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Jun 20

Taken To The Cleaners

The linen jacket I wore to the college graduation of my son, Brian, got soaked in a memorable downpour that sent both graduates and proud parents scurrying for cover.  I left the jacket in my car afterwards, thinking I’d take it to the cleaners, but didn’t get around to doing that for a few days.  The proprietor told me he could press it but cleaning was another matter; linen that came in damp and rumpled like that couldn’t be effectively cleaned.  Do what you can for it, I told him.

That jacket and I have a history, and always about this time of the year.

Sometime in June sixteen years ago I bought it to go to New York to meet my editor and others at Dutton who had bought a suspense novel of mine, The Piper’s Sons.  If I felt like I was Little Red Riding Hood (in a tan jacket) going to meet the Wolf and his pack, I figured, hey–let’s look spiffy anyway.  I wasn’t the bad guy responsible for what happened; I just wrote the book that achieved notoriety in the media–Publisher’s Weekly and Entertainment Weekly (Uma Thurman was on the cover): “The [literary] auction that never was.”

I’d gotten an agent out of Portland, Oregon, the only one of over fifty I queried who wanted the book.  She loved it.  Because the novel was generating lots of buzz in New York she decided to hold an auction for it.  We declined Dutton’s preempt offer of $250,000.  She suggested I get a fax machine because things would be happening real fast on the appointed day:  five publishing houses had thrown their hats in the ring for the auction.  I was already thinking about which new car I’d get to replace my Nissan Sentra with the bashed-in hood.

Next thing I knew my agent said Dutton had offered $500,000 for The Piper’s Sons.  She faxed me the deal memo.  For two days, wherever I went, I’d suddenly break out in I-can’t-believe-it laughter.  I planned to give my notice at the restaurant I was working at.

Then the earthquake hit–one that blew out my personal seismic meter even more than my divorce months earlier:  there had been no auction.  All five publishers mysteriously withdrew hours before the kick-off.  But my agent, trying to salvage the debacle, told Dutton the AWOL five had made offers.  She didn’t tell me, however, the full scope of her shenanigans, only that she’d pulled a rabbit out of the hat.  Dutton withdrew the offer of $500,000 once it found out there hadn’t been an auction.

My agent suspected collusion–with Dutton the ringleader–to drastically lower the price for the book to one they wanted to pay, having been miffed at the preempt refusal.  But it’s hard to prove collusion–and who had the money to try–especially after the agent has been an idiot.  Even one from Portland should have known that in New York publishing circles everyone knows everyone else’s business.   She was subsequently kicked out of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR).

Dutton reconsidered, offered me a lot less than their preempt, and since no one else now wanted the book…

I kept on waiting tables, bought a linen jacket and found a little consolation in what Ed Stackler, a well-respected, free-lance editor, later wrote to me:  “The Piper’s Sons is worth every penny of $500,000.”

So you might understand why I toyed with the idea of not bothering to go back to the cleaners to retrieve  my linen jacket, save myself the twelve bucks.  These days I rarely need to look spiffy.  There’s certainly no more occasions to meet New York editors–or agents. (I’m done with those gatekeepers.  The Piper’s Sons will be coming out this summer as a indie e-book).  Sure, the jacket’s great in hot, sunny weather but there’s not enough of that in Seattle, and the thing’s lousy in the rain, and gets wrinkled easily if you leave it on the back seat of your car.

Three weeks passed before I finally went back to the cleaners to pick up the pressed jacket.  You really can’t tell it wasn’t cleaned, couldn’t be.  I figure I’ll wear it one last time.  There’s another college graduation next year in the Midwest–my niece’s.

No doubt it will be sunny in Indiana–but you never know.

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