Note: the following true tale of how I passed myself off as a woman in order to break into print first appeared on Authors Electric, the great collective book, February 12, 2013. http://authorselectric.blogspot.com
I had a date with a model last night. I can’t talk about her, but I can tell you this: the road to hell is truly paved with the best dimensions. Then again, years ago, I found the road to heaven’s gate in a cross-country move.
Time: the middle-Eighties, when we still sent letters.
I set out from San Francisco, where a strayed loin is the quickest way to get from Pant A to Pant B. Destination: New York City, the heart of the publishing action. I arrived with fire in the belly—and more in need of a fresh start than any hundred writers.
Why? In the previous decade I’d sent out thousands of queries. Though I now had something wild and fresh, a query recognized as mine would call to mind yesterday’s cabbage.
I had a chance in Gotham to change the way agents perceived me. And I hadn’t come unarmed: I’d arrived at a clear understanding that the query process was weighted in favor of agents. With hundreds of queries a week to tear through, they were looking for grounds to reject—not to read. And grounds for rejection included far more than grammatical howlers. NYC agents might guess my probable income from my Queens address. My age, job and education could be turned against me too.
So the playing field had to be leveled.
First moves: I rented a mid-town mail drop and bribed the manager to allow me to call my box number a Suite. I kept my life out of my queries, declining any specifics. Education? “A good school.” Age? “Young, but not absurdly.” Employment? ‘I live comfortably on an inheritance.’ And…
My nomme de guerre? Kelly Wilde.
One year later. Same old bleep. But how could this be happening? I’d found my voice; my query rocked; I even had a Good Address.
One night I recalled having read that about 80% of agents and editors were female. What if I…Well, did I dare…
I tried adding one more e to my pen name: Kelley Wilde. Talk about Yeah, Baby moments! But I’d have to alter my handwriting, too, to keep my gender under wraps when I signed my letters. And, like good ole Dustin in Tootsie, I began to think continuously of little touches and trademark phrases that belonged to Kelley-Welley.
One day I received the letter that all writers dream of: The opening pages just blew me away…I’ve got to read your manuscript…I heard cash register ringing when I saw your name!
Was Kelley-Welley happy? Oooo, I could have danced all night—and did when X, the Pennsylvania-based agent, agreed to represent me. She loved my book, The Suiting, and wanted to know allllll about me. She asked me to call her, collect, any time.
Well, here the comedy began: though X had never asked me, I knew that she thought I was female. Obviously, I couldn’t call her. But I didn’t want to offend her, and so…Kelley-Welley was given Big Backstory Blues: a childhood tragedy had resulted in both shyness and a fear of phones. One day when we met, though, we’d be like old friends and hug away like maniacs. This went on, absurdly. A sort of race against the clock with hopes that X could land a sale before the jig was up.
One night Kelley-Welley possessed me while I was composing a letter to X. To my horror, I found myself typing: “Oh, X, it isn’t fair! Why did I have to be both smoking hot and shy?” I tried to shred the letter. Failed. I tried to burn it. Failed again. The next morning I barely succeeded in passing the mailbox in order to trash my lunatic sex kitten outburst. I was getting far too deeply into character, I knew. And naughty Kelley-Welley seemed to be stronger than I.
But before I slipped again an offer was made on The Suiting—the first novel from a total cipher who claimed to be frightened of phones.
The time had come to meet with X. And I decided that sooner was better. So we arranged our date by post, fifteen years before I’d buy my first computer. Then Kelley-Welley suited up, spruced his hair, shined his shoes, and bused to Pennsylvania. I recognized X at a glance by the hurt and confusion I saw in her eyes.
We enjoyed a pleasant lunch and went over the plans for my next book, since Tor wanted a two-book contract. At the end of lunch, I asked her: Would she have represented me if she’d known that I wasn’t a woman?
Before you pass judgment, consider her words: “Honestly, I don’t know. The book was so dark and unsettling…If I’d known you were a man…” X didn’t have to finish that. If I’d played by the rules, I’d have gone to my grave without ever selling a book.
The changes that followed were subtle and spaced over the course of a year. X led me through the process, protecting and advising me, and for that I will always be grateful. But after the first book was published, she began to grow more distant. And one day my editor complained that X seldom came to the city and too often did not return calls. I needed a good New York agent, she said.
I had my pick of several—and, wouldn’t you know it, I picked the wrong one. But we all have our screw-ups and pipers to pay. And once upon a time I played a cool, slick game of ball when the odds against me were 10,000 to 1.
Let the trumpets sound in honor now of your own dazzling footwork on a playing field tilted to favor The House.
Enough talk about publishing. Kelley-Welley is long gone. May I close on a note that is pure Reb MacRath?
Change your opinions less often than your undies. But let the same two rules apply: Keep them fresh. And let your manner inspire the warmest of wishes for a more intimate look underneath.