Seasons are the way to remind us all that it is time to get up and get things done. If an object is laid to the side and no reminder if forthcoming to change its state, there is a good chance it will remain undisturbed for a long time. In the southern climes (I refuse to capitalize any iteration of the word "south"), you will come across many items which appear have not moved in many years. The south is the south, and without the annoying but important seasonal reminders, has a tendency to get cluttered up quicker that its Northern cousins (yes, North is capitalized) because of its stoutness and general proclivity to get things done.
Right outside of Tulane, there is a cool bohemian suburb called Gravier surrounded by a city of older bohemians which makes up the city of New Orleans. Tulane represents the only official college in which the students complain about the locals and their collective shenanigans, making it a challenge to concentrate on their studies with the hope of eventually growing up and out. New Orleans has made their collective decision and has decided to stay loose and unfocused while shuffle kicking along with the sounds of the city.
As Robert Norton woke up, he noticed he had a series of emails from his target publishers. A few weeks ago, through a series of back door connections, he had submitted his third book (this time a novel) to the publishing houses best suited, at least in his mind, to be interested in his work. As a tenure-track professor with limited opportunity to publish, Robert had made a point of attempting some level of literary notoriety by trying to become a real author. He never was passionate about his subjects and while that slightly subtle lack of passion was apparent to him, it had never been noticed by any of his editors. Publishing a few short stories in legitimate publications kept him in the game but to get the tenure prize, he knew he had to step up his game. The concern this morning is the nature of the likely rejections; they all were turned around within several hours of each other.
Publishing is easy but finding the right venue for your bon mots was the trick. Any kid with his parents credit card could vanity publish anything and buy the ISBN number just to quote himself later in life. With the advent of online blogs, personal domains and vanity publishers, anyone can kick start a portfolio and give the uninterested a very strong impression that they are a force to be reckoned with. To see your stuff a printed page and ideally not on slick magazine paper, the writer gets a legitimate rush of first step legacy-inducing adrenalin and while the novelty of seeing yourself on television is waning, we all still wave like frantic fools.
Robert sighed as he opened the first email. The days of publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts had been over for a generation but most writers view their finished works like children. The dance of sending in a pristine, bound copy to a prestigious New York publisher has been shown numerous times in movies and usually the scene ends with the writer receiving the slightly marked-up manuscript back with a line or two lightly thanking the person for their effort. Today, publishing data bases will read and grade low-level manuscripts and if deemed non-crapworthy, only then will an uninterested entry-level editorial associate will give it a cursory look between dozens of other tasks. The stories of newly discovered authors showing up through the US Mail are rare and since 1985, basically unheard of.
Robert quickly received well-composed but clearly uninterested rejections. Each one implied his work was worthwhile to someone (but not them), well-crafted (but not good enough) and worthy of their consideration (but not that worthy). As he finished up the fourth and final rejection, a new email was announced and sent from the second rejecting publisher, Siren House. It was a brief but original email stating to give him (Editor Barnett Taylor) a call on his direct dial and it was further believable with a final sentence saying, "this does not signify any interest in your recently submitted (and rejected) manuscript."
Robert re-read the email several times to better understand the situation before he attempted the phone call. What he knew was this Editor had some interest in speaking with him but at no time was Robert to hope, wish or infer that interest was to publish his book. After a quick Google search, Barnett Taylor was indeed a senior editor of the company and was fairly involved in the publishing community. He appeared at most of the valid publishing events and seemed to be a moderately effective and less than precious member of the inside group.
He grabbed his cell and dialed the number which was just presented him and waited for the ring to occur. After one full ring, a voice announced themselves with clarity and a lack of pretentiousness.
"Barnett Taylor? Editor at Siren House?"
"Speaking. If you got my private number, you are either Robert Norton or my wife."
"I am Robert Norton."
"Excellent. I appreciate your prompt response even after I made it clear I had no interest in publishing your book."
Robert said nothing because there was truly nothing to say. If he answered in the affirmative, it implied that he agreed that that book was sub-standard. He might have bled for the words, but the book was well written, tightly and effectively created and allowed the reader to move through it quickly without being aware of the lack of its depth.
"Good idea not responding. I wouldn't know what to say if someone had said that to me."
Again, Robert remained silent but did provide a slightly-audible grunt to tell Barnett Taylor that it was time to get to the point.
"I need a ghost writer and I like how you write. I am not that impressed on what you are writing about but your clean, efficient style is exactly what I am looking for."
Robert finally responded and said, "A ghost? There has to be ten thousand ghosts working in New York alone."
Barnett Taylor paused and said, "At least but I am looking for a ghost who will be content to stay a ghost. The individual I am representing must be viewed as the author of a book. I am willing to provide more detail but only after receiving a signed letter of confidentiality, which would be executed in an attorney's office in New Orleans."
"New Orleans? I am in New Orleans."
Barnett Taylor paused for several counts, wishing to add a smartass comment but decided to take the high ground. "I am very much aware of that fact. I am also aware of your other submissions, your dozen magazine stories, your position at Tulane and your desire to gain tenure."
"I am a bit surprised at your homework but most of it is public domain. However, I want to know why you are asking a low-level professor in a slightly-above journalism department to become a confidential ghost writer. There has to be literally dozens of talented ghosts, even in New Orleans, who can lend a confidential hand and you can keep moving."
"True but this has to be done quietly and quite honestly, your writing style is not recognizable. It is efficient, elegant (when it has to) and an easy read; you will likely be a legitimate writer when you find something that you care about."
"So, are you interested in pursuing this conversation?"
"I may be but I understand what you get; a well-written book for someone yet to be identified, a reasonable return of investment and a somewhat challenging task off your task list. What do I get?"
"What do you want?"
"I have no idea but I do agree with your comment about finding something that I care to write about. In the meantime, currently I feel I can write about anything so I am interested enough to keep talking."
"Thank you for your trust. I will make a few discrete calls and we shall talk by tomorrow evening. I assume you realize from this moment on, it is confidential."
Barnett said he would be sending him, to his non-Tulane email address, copies of the proposed agreement as well as some ideas for compensation by the end of the day for his review. Robert stated that would be an agreeable first step and after a moment of concluding mutual pleasantries, he hung up the phone and stared at it. He was not shocked about the claim of his writing lacking genuine passion, in fact, he agreed with it. While he had written with sincere interest and passion on a few occasions, he knew that a vast majority of his articles and books were well-written but without any claim or contribution of emotional validity. He knew he didn't have to be using his own blood to create his works but he also knew that an arm's length approach to writing generated a competent and acceptable finished product, but also one that was also forgettable. Being a ghost writer was to take motivation and life experiences from someone and lay it down in a readable and balanced manner. He was not adverse to that as a part-time job but knew that he was one step farther from true writing and one step closer to typing technical manuals. It was honest work; but not what he had in mind a few hours earlier.
A few hours later, an email arrived detailing the general nature of the job, all based on the complete and total confidentiality of the client. Robert would have only a few face to face meetings with the client but complete access to their papers. As he read the contract, he was impressed that no clues were forthcoming. All references to gender were neutral, all implied details were layered with enough qualifiers making it impossible to ascertain any substantive clues of location and occupation and was written in a generic, almost templated manner considering the overall gravitas of the client. Robert began taking notes to make sure he was protected as well; he didn't want to sign on to project dealing with the life and times of some dictator or porn tycoon nor was he interested in massaging the truth to justify some heinous crime or tragedy. As he was taking notes, he realized the rejection of his latest novel didn't bother him at all; he was moving on with something interesting.
Being a tenure track professor at Tulane, while somewhat prestigious in some campus bars, didn't pay much. Robert was content about his academic environment because it was predictable and non-stressful except for the looming tenure decision. He was a solid instructor and his well-written articles in the better and popular literary magazine had done much to raise his stock but he knew some outside assistance would make the issue moot. He felt, once he knew whom the target was, he might throw that into the negotiation but it was too early to make demands. Either way, things were going to change.
The hard copy draft version of his last book was thrown on top of the other two; he saw approximately 1800 pages (each book he estimated averaged 600+ pages) with the average word/page count of 600 words resulted in more than a million words. A million words that no one felt worthwhile to replicate or distribute; a million words which were pounded out of his fingers with no emotion or tears. He never once threw a book or grabbed a bottle to push through a writer's block; he just typed it and that was it. The language was tight and the style pleasant enough to link together a variety of thoughts but not pleasant enough to share with everyone else. As he saw the pile and continued to make a variety of calculations, he couldn't argue that it was not the big deal; it was what it was.
In preparation for the potential change in his literary road map, Robert called the department head and asked if he could drop by for a friendly chat. The request was not unusual; they had built up a strong and friendly relationship over the years and she had always appreciated his loyalty to the department, even when his initial set of articles did cause a bit of interest within the community of social and cultural commentators. She was a few years older than him and had made her mark (and tenured appointment) with an outstanding series of books on the infamous Governor of Louisiana, Huey Long. Huey Long was a legend in Louisiana with a colorful and fascinating legacy of populist rhetoric and miscellaneous shenanigans and she delivered a three volume history of his life, both balanced and detailed, which placed her as the definitive expert on that part of Louisiana, and thus, a full professor.
He walked into her office and rapped slightly on the door. She looked up from her desk and waved him into the office. Tulane was between academic semesters so things were fairly quiet and everyone had extra time on their hands. She was reading some budget analysis and was happy for the interruption from a colleague.
"Thanks for letting me drop in."
"I would rather chat than do what I am doing....I am a writer, not an accountant. I have no idea and what's worse, no interest in reading the budget. I truly don't care as long as it doesn't impact us in any significant way."
"I got some rejects this morning for number three." He always referred to his books in sequential order and as he said it, the comments earlier about his lack on engagement in his writing seemed slightly truer than the first time he heard it.
"It happens," she said. "I never thought you were that excited about the book but we can publish it in-house and make a few bucks."
Publishing someone's book in-house was a face savings device. You could get a non-embarrassing number printed and distributed to educational institutions, key patrons, research houses and a group of curious über-readers and could get credit for publishing something. He had done that with his other two books and while surprised on how many were actually in circulation, he knew hiding behind the Tulane University Press masthead was an idea that had already past.
"Thanks, maybe.....but I don't know if I want to be relying on old friends to move my book just to move it. I would like someone to actually read it."
She smiled and said, "That is the first time I have ever heard you say that. Are you actually showing some emotion when it comes to your writing?"
"Not sure. This rejection wasn't as much as a disappointment as it was a wake-up call. Maybe, I should either take things more seriously or just type."
"It has been done that way but I am not going to waste your time by providing lists of legitimate authors who started in newspapers, editing and short stories to fuel your competitive juices. The big question, yet again, is what do you want to do?"
Robert had these discussion several times recently with her; her questions as a mentor, colleague and department head were valid and without malice. She had assured him that she would force through his tenure if it was what he wanted but she just wanted him to feel that he was satisfied with his writing, was enjoying his life and caring about something. He wasn't self-centered; he just wasn't centered. One could give him an assignment, such as 6000 words on the law of the seas, and he would return a solid and well-written product. But that was the problem; writing was not about creating generic products, it was about saying something you felt was important and making sure you left your mark within it, somewhere. The writing without contemplation was a lot like the southern seasons, each day came and went without any notice of the items which lay dormant around you. Each day or each page, would come and go, but with no emotion other than the one which was necessary to turn the page. Right then, he decided, he was going to do the ghost gig. If he was unable to care that much about his subject, this was the perfect job. And if he was stuck in some limbo, this may be just the thing to wake him up.
"I have a ghost gig on the horizon. That might open up some thoughts for me... we'll see."
"Well, a gig is a gig. Keep me posted on any particular you wish but at first blush, this is your thing and does not impact Tulane in any way."
"Thanks. I was hoping you were going to say it."
Robert said goodbye and wandered down the local Starbucks™ for some people watching and some high-quality, non-Cajun coffee. Too many places in the south insisted on working in some cichory as a special local treat but it was a flavor that always smelled odd and tasted worse that he hoped. So, as a result of the cichory influence, Robert would walk into the military-industrial complex known as Starbucks™ for the free internet, comfy chairs and the fairly good chance a comely academic professional would say hello. As he waiting in the long line, he was surprised at the frantic communincation calisthenics which were happening all around him. The man in front of him in the suit was updating his blog on his smart phone, the two rasta wannabees were creating an email blast to some event that caused them tweaky excitement, some pierced reprobate was finishing a stunning multimedia presentation while eating some spikey oatmeal and everyone else was hitting their keyboards, spewing out content as fast as possible. Within a twenty foot radius, it appeared that approximately a dozen people was churned out content with snarky enthusiasm.
This orgy of communication made Robert realize that he was lucky to get paid no matter what the specific challenge was going to be. His seasons were changing; it was time to embrace it and stop thinking so much.
It is fascinating what you see when you are not looking for anything in particular.
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