-husband.”

I may be a doddering sixty-six, but neither of my two ex-husbands is named Dave, and neither has an Indian accent, charming though it is.

What idiot would think a man with a name that has never appeared on a marriage license with your name is actually your ex-husband calling, no doubt in jail somewhere and needing your credit card number, right away, darling.

My instant reaction: I laugh heartily. And then, bless his heart, so does Dave. The absurdity of it all. I hang up.

Do you remember when your friends would call to just chat? Chat. That word meant a voice-to-voice aimless conversation in which secrets were divulged, jokes exchanged, maybe a recipe or two. Not i-chat or we-chat or e-chat or snit-chat, a communication arranged via an app which requires 230 megabites of download, and the acquisition of 45 new settings you must learn to, ya know, chat.

When I was in high school, my best friend Anita lived in a house of seven with one phone and I lived in a house of three with one phone. We would talk to each other at night, in our respective kitchens where the phones resided. No one bothered to listen to us but we knew they were there, just around the corner. The sound of the television in the next room was loud enough to camouflage recitals of our deepest yearnings, but still. I would wrap the corkscrew yellow cord around and around my index finger, relaying sightings of Sam, or Lee or dishing on the cheerleaders, those haughty mean girls whom we desperately wanted to look like, just a little, but would never admit to it. Even to each other, in the corner of the kitchen.

We did our homework, and then, if my mom wasn’t talking to her sister, and Anita’s sisters weren’t talking to their boyfriends, we could chat. The anticipation made the homework go down easy. Sometimes that chat lasted an hour, until someone in either kitchen called, “My turn” and we went to the end of the line, until the next night. Somehow those intimate conversations held off the demon of adolescence and gave us a space to be safe, each in our own kitchens, my brother wandering in and out for another pickle or crackers and milk. I thought girls who had their own pink princess phones in their own rooms, sleek lines, no crusty edges because your mom used it right after she made pie crust, were so lucky. I was wrong. They were living out their phone lives in seclusion, where anything could be said, and no one nearby could raise an eyebrow. Where calls might go on and on, late into the night, and become an obsession.

Like so many wonderful, previously exclusive things – a new dress, sex, dinner out, vacations – phones have now become essential, cheap and ubiquitous. So many people now carry a cell phone that restaurants put out a little sign on each table with a QR code and expect you to look at their menu on your little phone screen, scrolling through columns of food and drink as tiny as gnats. If you don’t have a cell phone (inconceivable!) they will hand you a wrinkled, dirty menu with a frown. What a plebeian!

This has raised my dander. I refuse. I chalk this up to the grandeur of watching the Cinerama production of 2001 Space Odyssey on a giant, curved screen where things literally came right at you. Today, I’m supposed to watch Top Gun Maverick on my smart phone. No deal. Not happening.

WHEN I WAS IN college, the human-to-phone ratio increased dramatically. I lived in a co-op with 30 students. We shared a phone. Across the city, my boyfriend lived in a co-op with 50 students. They shared a phone. In his house, each person had a code, a series of electrical buzzes that rang in the halls when someone called for you, downstairs, on the one phone. His code was short-short long-long. I have no idea what his phone number was, but I remember that code. I would call and ask for Gary, and I could hear whoever answered the phone take a second to scan the list, then hit the buzzer. I could hear the short-short long-long buzz emanate from the phone room. Two minutes later, Gary would say, “Hello?”

It was always a delicious anticipation, those two minutes. The best two minutes of the day.

When the New York Times declares “Kathy Watson 2020!”

One day you are sitting on the coach getting over hernia surgery, and the next day you’re in the pages of the New York Times, The New York Magazine, Mediaite, and David Green is saying your name on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Not because you cured polio or flew to the moon. No, it’s because you punked your husband in the New York Time’s comment section on a story about Facebook.

It started with an e-mail from the Times:

“My name is Michelle and I work in the New York Times newsroom on our Reader Center team. One of our comment moderators spotted the comment exchange between you and your husband yesterday and we were all delighted by it. As you may have seen, it made the rounds on Twitter, racking up thousands of likes. (As one of my colleagues said in our office chat room, “Kathy Watson 2020!”)

So not only did the Times do a story about it, but it was also picked up by Mediaite, New York magazine’s “The Cut” and finally, at the end of our 15 minutes of fame, NPR’s Morning Edition.

How did this happen? All comes from Stu and I sharing the same NYT digital account, which just so happens to be in my name. So when he comments on a story, I get an e-mail informing me that his comment has been approved. And when I saw that comment from him about FB, I just couldn’t help adding a few helpful little comments of my own.

Three days of fame, on the couch in Oregon, was a fun little idyll. Now I just need to hear Terry Gross say, “Kathy Watson, welcome to Fresh Air.”