Sunday, August 1, 2010

More conversations and emails.

I say the wrong thing.

Life is unfair.

People who work very hard and do the right thing sometimes go under: the systems that are in place don't always ensure that people who have done the right thing will survive. We can then decide to try to do something about it or look the other way. If we do something about it we may ourselves end up in the position of going under: the cost to an individual of rectifying an injustice is often prohibitive.

Life is unfair.

Back in late 2001 my publishers made a terrifying $150,000 accounting error in their own favour on my royalties statement. I had just had a meeting with an agent who had said she would introduce me to new editors. My publishers had offered $500,000+ for a new 2-book deal including world rights; this terrifying royalties snafu was one of the reasons this was non-negotiable. I hired the agent and when the dust had settled I had met no new editors and also had no deal and it was pretty messy. I managed to get the royalties mistake sorted out so I did have money in the bank. I was doped up on anti-depressants.

I got an email saying one of my cousins was dying of lung cancer. I did not know him well; I was not sure whether it was sentimental to go and see him, but my cousin's family said they thought it would be a good thing. So I went out to California to see him.

This would have been, I think, early 2002 (anti-depressants not so good for the memory). My mind was in a a dull, quiet state where it was impossible to read. I think the flight was 22 hours; I sat in the seat looking quietly at the seat ahead. I wasn't bored, or restless, or impatient; it felt good to sit quietly.

Kelly had been a surfer when young. After too many arrests for DUI he lost his licence and I think was made to go to AA. He stayed sober for 20 years; we discovered after his death that he had been a popular, charismatic speaker within AA. In one recording he talked about discovering that he had a brain tumour as well as lung cancer. He had been staying at my uncle's house and had no transportation. He said he sat on the steps outside, saying: How can I get to AA. How can I get to AA. I've got to get to AA. After a while he decided to go back to the beginning and go through the 12 Steps. He worked through to Step 3 and resolved to leave everything in the hands of a Higher Power.

When I got there he was staying with his twin sister and her boyfriend, a vet, who had a house on the side of a mountain in an avocado grove. They had set up a hospital bed on the ground floor with an oxygen mask and a TV with a 24-hour golf channel.

If you've ever been very very sick you know what it's like to be very weak: you don't actually have enough energy to lie in bed, it's just that lying in bed takes less energy than anything else, so you lie in bed, exhausted by the effort of lying in bed. That was the state he had reached. He had no health insurance. Robin and John were looking after him; he was now increasingly weak and confused because of the brain tumour, so he could not be left alone. John was an overworked, debtridden vet; the twin, Robin, worked in the practice; they were both overextended, but they were also looking after Kelly. Everyone was worried and exhausted.

A problem had come up. John's partner wanted to retire, so he wanted to be bought out of the practice. Under California state law, the value of the practice was assessed on gross rather than net income. The practice showed no profits - they had taken on a lot of debt to invest in new equipment - but that did not, of course, affect the value of the practice under law. So John needed to come up with a lot of money he did not have to buy out his partner, and it looked as though they would simply need to sell out and John would lose his business and have to start from scratch.

I did not really want to do another deal with my publishers, who had been so bad to work with in the past, but in the circumstances this seemed self-indulgent: $525,000 had been their opening offer. So I said I would be happy to help if necessary. I went back to Berlin, and then to London. Since things had gone badly wrong with the last agent I was nervous of bringing in a new one; I asked a friend connected with Miramax, someone I knew my editor liked, to talk to my editor, and I told her what to say. (I was worried about handling this myself because I was doped up on anti-depressants and barely able to talk.)

My cousin died shortly after I returned to England. I was still in talks with my friend when I got an emergency email from John. His partner had kept such bad records that the practice was not in a position to get financing from a bank, so John would in fact need to find funding elsewhere. The CPA handling the transaction now said that it would fall through if the money was not on hand by the end of the week. John's uncle had offered to put up half the money; John asked if I could put up the other $100,000.

I would, of course, rather have waited until my deal was solidly in place, but I had been told this was an emergency. So I sent John a cheque for $100,000, which left me with a few thousand. Meanwhile my friend talked to my editor.

For reasons that remain unclear, my friend decided to replace the things I had asked her to say with something completely different. (She told me this after the meeting, when it was too late to do anything about it.) There were all sorts of misunderstandings which I won't go into, the deal fell through again, and everyone was outraged.

This was very bad news, because tax had not been paid on the money I had sent John and there was no way of knowing when more money would come in. In the long run this would turn out to be a professional disaster from which (as it looks now) I would never recover. I talked to an agent about the books I wanted to write and what I needed for them and he said No Publisher Will Allow, I would have to self-publish. The Inland Revenue started demanding taxes and threatening legal action and insisting that if there was a problem I must come in and talk to someone. I was not able to talk. I sent my accountant an email explaining that I was clinically depressed and at risk of suicide and he said he did not think the Inland Revenue would be sympathetic. I made enquiries about getting committed to a mental institution and was told it was difficult to get committed to a residential facility.

It seemed to me that the best plan might be to commit a crime, some sort of crime that would entail a prison sentence, as one does not generally need to go through a lot of red tape to go to jail. This struck me as an absolutely brilliant idea (presumably the Inland Revenue would not pursue me in jail), but at the same time I could not help being aware that many people would see this as insane, and I could not help feeling that the very fact that the idea struck me as absolutely brilliant, the solution to all my problems, might in itself be a mark of insanity. Barclaycard sent me some credit card cheques with 6 months interest-free credit; I called them and got them to raise my credit card limit and sent Inland Revenue a cheque. (I could not quite see why Inland Revenue could not just charge me 29.4% APR or some such thing.) I came off the anti-depressants and went back to secretarial work. So it was rather unfortunate that my friend had felt unable to say what I had asked her to say.

I did, as I've said, end up negotiating a new deal with my editor in 2003, he promised a designer, I moved to New York, he refused to honour the contract. Bad news.

Now, sending John a cheque for $100,000 would have been generous, but not insanely generous, if my deal had gone through. It would was an act of hypererogatory virtue - but he himself had done something much harder, much more generous, which was to look after someone dying of lung cancer. Kelly was a close friend of John's, but this was still an act of extraordinary generosity. The burden would not have been so heavy if the US had a proper healthcare system; John stepped in to fill that gap, and he now stood to lose everything he had worked for. He was an absolutely amazing guy, and I did not want to see that happen.

Talking to my editor, on the other hand, and relaying accurately the things I wanted in the deal, do not strike me as particularly taxing, let alone examples of exceptional generosity. It was not complicated; it came at no cost to the person concerned; had my friend felt able to do as she was asked, I would have had to work with people who were hard to work with, but I would not have faced financial disaster. So, you know, life is unfair.

Honouring the terms of a contract, again, is not an example of hypererogatory virtue. This is not an example of my editor doing me a favour, or showing exceptional generosity: this is an example of my editor complying with terms that are legally binding. Breaking the contract is an example of my editor being not just an unmitigated little shit but grossly dishonest. Life is unfair.

Paying royalties on sales of hardback books, again, is not an example of hypererogatory virtue. The publishers had made a profit on the book before it was published; they had sold 20,000 or so copies in hardback and owed me money. Paying it is not an example of doing me a favour, let alone exceptional generosity: this is an example of someone in the bowels of the royalties department accurately inputting data in a spreadsheet (which is what people in royalties are paid to do), rather than making a complete cock-up of it, so that a cheque in the appropriate amount is generated when the statement is sent out. Thereby obviating the need to hire an agent just to get paid. Life is unfair.

Life is really unfair, because we have before us an example of a much better career move.

Comparisons are odious.
Invidious comparisons are especially odious.

Let's not be odious.

The problem is.

There are forms of generosity I am able to recognise as improbable.

It would astound me if a reader were to write and offer me $100,000.
It would astound me if a reader were to offer me a year's accommodation, rent-free, in a second home that's unoccupied.

I am able to recognise these as offers that are wildly unlikely to come my way.

There are other forms of assistance that strike me as well within the realm of possibility.

If a reader recommends an agent, it seems straightforward for the reader to provide all information known to the reader. This looks like something that would take 10 minutes of the reader's time.

This turns out to be as wildly improbable as making me a gift of $100,000. I didn't know that.

Suppose I have, on the one hand, readers blundering into my life with unhelpful suggestions and, on the other hand, readers making me a gift of $100,000. The blunderers are not a problem.

But suppose I have a string of blunderers and no gifts of $100,000. Each blunderer wipes out a couple of years.

It's hard to be sane.

This is, without a doubt, unspeakably dull. I apologise. There's the faint hope, I'm afraid there really is the faint hope, not that a reader will give me $100,000, but that the blunderers might, with a rare glimmer of compassion, refrain.

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