Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Torrey House Press. Are you listening?

I am officially courting you.  Yes, you, Torrey House Press.  I have a crush on you.  I want to go steady with you.  I want to writer-marry you.  You're my publishing soul-mate.  You with your mandate to protect the West, my place, my home.  You with your mission to make people love the land I came from as much as I love it. 

I've been searching for an agent to represent this book I recently completed and just haven't had the interest I expected.  For a while I thought that's because I'm a terrible writer, even though I'm no stranger to working with agents (plural!) and no stranger to rejection.  This kind of thing has never gotten to me in the past, but this revolution on the query-go-round just about did me in.  I'm not sure why.  Well -- I am sure why, and I wrote out a few paragraphs detailing why, but I deleted them because they felt too digressive and too unprofessional.  So I'll just leave it at "I'm not sure why."  Anyway, not the interest I expected from agents, and I took several days to examine why from as many angles as I could fathom, and what that means, and where I go from here.

Here's what I came up with.

The Big Six is an industry.  Industries are going about the business of making money, not going about the business of making art, and not going about the business of making people care.  Industry is fine with me.  I like paychecks.  I could use a bigger paycheck than I'm currently getting.  I could use it like you wouldn't believe.  But I come from a family of Western artists -- painters who understood landscape, who revered the West and who communicated that reverence to other people.  I paint a little.  Not as much or as well as I'd like.  I write better than I paint, and more often, too.  The Western landscape is my heritage and my duty.  It is the legacy my family left me.  If I do not tend to my family's traditions, they will be lost.  If I put a paycheck ahead of reverence and understanding I feel somehow that my father's shade and my grandfather's will find ways of making me suffer.  For forgetting where I came from, for neglecting the singular opportunity they gave me, this ability to see and to share the natural world with others.  I'm not even a superstitious person -- not a bit -- but throughout this process of hunting for an agent and dreaming about entering an industry where money comes first, I keep smelling the linseed oil on their hands and glancing uncomfortably at their paintings on my wall.  I'm thirty-two years old.  It's time to get serious about carrying on with the family business. 

I am not sure there's a place for me within the book industry.  I am sure there's a place for me in the arts.  Well do I know the difficulties of making a living wage from art.  I grew up witnessing that struggle.  But I also know that it is possible, if a slow and hard process.  I know how to do it.  That knowledge and savvy are also my inheritance.  It has taken me a long time and a lot of pain to discern the divide between industry and art.  I have had to filter out a lot of fuzz, a lot of voices.  The finer my filter grows, the larger the divide looks.  More like a chasm sometimes.  A few works bridge the chasm like radiant filaments.  I think those spans are built more on dumb luck than on anything else.  I'm a skeptic and a realist.  Luck is fine if it comes to you, but you can't depend on it. 

I have had one small bit of luck, as crazy and unpredictable as luck always is.  A casual friend told me about Torrey House Press, all offhanded, and because I was bored at work I checked you out.  And now I know where I go from here.

Your mission to use art -- literature -- to make people understand and care is a mission I can believe in.  You are pursuing it with the kind of drive and passion only those operating outside the strictures of Industry can feel.  It is drive and passion that make differences in this world.  And since discovering your mission, I've realized it's also my mission: to make people feel the West.  I found you, and in a few days I've gone from despair over not being able to find a toehold in the Industry to optimism, to excitement.  I see infinite prismatic structures to be built on this side of the chasm, our side, the side that matters, the side that saves.  I have never understood why Western fiction is so poorly represented in our art.  It is so distinct, so beautifully bleak, so gorgeous and affecting.  And how can it not be, when the place itself is so rare and powerful?  You are doing everything right.  You are placed and poised to make Western regional literature A Thing, in the sense that Southern lit is A Thing, respected, revered, sought after.  I am a creature of the West.  I want to contribute to the construction of an art within an art.  This is where my life is going.  In the face of uncertainty, I managed to figure it out.  Sometimes luck blows my skeptical mind.

I've submitted my book to you.  Goodness, I know so well that submission processes are long.  And I know Art is as subjective as  Industry.  I have no expectations for my submission, only the hope that you'll remember my name and my passion for the landscapes we love.  I know that this particular project may not be right for you.  I am also desperate, as so many are in this economy, and who knows...I may after all find a way into Industry with this one and plump for a paycheck over a more noble ends.  This time around, at least.  I can't say.  I only hope you'll remember me, because if it's a "no thanks" with this book, I'll be back with another.  And another.  I am going to write for you, eventually, one way or another, because I believe in what you're doing, and I want to do it, too. 

Here's something from the book I submitted, somewhere in the middle.  I hope you enjoy it.

Early in the morning the causeway was abandoned.  An endless bar of cloud above the Wasatch range trapped the dawn light, threw it back onto the surface of the Great Salt Lake where it glimmered below a reflection of mountains, a confrontational shade, audacious bright lavender, dominating the view so that space was reversed.  There was more water than sky.  The mountains were the bruised tips of little fingers, and the water too close for comfort.  Along the causeway’s narrow rocky shoulders the occasional skinny stand of sage broke the gravel.  Above each brush a ripple in the air like a heat shimmer moved.  As we drew closer and passed, the mirages revealed themselves as colonies of gnats, spinning over the shrubs, voracious gray cyclones.  Horned grebes ducked underwater.  The dense surface of the lake stilled almost immediately; the grebes resurfaced in my side-view mirror as specks, corks bobbing.  The peak of Antelope Island rose in front of us, growing taller and sharper and more varied in color, its featureless dun becoming a multiplicity of patches and striations, ochres, olive-greens, golds, a somber warm umber crown at its ancient apex.
     We reached the island and, in reverent silence, drove along its eastern side.  From this distance the gray suburbs of Salt Lake City lay motionless.  Far below the roadway the mountain’s side dropped to a ragged plain incised by a heavy line of stunted dark trees and the finer, broken line of an ancient wire fence with posts leaning into grasses.  Beyond, long-dried shoreline gave way to the pale wrack of salt flat, shot through with delicate silver cracks, and further still, the breadth of lake water hung heavy with reflected mountains.
     Around a bend in the hill’s side X braked hard.  A sudden herd of bison drifted like continents from one side of the road to the other.  They were as dark as basalt and as immoveable.  We both sensed this, and made no attempt to hurry them.  I held tight to X’s hand as, one after another, they passed before us, feet from our bumper, processional, magnificent.  One rolled its eye to meet my own eye – it was as small and gleaming as a ring, rimmed in damp white and red, adorned by a single large diamond-winged fly at its stone-black canthus.  Over the quiet whirr of our engine we heard the bison breathing.  Their bellows-breath was an arrhythmic song.  A foreleg connected to the earth, ponderous, inexorable; the fat and muscle along the long, tall shoulder rippled for an instant and I could almost feel the vibration of the heavy cloven footstep.  Shed hair peeled in swaths from the tight-muscled back.  And then the last of them was gone, comically small rump following the great wise head and shoulders over the verge of the road, down the hill to better grazing below, where the breeze would lift the flies and scatter them away.
     We moved on.
     Larks called from the dry slopes beside the road.  X stopped the car.  A thin trail of packed dust the color of bone wended up the hillside between clumps of mullein.  We took that trail.  The larks perched atop the mullein stalks; they swayed in the slight breeze; they took turns shouting their challenges to one another.  The island’s flank stirred and sighed with the sound of wind, the murmur of birdsong.  Upslope, a tiny long-legged owl skittered onto the trail, stopped to examine us, stretched one leg and one wing together in a display of nonchalance, then disappeared into the brush.  When we reached the place where he paused I saw how his little scribe-talons had scratched indiscernible hieroglyphs into the dust of the trail.
     We climbed for a good twenty minutes or more.  The trail led us to a pile of decaying boulders at the crest of a hill, dark with grains of lichen.  X and I clambered atop them, and just as he pulled me to my feet to stand beside him a commotion erupted on the far side of the boulders, a loud rattle of pebbles, a crack and pop of stone on stone, and the receding heartbeat of hooves against earth.  A tawny blur veered past us, white-orange-black.  Before we could even jump in fright the pronghorn was gone, bolting down the hill beside the trail.  X laughed, put his arms around me, warm.  He smelled of dust and sweat and larks in the sun. 
     “Poor guy,” he said.  “We ruined his hiding spot.”
     Near our car the pronghorn slowed to a dignified walk.  Its tail flicked above a scornful white rump.  It crossed the road and, like the bison, descended out of sight, making for friendlier or at least more private ranges below. 
     “I thought they lived in herds.  This one is all on its own.  Do you think it’s sick?”
     “Nah.”  X shaded his eyes, gazed down across the road as if he could still see the pronghorn.  “Just a loner.”
     An especially strong gust blew down from the mountain’s peak.  It rocked me on my feet, rocked me against X’s body.  The larks quieted for a moment, intent on clinging to their swaying perches.
     “You know, I had convinced myself to leave the night before last.  I thought I’d get on a bus and go back to Rexburg.  Yesterday.  That’s when I planned to do it, right after you’d finished painting in Temple Square.”
     “Why?”  X didn’t sound surprised, only curious.  That took me aback.  Did it matter so little to him, whether I stayed or left?  He read the concern on my face; he rushed to soothe it.  “I’m glad you stayed.  Thrilled, even.  But I figured you would.  I only want to know why you thought of going back.”
     “You’re not surprised at all that I even considered going.  How did you know?”
     “I admit I’ve never done anything like it before, but I figured it can’t be easy to leave a marriage.  Even a sham marriage.  It’s got to be even harder to leave a religion.  I used to smoke.  It was hell to quit.  The compulsion for just one drag – the need for it, right in the pit of my stomach, like being slugged – pow – the anxiety I felt without it – I can’t explain.  There were days when I knew it was crazy to think of picking up a cigarette or even going near somebody who was smoking, but my whole body wanted to anyway.  And my mind – I was so unsettled all the time; I remember not being able to rest or think straight because all I could think about was how good a smoke would taste right then.  You can understand rationally that a thing will destroy you, but there’s a force inside you that will drive you back to it again and again.”
     “Maybe,” I said.  “Maybe that’s what I was feeling.  All I can really tell you for sure is that I felt like…”  But I didn’t know what I felt.  I didn’t know what I thought.  Since we’d first arrived in Utah I hadn’t examined my feelings.  Like and animal I had only sensed the discomfort, the threat, and wanted to flee back to whatever safety I might find in familiarity.  Run back to your herd, lone creature.  There is safety in numbers.  “I felt guilty.  A good woman gets married, and takes care of her husband, and has children, and takes care of them too.  I felt I’d shirked my duties, and I needed to get back home – get back to being good.”
     X nodded.  “But you didn’t get on the bus.  Why?” 
     I caught sight of movement in the distance, out on the plain below the road.  The pronghorn, pressing on past the bison herd, shouldering through the tall grasses.  I watched its progress for a long, quiet moment.
     “Everyone back home is so concerned with eternity.  It’s all anyone lives for.  It’s the focus of everything we do – they do.  You study the scriptures.  You tithe.  You court.  You marry and are sealed in the temple in an eternal partnership.  You have children and you teach your family about eternity.  You serve in the temple to earn points for eternity.  You baptize the dead to give them hope for eternity.  You worry that if you stole a pack of gum as a kid, or had a secret boyfriend, or don’t participate in the Church enough, or feel unfulfilled in your marriage, that you will be demoted in eternity.  You’ll miss out on all the good stuff.  If you don’t do it right, if you aren’t perfect.  I don’t think I even believe in an eternity.  I’d just been taught for so long to fear what might happen to me after I die, that I might not make it to the top…”
     “That’s a hell of a way to live, always preoccupied with where you’ll go when you die.”
     “I watched you painting the temple, and I thought about the things people make.  And I realized I’ve been so concerned with fitting in for so long that there was never any room in my head to wonder what it means, to not believe in god.  What it means practically.  Functionally.”
     “My own humble watercolor of a building is responsible for all this deep thought?  I’m flattered.”
     “It’s like this.  It took the pioneers forty years to build that temple.  And it’s beautiful – really beautiful.  They put so much skill into it.  Some people must have worked on it even though they knew they’d never live to see its completion.  But they worked on it all the same.  Forty years.”
     X lowered himself to sit on the boulder, folded his lanky legs beneath him, waited for me to go on.  I joined him.  The surface of the rock was warm, minutely furred by lichen.  I ran my palms over it.  Bits of it crumbled beneath my hands. 
     “People have this drive to make and make.  We all want to leave something behind after we’re gone.  A painting or a song or a book.  A baby.  A temple.  You turned the temple into something else, something all your own.  And the people who saw what you did with it – they’ll remember.  At least for a while.  Some of them will remember their whole lives.  Some of them will see the picture you painted every time they look at the real temple.  You altered the world, X.  You changed them.”
     His broad mouth turned a little, an uncertain smile, half flattered, half confused.  Oh, I am getting nowhere.  Like a slug to the stomach, pow.
     “I think,” I said carefully, hoping the words were right, hoping he understood, “that’s the only afterlife we get.  To make something that changes other people.  Make a painting or a building or a child – create something that has meaning to somebody else, and memory…”
     “Memory is eternity.”
     “Memory and meaning.  Changing a life.  A great work, whatever it is – I don’t think there’s a heaven.  I think you were right about that.  Now that I have the time to really think about it, this world is all we have.  I think we only get one life, and it’s short.”  I’d never said the words before.  I’d never even though them.  Not so clearly.  The simplicity of the words choked me.  The beauty of them.
     I swallowed hard.  My eyes burned with tears.  X saw and took my hand, stroked my fingers with his callused thumb as if to comfort me.  But I did not need comfort.  The realization of life’s miraculous brevity filled me with a fire so hot I could not speak.  This was the fire of the Holy Ghost, or so I had always been told – the surge in the heart that comforts, the shiver in the blood that assures.  This was the thrum along the nerves, the spirit filled to brimming – but I have no spirit, and yet I was still overflowing.  I returned X’s touch, rubbed my hand over his knuckles, over his wrist, as if to push the thoughts I could not speak through his skin.
     X, I do not know what happens beyond life.  But I know that life is short, and life is singular.  Life is this: larks on a hillside, bison with diamonds in their eyes.  A pronghorn tearing from its silent refuge, its hooves pounding in my pulse.  Life is the feel of your skin against mine, the smell of salt and grass on wind.  Life is a shiver, a lightning flash, a hasty illumination of an ecstasy of love and hope and sorrow and loss; a blink, a breath, and nothing.  But oh, the beauty of that flash, when all is lit bright enough to be seen, even the owl’s tracks in the dust.  And oh, the frailty of every heartbeat – how I treasure my heart now, like I never did before, like I never could before.
     The pronghorn still moved, so far away now that the colors of its hide were barely discernible against the landscape.  It moved past the caked, dried shore and out onto the gleaming white salt flats where at last it found its peace.  Tiny and distinct, it knelt to rest in the sun.  I held tight to X’s hand.  I felt the beat of the pronghorn’s hooves beneath his skin.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Libbie,

    I'm listening and you have my attention. Your creative and lovely way of presenting yourself amounts to the best query letter we have yet to receive, hands down.

    I do like what I see, so far, of your work. Be patient, as you know you must, and we will be back to you.

    Mark Bailey
    Torrey House Press

  3. Everybody misspells my name. Don't sweat it.

  4. I am staggered, struck, and a bit choked up.

    I don't usually read lit, I usually read hard-science non-fiction. I'm accustomed to wordiness and the research-while-you-read fun that comes with it, but this...

    This was absolutely masterful. Your thorough descriptions of the settings; they were difficult at first and had my brain squirming ticklishly to absorb and imagine all that was written, but once I relaxed into the mindset, it was breathtaking. Forgive the analogy, but reading, imagining, and understanding the place you described was almost exactly like getting a foot massage for the brain!

    This passage, “that’s the only afterlife we get. To make something that changes other people. Make a painting or a building or a child – create something that has meaning to somebody else, and memory…” actually had me in tears. It's something I think about a bit too much when I make my art pieces and in writing this passage, you have done exactly what it says.

    Well done, Libbie Hawker.

  5. Well, thank you! I appreciate your taking the time to let me know you like my writing. That's always nice to hear.