Inquest - Index   |  chapter 11   |  chapter 13

Chapter 12

Professional obligations take their toll -
and some authors are more than anyone could care to deal with.
But Soraya also considers what new purchases she can make -
while the family offers even wilder suggestions.


       There was work, at work. Now, more than ever. Loose ends to be tied up, projects handed over, plans made. Even I had to plan ahead -- a statement that sounds utterly ridiculous, given my limited duties -- but that being the case, Soraya must have been positively overwhelmed by what there was to do.
       An added complication was the need for Soraya to hold her own in her absence. She made clear that she would be back, but she had to consolidate her power so that it wouldn't completely dissolve over the three summer months.
       One advantage she had was that the publishing industry grinds to something approaching a halt over the summer anyway. In an industry where things get done at a snail's pace to begin with (with a few exceptions), the summer is a stagnant mud-pool of inactivity. Unfortunately, Soraya never quite got with that programme. But now everyone was more than glad to show her how it might be done.
       Summer Fridays, when the offices emptied out even earlier than usual, Soraya could often be heard muttering about her underlings, referring to them collectively as "those lazy fucks". To my mind, it's not even a seasonal thing: the whole industry consists of said breed -- though a fair number of them have perfected the art of appearing industrious (without, of course, ever being so). I'm not one to complain, as I certainly can't be counted as hard-working (in any conventional sense), but it drives Soraya nuts.
       Soraya wanted to delegate, but there was no one willing to shoulder the workload. Even the ambitious souls -- the few truly eager beavers -- couldn't be cajoled: they had their own schemes, most of which involved trying to outmaneuver Soraya by avoiding her. No one wanted to take over any of her duties: the risks seemed too high.
       (The corporate world is, of course, ridiculous. Publishing manages to take it to another level, combining corporate culture with a product that can rarely be treated like a simple commodity. It's a nightmare, and I'm glad I have essentially nothing to do with it. Amusingly, the publishing industry can accommodate people like me -- as clear a proof as you could ask for of its fundamental failures. Soraya, on the other hand, is a pro, an unlikely success (to the extent she is allowed to be one by those even higher up the corporate ladder) who manages to help sustain an industry that really hardly deserves to exist at all, given the way it is generally run.)
       Optimistically, Soraya felt that the seven or eight remaining weeks would be enough to take care of both all the business that needed to get done and that which might arise. In an industry where everyone (me included) is trying to figure out how to catch up with what should have been done a month (or three or fifteen) earlier her forward-looking orientation clashed head-on against entrenched practice and habit. But she was a sort of boss, and she could get away with some of it. I didn't remind her of the inevitable catastrophes that would sink even her best laid plans in her absence, but then she was probably far better aware than I of all the things that could and would go wrong.

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       There were also reminders of what we were escaping, of what we wouldn't have to put up with. Exhibit A was Author X, a blot not worthy of being recalled by name -- reason enough, all by himself, to flee this horrible profession.
       One of OE & E's bestselling authors, X had a book coming out in early June -- his obligatory annual blockbuster. Unfortunately, he had also recently been involved in what was something of a public relations nightmare: in mid-winter he had mowed down a family with his car. Mother and father had been killed instantly, a five year old child suffered severe internal injuries and died in hospital five days later. X had been speeding, and probably run a stop sign, but he had been convincingly sober -- breathalyzer and blood tests registering nothing.
       As it turns out, it is apparently perfectly legal to run over people in the United States -- as long as one is not inebriated, truly reckless, or doing it on purpose (and doesn't flee the scene). Accidents will happen seems to be the theory. X loved to regale us with the story: "Didn't even get a citation," he would brag. "Ran the stop sign, going at least twenty miles an hour over the speed limit -- well, five is what I admitted to when they asked -- , and not even a ticket."
       The family had been walking by the side of the road -- no sidewalk, of course -- and it was accepted that they had been pretty much asking for it by walking there (or, indeed, anywhere).
       Soraya and I were astounded that X wasn't sentenced for a triple-homicide (or at least sent up for the few what ? weeks ? that might come with a token vehicular manslaughter charge). But he got off scot-free, not even losing his license. "It's a great country," he told us. "You need essentially no qualifications to get a driver's license: just pass a ridiculous test, prove you're not blind, and show you know how to turn a steering wheel. And they'll never take it away from you, even briefly, unless you drive while intoxicated. You'd figure that for example anyone who ran a red light, that their license would be suspended for a few weeks and they'd have to take some remedial class -- I mean, if they can't even tell the difference between green and red, which is pretty much the most basic rule of driving, you might think then they shouldn't be on the streets. But in some places they only make you pay a fine if you run a light, and I got to say, I agree with that. Not even points on your license, much less taking it away from you. And, as it should be, there isn't any place where they'll take your license away just for doing it -- unless, of course, you get caught doing it a lot."
       X was very certain of his opinions. "Shows you that the state recognizes how 'mportant cars are," he insisted. "They know that's what America's built on. The automobile. Sure, they're dangerous weapons, and they kill a damn lot of people, but that's the price you pay for all the benefits that come with it. Accidents will happen -- especially when you're shooting around at fifty sixty miles an hour in something that weighs a couple of tons. Accidents will happen -- don't I know it. But I'm glad the police and the justice system understand that it's not my fault. Can't be blaming me -- I was just driving. And I did slow for that stop sign -- that's all you got to do, we all know that -- and the speed limits, well they're not meant to be taken literally, right ? At least the penal code recognizes that I shouldn't be punished for something that could have happened to anyone, even if technically I was breaking a couple of laws while I was doing it. If it hadn't been me, then the guy behind me probably would have taken them out. And what are people doing walkin' by the side of the road, can you tell me that ? They should be in a damn car, not walking. Who are the roads for, anyway ? Pedestrians -- the streets should be off-limits to 'em."
       Neither Soraya nor I could respond (or relate) in any way to X's talk. I'm sure my jaw dropped at some points in absolute shocked disbelief. Soraya's was clenched in an anger I saw she could barely mute.
       Despite the fact that X had escaped criminal prosecution he had -- to his chagrin and shock -- received some decidedly unflattering press coverage. There had been gruesome pictures and callous quotes and it was not an ideal position from which to launch a marketing campaign for the coming book.
       X wanted reassurances, and our help in polishing his public image. That fact that he wasn't in the least contrite or even willing to take any responsibility for what he had done didn't help. It was a very American attitude, but it still didn't play well everywhere. It was in OE & E's interest to restore his former luster -- we had paid out a huge advance, we had the guy under contract for three (!) more titles, it was one of four "big" books we were publishing which we could count on for the summer reading season. But Soraya was furious about the situation. If it had been up to her she would have dumped X there and then -- no standing behind her author here, except perhaps briefly to boot him in the pants. (But he wasn't hers; Soraya hadn't brought him in and had never been a huge fan: his books sold well, but OE & E had paid a fortune for the privilege of publishing them. We didn't make any money off his books, but the tidal cash-flow was a corporate bookkeeping necessity (and people think this industry could possibly ever be taken seriously ...).) He wrote drivel (bestselling drivel, but still), and he was a walking (and driving) obscenity. But it would have cost the company too much to dump him, and corporate parent Hammerschmitt had made it clear that that was not going to happen.
       So we had to endure X, and even try to help him along. He was also such a significant author that he could demand Soraya's hand-holding, rather than just his editor's. Soraya had enlisted me for moral support (though I had suggested we agree on a signal for when to rush him and toss him out the door (or window)), and so we found ourselves in her office listening to his sob story again.
       He had a new, endearing spin this time too: "Lucky I got the whole family," he told us. "Sure, it's sad. Tragic. But what kind of life would the kid have had if it had survived ? But it's lucky for me too -- though I always say you make your own luck -- turns out I could have been held civilly liable. They could have sued me -- if one of them had survived, for example. But they all died, and there were no other close family members, so there is no one who would have standing to sue. So I'm off the hook."
       Soraya was looking at him in angry disbelief; fortunately for X there was no hook or other sharp implement close at hand, or Soraya would have shown him a thing or two. I knew she also felt the same temptation as me -- to sabotage the book -- but she just kept her stony silence. We had the generic ad campaign and book tour planned, and neither Soraya nor I (nor even X's editor) were able to be any more constructive. At some point X would have to be prepped on how to talk about the incident if and when it came up in interviews or at book signings (as he obviously wasn't prepared yet), but neither Soraya nor I could offer any advice here. Fortunately we had some in-house professionals who had made authors who were child molesters and even politicians appear cuddly and harmless; they would be able to steer X right.
       Soraya did her duty -- she put up with the guy for an hour and assured him that OE & E was fully committed to the book, that the first printing wouldn't be cut back, and that there would be even more advertising than with his last title. That's what he wanted from her, and he went away happy enough. Soraya mourned the time lost -- and cut me off when I started complaining 'What's the world coming to ...' Damn, she's a professional.
       A few notes to his editor, a memorandum sent down to marketing, and she could wash her hands of X and his book -- we'd be gone well before it came out. One down, but dozens still to go.

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       In-house Soraya made her plans fairly clear, to insure that things ran smoothly in her absence -- smoothly admittedly being a very relative term. She was a bit more chary and tentative in spreading the word beyond the OE & E confines, which then left her briefly on the defensive when within days word had passed through the rumor mills and the press and the agents and a few of our authors wondered quite publicly what was going on. It was suggested that she had gotten an offer to run a bigger house, that she was retiring, that she was going Hollywood (in some unspecified capacity), that she was taking a sabbatical to write a tell-all book, that she had suffered a nervous breakdown, that she was entering a drug rehab program. Gossip run riot -- with much no doubt fanned by OE & E insiders. It would have been modestly entertaining if it didn't mean extra work. Many people could be ignored, but some needed reassurance, and so more time was wasted. She even felt obliged (at the behest of a high-level Hammerschmitt executive) to sit down with a member of the press for something like an exclusive interview. Soraya was not happy.
       On it went, and on it would go until we left. Leaving her busy yet not getting near enough actual work done. A lot of hot air circulated, while few tangibles resulted. Another day in the publishing world, in other words.
       Only one exercise gave her more pleasure, as she considered buying in some underappreciated and overlooked authors she'd had her eye on. Her thinking was: she had accumulated some clout and credit with her successes over the past few years, but some of that would dissipate during her absence (how quickly they forget). Better to risk much of it now, in a sort of brief-parting bang, and hope for the best than to leave it unused and return to an unknown situation. Generally very little changes in the publishing world -- and yet worlds can also be turned upside down overnight. She had about as much confidence banking her OE & E credit at the office over the summer as putting our life-savings in a peso-denominated Argentinian bank account.
       Soraya considered a number of options. For a few years she'd been mulling over pushing for Michael Turner, the Canadian author with some small successes (Hard Core Logo was a small cult favorite, The Pornographer's Poem had even done okay in Britain). The obscure Canadian route was salable to Hammerschmitt: it's the way Mike Ondaatje came about, after all (first published at places like Anansi !). But Turner's middling success also made him a somewhat iffy proposition -- it looked like he'd had some chances already, and hadn't hit it big enough (at least not big enough for Hammerschmitt's liking).
       Then there was old favorite Chris Wilson who Soraya would have liked to try reviving. Baa, Fou, Gallimauf's Gospel, Bluegrass, Mischief, even The Wurd -- she would have loved to bring them all to market again. We never understood what happened to Wilson. He is one of the funniest and cleverest English writers around -- except that he doesn't seem to be around much anymore. The problem with Wilson, of course, was that his books had been around before -- and hadn't lasted. It didn't matter why (bad marketing, bad luck, bad tempers), or the fact that properly handled this was backlist gold (or at least a nice, steady source of some lucre). Failure, however it comes about, reeks, and Hammerschmitt would be less inclined to look to follow a trail that had already once led nowhere.
       Still, Soraya could have sold them on either of the two, but she had her sights set on something bigger. She was trying to convince me -- or herself -- to push one of two of her recent epic-style favourites. There was popular Dutch author Adrianus Franciscus Theodorus van der Heijden (the name alone convinced me), where she wanted to go after nothing less than the whole De tandeloze tijd-saga (beginning with Vallende ouders or whatever the latest pre-volume he had come up with was). She had me sold, but it would be a huge commitment. These are, by and large, fat books. Everything and anything about Dutch life in the past thirty odd years.
       The other muti-volume saga she was leaning towards was Mahmud Doulatabadi's ten-volume Kelidar -- though given political climates and popular preconceptions that modern Iranian classic was probably the harder sell.
       We considered the options. Doulatabadi could theoretically be introduced to an American audience with one of his shorter works before she made the push for the 3000-page epic -- but we both reasoned that anything less than Kelidar would disappear from view almost instantly. A.F.Th. van der Heijden also has some shorter works on offer, but again Soraya preferred the true, big, complete commitment. She liked the challenge -- and the beauty of such a massive yet complete-in-itself undertaking. And she thought these were two very deserving authors.
       I argued that maybe a push for some Harry Mulisch-titles Viking hadn't committed to (there are dozens that have been kept from the American market) would be an easier fight. Other names, other possibilities also cropped up: Hugo Claus ! Ernst Weiss' Georg Letham ! Baltasar Gracián's El Criticón ! and so on.
       Doulatabadi and van der Heijden were the most enticing. But the problems were huge. Van der Heijden's popularity abroad probably raised his price. Both required an immense translation investment (in time and money and -- worst of all -- reliance on an actual translator). And then there was the marketing plan: how do you sell these types of sagas ? Just because they're great literature ... well, that generally only helps sell a book (at least in translation) over the very long term.
       Still: this was very much Soraya's kind of challenge, and the one saving work-place distraction she could fall back on when the general level of irritation rose to too high levels.

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       Soraya's search for the next big novel to dump on Hammerschmitt was, of course, also a popular conversation topic at home. The kids had read a smattering of each author's work, but nothing close to both sagas, and so literary considerations were only part of it.
       Tancred pushed for Doulatabadi on the grounds of the underrepresentation of contemporary Farsi literature in the United States. (A fairly feeble argument, we agreed: all foreign literature is underrepresented in the United States (if not quite uniformly so).)
       Annabelle suggested van der Heijden was the hipper author. (Probably true, but somehow (all due familial respect being extended) -- out of the mouth of a pre-pubescent babe from a demographic that to 99 percent would be unable to pronounce the author's name, much less consider purchasing these bricks about modern Dutch life -- just not the most convincing of arguments.)
       So that discussion never really went far. Instead, a second battle line developed, as Soraya suggested a more risqué author purchase: a poet. We were going through our East German poetry phase and each found a favorite here to push. Discussions became quite heated.
       I was the only realist, harping on the one potential winner in the lot -- Durs Grünbein. A volume of his verse would at least get critical acclaim (or acknowledgement -- a review or two would be devoted to it), though of course it wouldn't sell many copies. Soraya acknowledges that he is a talent, but criticizes it as the safe, boring choice. And reminds me of the more obvious hurdle: FSG signed him and plans to publish a collection ... sometime this century.
       Meanwhile, Soraya pushed for an older master, Volker Braun (whose first name gets predictably mangled, especially by Tancred). Also certifiably great (or at least certified as such, what with the Büchner Prize that both he and Grünbein have received), he's a very different type of author. My argument, from day one, was the same: there's too much East German solidity here -- a mix of heavy politics, sharp tone, and yes poetic brilliance that simply won't fly stateside. Wolf Biermann they can stomach (or they did, a ways back), or Sarah Kirsch, but Braun won't translate well. It's not just the language, it's the whole world-view.
       Soraya counters: the similarly Germanic and also political Hans Magnus Enzensberger (the only Wessi that can compete with our lot) has found modest success in translation. But I still don't think they're ready for Braun.
       Tancred sides with me, though he is not a poetic enthusiast. His choice: Hans Czechowski, who we all have to admit is perhaps the most approachable among them. Annabelle, up for greater challenges, sides with Soraya, leaning towards Volker Braun -- though her own preference is for the recently deceased Karl Mickel. She understands that Mickel won't do: he's barely known or read in Germany. But she insists he's brilliant. Soraya agrees, and I'll grudgingly admit it as well. But for American publication, well it's between Durs and Volker.
       Then, of course, we argue about translators and usually end the discussion deciding that maybe it's for the best that none of these works are mangled into English .....

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