Please Hold for Mr. Marek
By David Daniel
From the New York Times obituary, March 25, 2020:
When Richard Marek was a young editor at Scribner’s in Manhattan in the early 1960s, he was entrusted with one of the literary world’s most important manuscripts, “A Moveable Feast,” Ernest Hemingway’s intimate portrait of his life as an unknown writer in Paris in the 1920s.
Hemingway had scrawled his edits in the margins of the manuscript. Mr. Marek planned to go over it at home, and carefully slipped the pages into an envelope before getting on the subway near his Midtown office.
But once he arrived home, on the Upper West Side, he didn’t have the envelope. He realized he had left it on the subway.
Panic ensued. He sobbed all night and told himself, “My career is over.”
The next morning, he went to the subway’s lost and found and saw to his astonishment that someone had turned in the envelope.
And his career was far from over. He [became] one of New York’s most prominent editors and publishers. Over the course of his career he worked at a half-dozen publishing houses and was responsible for shepherding more than 300 books into print.
Two of those books were mine.
It begins with my mailing three chapters of a not-quite-completed novel to an editor at St. Martin’s Press. 1982 this was, and I sent off the packet, careful to include a comparably-sized envelope with requisite return postage—an exercise in inward-gazing that the modern writer, submitting with a key-stroke, is spared. You spent all that money on extra postage in the hope that it would never be used. But used it most often was: Shot down on your own dime. Was it Jack London who wallpapered his writing room with rejection letters; then went on to become the best-paid writer in the world? There isn’t a dedicated scribbler anywhere who couldn’t turn the same decorating trick.
Anyway, back in ’82: weeks passed for my particular 3-chapter packet, and when one day it came back in the mail, addressed to me in my own hand, I felt my heart quail. It does that far less painfully these days, but the feeling never goes entirely away. That day, not ready to face the rejection, I didn’t open it. And there it lay on the kitchen counter for four days. Finally, braced for the inevitable, I opened the envelope.
The cover letter accompanying my chapters, on St. Martin’s Press letterhead, began, “Dear Mr. Daniel:” Yeah, yeah, I thought, rejection is coming . . . and skimmed the rest. It read: “Thank you for letting me look at . . .” Etc. etc. And then this: “While the idea of a former operative being brought back into service for a special mission is not new, there are lots of things about your story that feel fresh and off-beat. If you haven’t already committed it elsewhere, I’d love to see the entire manuscript.”
Four lost days! That’s what inactivity and trepidation had cost me! Four days when I might have been writing the final chapters of the book! The old fear of rejection had hobbled me.
Clickity-split I finished the book in a marathon session, banging it out on my IBM Selectric typewriter. And I sent off the entire manuscript (again, with a duplicate envelope and a fruit salad of return postage).
Time passed. Then one day, the phone call: “This is so-and-so, calling from St. Martin’s Press. Is this David?” “Yes—?” I said, breathless. “Hold please for Mr. Marek.”
His voice was refined and cordial. Assured. The way you would expect a voice coming from a Manhattan office in the Flatiron Building with wood-paneling and oriental carpets to sound. “This is one of the more enjoyable phone calls I get to make from time to time,” he said. “I’d like to buy your novel.”
I tried to stay calm. I’m sure I didn’t. He mentioned a dollar amount. I was cool enough not to make the gaffe Pat Conroy made when he was offered a contract on his first book. “How does five thousand dollars sound?” the editor said, and Conroy so new and green to the process, replied: “It sounds okay. . . though I’m not sure I can raise the whole amount right away.”
Mr. Marek asked: “Do you have an agent?” I didn’t; not that I hadn’t tried to find one. “I advise that you get one,” he said. And I always appreciated that—the way I would come to value a lot of things about Richard Marek. He was a man of personal honor and literary integrity, and while I never had any fear that the system would try to cheat me, I came to understand that book publishers much prefer to work with an agent than deal directly with an author. It’s just cleaner.
On the strength of having a publisher’s offer on the table, getting an agent wasn’t hard. The first one I talked to—a reputable guy with a reputable agency—knew Dick Marek and said I couldn’t have a better editor. The agent’s first job was to call St. Martin’s and immediately get a better advance for the book.
Things went apace. Dick Marek and I kept in touch through the editing and revising stages—he was a fount of good advice. And then, somewhere in the process, he said, “I’m going to be up in Boston next Wednesday. Can we meet?”
(To be continued)
Note: For more on Mr. Marek: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/books/richard-marek-dies.html