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John D. Spooner: Everything my literary agent, Monica McCall, taught me was a revelation. Herewith, some of her greatest gems of wisdom. (ldandersen/flickr)

When I began my writing career in the 1960s, there were virtually no women editors in the publishing business. If you had graduated from Wellesley College summa cum laude, perhaps you could get a job at Random House — as a secretary. If you knew how to type. But there were several women literary agents, and one of them represented me when I began my grown-up life as a novelist.

Monica McCall seemed ageless to me, a small British woman, formal to a fault, who rested her feet under her desk on an embroidered footstool. She represented a blue-chip roster of clients, from Graham Greene to the great French playwright Jean Giraudoux to John van Druten, whose play “I Am a Camera” eventually turned into the musical “Cabaret.” She was also the agent for the Goldman brothers: Bill, who wrote “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and James, who wrote the play “The Lion in Winter.”

Because I had a whole other career in the money business, Monica, I think, told me things she would not share with other writers. And everything she told me was a revelation to a young novelist full of wonder. On the off chance that there are still young novelists out there, still full of wonder, here are a few of the best things she ever said:

  • “All writers are children, particularly the men. Novelists are the most interesting, and the neediest, because they almost never get what they think they deserve.”
  • “And,” — long pause — “the drinking. Alcohol and writing are cheek by jowl. Almost salt-and-pepper.”
  • “My writers who sustained long careers, no matter what their obsessions, were the ones who surrounded themselves with life, even though obsessions plagued nearly all of them.”
  • After I turned in my first manuscript to her, she counseled me to sign on to a tramp steamer and go around the world. “That will teach you more than any graduate school.”
  • At one of our lunches in various East Side Manhattan bistros: “Be careful of alcohol.” She did like her civilized nips. And it was almost always gin. “If you’re English, this is what we drink. Other things, of course, but gin is the trigger for many interesting moments. Not all good.”
  •  “Creative people need champions who are not related to them.”

Monica taught me a lot. But that last point is the one I consider most important for anyone who wants the creative life, whether you paint, or write, or act or do ceramics. I’ll let Monica explain:

  • “If you’re a writer, the temptation is to read what you’re writing to friends and family. This is a worthless exercise. People close to you either praise you gratuitously because you’re related. Worthless. Or they instantly become critics, telling you that ‘gee, page 78 just doesn’t ring true,’ which will just infuriate you. And again… it’s worthless. Only pay attention to the people who can take you to the next level, your agent and editor.”

A literary agent can be a necessary evil. But if you’re a serious writer, you cannot represent yourself; you need someone else to lie about you to publishers in New York and producers in Hollywood. And if you’re lucky, you get someone like Monica. Someone who gives advice like this:

  • “Remember. Writers write. They don’t talk about it. Schools can’t teach it, in my opinion. Go out and pour your guts out on the page. But remember I said this: It will be both a curse and a blessing.”

And here’s one more piece of advice, this one from me: Watch out for the gin.

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Tags: Gender, Tribute, Writing

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  • http://www.justinlocke.com/speak.htm Justin Locke

    Very refreshing to hear honest observations instead of the usual “system for instant success” to-do list.

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