I was over-excited to go on my trip to the Historical Novel Writer’s Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida with two of my friends, Kathleen Vermaelen and JoAnn Phoenix. We had met years ago at the MFA writing program at Stony Brook and would be among hundreds of established and soon-to-be authors from all over the world, pitching our books to agents behind closed doors. OMG, why am I so frazzled? Have I seen way too many American Idol auditions?
As I headed out the door to catch my early flight, I could still hear my husband’s last words: “This time, try not to pull another Calamity Janet.” He was referring back to my embarrassing incident I had experienced at the New York City conference which I should explain: there I was, pacing the hall on the 1000th floor, lacking oxygen, waiting for my name to be called and wouldn’t you know it, just as I took the chewing gum out of my mouth to dispose of, the door opens and I’m standing face to face with the agent I had to pitch to…his hand was extended in slo-o-ow motion to meet mine with the fat wad of Orbit BubbleMint sitting smack dab in the middle of my palm. I heard myself gulp, wishing that it was the gum I had swallowed, instead of my pride, to lodge in my intestines forever. What were those 10 helpful tips in the brochure, again? I drew a blank. But I was pretty sure it didn’t say anything about chewing gum. It did say something about demonstrating confidence, so I went for the long shot, chucked the wad across the room and into the pail. What was I thinking—that he’d give me a contract on my athletic ability? I inserted my sticky fingers into the pocket of my very literary pants, knowing how this meeting was going down. That was 5 years ago, and since then I’ve learned a few things about the industry, have grown a thicker skin, and have given up bubble gum, cold turkey.
We arrived in St. Pete and pulled up to the elegant waterfront Vinoy Resort built in 1925…full of old ghosts and history, apropos for us. We were handed Simon & Schuster tote bags containing our badges, displaying the eras we represented. Everyone was pumped up, organizing tight schedules. Later, we mingled at the bar in the crowded reception room, where we clinked glasses and shared stories…a thrilling experience for all. That’s where I met Helpful Hana, a very successful medieval author, who convinced me at the last minute to shorten my pitch session down to two sentences, after weeks of memorizing my novels on World War II. I knew I’d be staying up all night, reworking all that I needed to squeeze into my new abridged version. *#@+*&~! (Hmm, I wonder as I type this – which symbols are used for expletives?)
After cocktail hour, we had moved on to where we would dine in the cozy 12,000 square-foot ballroom filled with intellectuals. With a glass of replenished wine and the lack of sleep, I could hardly keep my head up as I sat next to a lovely gentleman chock-full of World History facts. His thick white historical mustache was moving up and down, up and down for hours and I went into a hypnotic state, somehow nodding my way through the night.
At 7 a.m. the next morning, I ate a hardy brain-food breakfast in preparation for my 10 o’clock meeting and thought about how much wiser I was since the NYC Pitch Conference from Hell. Here, I was in the friendly southern atmosphere, ridiculously relaxing in comparison. I swayed back and forth on a rocking chair on the veranda overlooking a marina – not knowing that the writers with tears in their eyes had come out of the room I was about to enter. That’s right, I was about to meet – Agent Orange. Tick tock – I was running out of time; even the rocker seemed agitated. Ten more minutes and I’d be next…had I remembered my new and improved condensed lines? I practiced my pitch in my head – Rembrandt’s Shadow is an historical novel based in part on real life events of our family during the Holocaust. It’s the story of Sylvie Rosenberg, the aristocratic daughter of a renowned Jewish art dealer who spends the first fourteen years of her childhood without ever knowing her father’s love…until the day he trades his beloved Rem—Rem—Rem—I start choking on something – a gnat. A damn gnat just flew down my HAAAGH! My throat. Did anyone else see this? HAAGH! HAAGH! I turn into a cat with a hairball. And all along, I thought my biggest problem was subjunctive clauses!
Janet Berg? Is someone calling me? Gnat comes with me and we make our presentation together. Hopefully he’s more proficient at grammar. At least I had successfully deleted my memory of my long pitch and proudly recited my shortened version word for word, with a smile. Agent Orange paused, took one look at me and said, “Is that all?”
“HAAAGH!” I answered, and that was that!