Every traditionally published author has a story about how they found their literary agent. My favorites of these are always the more serendipitous ones, the ones that show not just a writer’s tenacity in their search, but also have a cinematic quality to them–a bit of a “meet-cute.” Below, Historical Fiction author Phillip Margulies, whose debut novel BELLE CORA came out from Doubleday last week, tells us how he met his agent, Dorian Karchmar of William Morris, at his local Starbucks. It wasn’t just good timing, however–read on to see how Phillip impressed Dorian even before she read his work, and how that fateful meeting helped him to realize one of his longest-held dreams.
For unpublished writers the true tale I’m about to relate qualifies as a story of survival. Whether it is an inspiration or a warning, I’m not sure.
I have been writing fiction since the age of 11; that is, since 1963, half a century ago. Empires fell, presidential administrations went by in a blur, the quill in my hand became a typewriter and then a laptop, while I sat there in my Time Machine writing. I had no other ambition, no other serious employment. By 2005, when I began BELLE CORA, I had written eight previous novels and numerous short stories and poems, all unpublished; also some unproduced plays. Editors praised my work. They wished me luck “finding the right publisher.”
My wife, Maxine Rosaler, has a writer friend who is regularly published—they’re from the same town and have stayed friends despite their highly divergent destinies. The friend’s husband had recently asked my wife: “Why does Phil bother?” Like, Phil’s in his fifties, can’t he take a hint? Earlier, when I was merely in my forties, another friend had told her: “At this stage of his life he’ll never get published.” My wife decided not to pass on either of these remarks, which is unusual for her, but sometimes in a fight when I accused her of saying everything she could say to hurt me, she’d say, “No, I don’t. There are things I could say that I don’t say.” Which was, wow, really infuriating.
Our son was autistic and Maxine and I, both writers, felt guilty about every minute we gave to anything impractical or selfish, anything that would not help him.
So why did I go on? Partly because it was too late to stop. I had all my eggs in one basket. And partly because I had the idea for Belle Cora, it was wonderful, I loved how it was turning out; so would everyone else. Which is what I’ve always thought about everything I’ve ever written since I was 11, dictating “The Mirror Maze of Madness,” to my mother, who was brushing up on her shorthand because my father’s machine shop was not doing well. Grumman Aircraft had lost the bid for the big government order that year. All its subcontractors on Long Island were suffering. She was going back to work as a secretary. I was going to be published in Amazing Stories. Sigh.
I wrote BELLE CORA at a Starbucks a few blocks from my house, usually at the same corner table. When I write I mumble the words–friends have told me this–and it is obvious from a distance that I’m not watching Hulu or answering my email, I’m writing something I care about.
I didn’t know it, but I was being watched. Or anyway, noticed, by Dorian Karchmar as she passed the window pushing her child in a stroller, and sometimes when she came in for her morning coffee before catching a cab to the William Morris Agency. This may not seem sentimental to you, but my eyes are tearing. Sometimes on weekends she came in and sat at a table, with a red pencil and a fat double-spaced manuscript. I didn’t speak to her. She sat well away from me and we respected each other’s privacy and besides that I’m rather shy. But one Saturday when the place was crowded she sat opposite me. I asked her, “Are you an editor?” She replied, “An agent.” “What a coincidence,” I said, or something dumb like that, and said I was writing a novel. She asked me to tell her a little about it, and I did (working hard to correctly interpret the words “a little”). “When you’re done, send me an email,” she said, handing me her card. Each of us returned to our work, and that night I told Maxine and we talked about what it might mean–so often these things happen and they go nowhere, they mean nothing.
We never could believe it meant anything–not after Dorian signed me as a client; not after every publisher in New York dropped whatever they were doing to read my novel, and not after Alison Callahan of Doubleday bought it, not at any time during a very protracted editorial process. Books come out on Tuesday. I just learned that. I am writing this on the Sunday of the week Belle Cora is to appear in the bookstores, and Maxine and I still don’t believe it; because we are simply not the kind of people such things happen to.
Phillip Margulies is the author of several books on science, politics, and history for young adults. He has won two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children. Connect with Phillip on Goodreads.
You might also like: What Could Have Been: Rewriting History with Jillian Cantor.