Monday, May 7, 2012

My First Time: Emily St. John Mandel

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Emily St. John Mandel, author of the new novel The Lola Quartet (Unbridled Books).  Her previous novels are Last Night in Montreal (a June 2009 Indie Next pick and a finalist for ForeWord Magazine's 2009 Book of the Year) and The Singer's Gun (winner of an Indie Bookseller's Choice Award, #1 Indie Next pick for May 2010, long-listed for both The Morning News' 2011 Tournament of Books and the 2011 Spinetingler Awards).  She is a staff writer for The Millions.  She has an essay in the anthology The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of the Book (Soft Skull, 2011), and her short fiction will appear in Venice Noir, an anthology forthcoming from Akashic Books.  Visit her website here.

My First Agent

The Second Avenue subway project is underway this year, teams working far below the crowded surface of the island of Manhattan.  The project is moving slowly south.  On a recent evening I left my day job in that neighborhood, walking back across the endless sequence of avenues that lie between my desk and the F train, and on a nondescript side street I heard a sound like a horn. 

A man—a construction worker of some sort, dark clothes, white helmet, white vest—was standing on the sidewalk across the street in the half-light, pedestrians moving around him.  He held a small white airhorn above his head.  In a possible indication that I’ve been in New York for too long, my first thought was “Obviously some lunatic got ahold of a construction suit and a horn.  I will avoid making eye contact.” 

But then another horn blast, more urgent this time, and a step or two later, a deep underground explosion: something felt as much as heard, a dull sound carried up from enormous depths, a sense of movement in the sidewalk.  The horn sounded again: all clear.  Fathoms below us in the underground dark, Manhattan’s bedrock was being blasted away for the subway tunnel. 

“I was born on Manhattan granite,” my first agent used to say, and thoughts of her come to me when I’m walking in that neighborhood, especially—it’s happened a few times now—when the horn sounds and another explosion shudders underfoot.  Manhattan granite, I always think, they’re blasting through Manhattan granite, and I recall the note of pride in her voice when she said those words.  Her name was Emilie Jacobson.  The literary agency—Curtis Brown—was her job out of college, and she worked there until the week she died, quite suddenly, in her mid-eighties.  She’s been gone for two years. 

I remember going to her office on Astor Place to meet her for the first time.  I arrived early and had some time to kill; I wandered the stacks of the Barnes & Noble downstairs, running my finger over the spines of books and trying to imagine what it would be like to have a book with my name on it on the shelf.  The idea was surreal.  It still sometimes is. 

She comes back to me at odd moments.  When there are small triumphs, I sometimes find myself thinking that I wish she could have seen this; when there are small disappointments I sometimes think of her too, of how dry and reassuring she was when things weren’t going quite as one had hoped. “Perhaps,” she wrote to me once, after my first novel had been rejected by a three or four publishers in a row for being “too quiet,” “we should try sending it out with a snare drum, or maybe some cymbals?” 

I remember when she called to tell me that my first novel had sold.  It had been two years of rejections and it wasn’t that I’d given up hope, exactly, it was just that my first novel wasn’t something I thought about much anymore.  I was deep into my second book.  When she called I was at my latest day job, alone in a closet-sized copy room with a massive stack of legal documents.  It was my job to scan them all for the archives.  I’d brought my cell phone into the copy room to keep track of the time.

“We have an offer,” she said. 

I’ve memorialized her at length elsewhere, but what I’ve been thinking about lately is how interesting it is that our relationship with a person doesn’t end at their death.  She remains somehow part of my audience; that is, when I write I sometimes find myself thinking about whether Emilie would like what I’m writing.  I hope she would have liked my new book.

Photo by Dese'Rae L. Stage


  1. How touching. What a lovely post.

  2. Lovely piece. I hadn't realised until I read it, but I also carry a little crowd of readers I feel I'm writing to. Long past, long out of contact, I still imagine they are looking over my shoulder as I write.