"Sorry about the chaos. Someone just died." That was the first thing my agent told me. I was sitting in the sleek, museum-like atmosphere of ICM's office in New York, waiting for Kate to make a cameo appearance. I stared at all that frosted glass and beechwood veneer, a twisty staircase winding to an exposed second floor, and wondered where I belonged. Dark-suited men and women rushed around, looking frantic. I scooched down in my leather chair, pretending to be invisible.
Sneaking inside the ICM fortress was weird enough. From the outside, it's just another gleaming skyscraper on West 57th. No neon signs or burnished letters. Just a number. On the inside, the cavernous lobby is crammed with rows of elevators. The front desk (not unlike a hotel) asked me to flash a picture ID. THe security guard flipped through a dictionary-sized guest book and told me to proceed to the 16th floor.
The elevator opened to an empty hallway. Instead of marching directly into the office, I had to buzz my way through another set of glass doors. The frazzled secretary asked for my name three times, a magic password, and told me to wait.
When Kate appeared (wearing green striped slacks and a pullover, in contrast to the insectoid suits), she looked genuinely happy to see me.
"ICM isn't always like this," she explained, guiding me into her boss's office, which was about the size of my bedroom.
I kept staring out the rain-dappled window. Apparently, an old man had keeled over that afternoon from a heart attack. When I told Harlan later, he said, "They must be working them hard at ICM." But whether the dead man was some crusty executive or just a client, I never found out.
Kate and I talked about my novel--the ways to market it (everything revolves around selling), and what I could do to help in this department (I suggested filling my trunk with books and driving around the country). Mostly, we talked about ourselves, since this was the first time we'd met in person. I wished we could escape and have a drink. On the way out, I noticed a baseball rolling behind the couch. Kate laughed and brushed back her dark hair (which is very, very long).
Until now, our relationship consisted of the briefest emails--"they're passing," "they're interested," and my favorite, "they're going to auction," though I didn't discover who "they" was until the momentous phone call.
"They" turned out to be Harper Collins. "It wasn't about money," Kate said. "The editor is young and she gets your novel. I think you two will hit it off."
Funny---I'm older than both my editor and agent, if only by a year or two. It's cool to see these ferocious female twenty-somethings climbing their way up the publishing ladder. And Kate was right. Meeting my editor, Julie, was like bumping into another book-crazy friend.
The Harper Collins headquarters were just a few blocks away. A sharklike limo waited out front. I waited to see if Lemony Snickett would hop in (a horse-drawn carriage is probably more his speed). The moist air smelled like car exhaust and Mexican burritos (wafting off a silver, quilted-looking cart on the sidewalk). It was lunchtime. Delivery boys hustled in and out of the revolving doors with paper bags and pizza boxes.
I took out my notebook and jotted down conversations: "Like smoked pig," said a woman with a briefcase. "If there's a 5.5 quake in the middle of the night, we'll be just fine," said a balding man.
When I walked inside, I knew I'd reached the right place. Across the marble walls were framed, black-and-white portraits of wrinkled authors. People slid cards through a turnstile and filed inside, one by one, just like riding the subway.
The hulking security guard gave me a sticker with my name on it and let me pass. I jumped in the wrong elevator, riding all the way to the ear-popping 30th floor. I rode back down, switched, and found myself in another blocked-in hallway. This time, it was decorated with posters from children's books--like the jittery, pen-and-ink drawings from Shel Silverstein's poems.
I got on the hall phone and dialed Julie's extension. A minute later, she opened the double doors and led me inside the Harper Collins office--honeycombed with cubicles (at least they were covered in colorful posters and stuffed animals, making me feel right at home). We chatted briefly about the book (already, they're planning on changing the title. Any suggestions?) and how it will take two years to get everything done. (Two years? Ye gads).
I met Julie's boss, Ms. Katherine Tegen, who was trying to copy and paste something into an email. An Ugly Doll scowled above the computer. She shook my hand, said, "We're very excited to be publishing your book," and waited for me to say something profound. Unfortunately, I'm more comfortable writing than speaking, so I smiled and said, "Me too."
Julie took me to a seafood lunch at a Greek place up the street. Instead of talking about marketing plans, we talked about our favorite subjects--food and traveling and animals. She told me that the deserts in New Mexico look like the planet Mars. She talked about her crazy next-door-neighbor, who bangs on her wall with a broom handle whenever she plays her baby grand. ("He's middle-aged and lives with his mother.")
I told her about the "real Florida," not the neon Miami Vice facade of South Beach, which is all anybody seems to know. We talked about snorkeling in Key West, how the yellow Tangs fly overhead like a flock of birds, and how you hear the parrotfish crunching on coral. Julie said she’d once seen an octopus while diving.
“There’s octopus on the menu,” I said, cracking her up.
Julie never stopped giggling. It's easy to make her laugh.
She said, "You're a lot like the characters in your book."
The waiter slapped down a check (Of course, he handed it to Julie). I hugged her goodbye. Then I was out on the bustling street again. Teenagers in hooded sweatshirts were smoking cigarettes. A man walked by wearing a sign that said, "Eat Protein Vegetables Get Lean." Slowly, it began to rain.