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Monday, August 31, 2009

A Letter to Anonymous


Dear Anonymous

It’s been a while since we were in touch, but this time I thought it should be me who initiated a conversation. Because while we are old acquaintances, I have never before sought you out or told you bluntly how I feel about our relationship.

Firstly, let’s refresh our memories with the details of our most significant encounters.

Top of the list has to come our very first introduction.  I was fourteen years old, and you will probably remember that it was the first time my parents had ever left me alone for a couple of nights in our big, old, sixteenth-century house with its dark backyard and secluded location.  I can still recall my nervous prowling from room to room, flicking on light switches to make sure mysterious bogey-men and unnamed monsters weren’t lurking in the shadowed corners and closets.

So who would have thought my worst fears would come true and that would be the night you would first telephone me to say hello?  You were watching me, you said, and you had been watching me for a while – and didn’t I know who you were because you were always near? I could hear the dark pleasure in your voice; your slow, steady breathing.

Anonymous, it is hard to convey the fear you stirred in me as I stood holding the phone in that unlit room. Who were you? What did you want with me?  And why were you laughing at my silent terror? You knew it would be a very long time before my home, my street, would look familiar or safe again. You knew that you had planted a thought in my head which would stay for months.

Fast forward a lot of years, and now I am a businesswoman – professional, much too busy, a manager of many people, awash with schedules and deadlines. So how could I know that Thursday morning would be the day you would re-enter my life? A different guise, a different agenda, but the same old anonymity.  A package, postmark blurred, heaped innocently with the mail.  I ripped it open and pages spilled out – a letter, suggesting that you knew a lot about me and only had my best interests at heart. But you didn’t – because I have spent my life working with language, and I heard the vicious twist of the knife in your voice as you set out to undermine and destroy. And then the same the following Thursday - the carefully repeated performance, the blackness of your impeccable timing, knowing that a simple day of the week could become imbued with an anxiety that made it hard to breathe.

But, there is more, isn’t there. Now I’m an agent and I meet you again, for you, Anonymous, are the one who wrote to me, complaining about my blog. I actually thought you had a point, and goodness knows I’m not perfect; I do try to listen and learn. But your message has all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from my old friend Anonymous – the self-righteous air, the mean-spirited tone, though this new model comes with the added piquance of implacability. I offer to telephone you if you would reveal yourself – but no, Anonymous is not a forgiver or forgetter. And certainly not a discusser. You are safe out there in your dark virtual cave and there’s no way you’re coming out into the light.

There have been other flirtations between you and I, and now, Anonymous, I see you everywhere in this literary world - on blogs, in chat-rooms, in Secret Agent contests and Amazon reviews - anywhere where people congregate, and especially where you might have a chance of bringing down the successful. I discover that most well-known authors have encountered you somewhere, some time. And while they try to laugh you off and ‘grow a thicker skin’, I think you know better than any of us that there is something strangely malevolent about the faceless intruder, ‘the paw under the door’.

And now, unsurprisingly, I see you start to approach my own clients, popping up on their sites, undermining their equanimity, ripping into their work, and I rise up like a Mother Lion, because, Anonymous, I’ve had enough of you.

I have tried to think whether there could be any good reasons for you being The Great Unnamed. But I can’t come up with any, because I believe that if you have something to say you should stand up and say it face to face, or at least with your name attached.  And anyway, if you have good intentions how strange it is that your words are so rarely kind or uplifting or generous.

Let’s face the facts. You enjoy the darkness and the freedom you find there. Because if you came out into the startling light of accountability you would be caught, transfixed, by our eyes, and any face-to-face encounter would force you to acknowledge the humanity of those you address.

Anonymous, we have a history, you and I. Our relationship was born many years ago when I was young and powerless and alone in a dark house.  But now there’s something I want to tell you straight. To be anonymous is to be cowardly. Own your opinions, admit to your feelings, and find ways to express them that would allow for genuine dialogue. It’s time to stand up and be a . . . man? A woman?

Now the tables have turned. Because, Anonymous, now I am watching YOU.

Yours sincerely

Sarah Davies
The Greenhouse Literary Agency.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sarah goes to Hollywood


My first West Coast visit, and I’m with Randy Newman – ‘I love LA!’

I headed out west with all the excitement of an early pioneer - in search of film agents, movie makers, blue skies, beautiful people, and all the star-studded cast of SCBWI’s massive summer conference. And was I disappointed? No! Fold back the roof, put on the big dark glasses, point me in the direction of Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, and man – this is the life. Here’s the church where Elizabeth Taylor got married; there’s Michael Douglas’s pied-a-terre; and Hi there, Nicholas Cage! Oh, those wreaths are on MICHAEL JACKSON’S front gate? And isn’t that the house where they filmed Ocean’s Eleven?

You should always be walking forward, and Greenhouse’s steps this week (as I stood in Tom Hanks’s footprints on the Walk of Fame) felt like big strong strides.

Just in case you don’t know, SCBWI LA is a whopper of a conference.  For you Brits reading this, think of the biggest writers’ event you’ve ever attended – and multiply by . . . let’s say a hundred times? Here you’re on a big canvas, with people from many backgrounds and many time zones (except, of course for Wyoming, the only non-attendee state in the Union), all gathered to learn about writing, talk about books, network, wear bizarre costumes at the Blue Moon Ball – and get very, very over-tired. It’s a full-on assault, it’s a thousand interesting people, ten thousand stories (fictional and real) all in one place. And if you’re on the Faculty, as I was, it’s extraordinary.

So, bearing in mind I arrived in town three days before the conference to see film agents, here are my LA highlights.  For which you need to know that the Agents’ Panel (Dan Lazar of Writers’ House, Marietta Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Agency, Brenda Bowen of the Sanford J. Greenburger Agency, Kelly Sonnack of the Andrea Brown Agency, Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer deChiara Agency . . .  and me from Greenhouse) was a line in the sand in various ways, so this has to be divided into BPH (Before Panel Highlights) and APH (After Panel Highlights).


Driving from the airport. Blue skies, no humidity, NO MOSQUITOS, palm trees, big big highways.  It’s been an exciting road from London to get here, and I’m not talking about the mileage.

My room at the Hyatt – a.k.a. Base Camp for a week.  A big table covered in draft speeches, business cards, files of work, water bottles, submission lists (nothing stops just because I’m away), battery chargers for Kindle and Blackberry. And pink swim goggles. How cool that Shark Week is on HBO? Nothing like relaxing in the evening to the sight of limbs being chomped off by Great Whites.

My balcony – and the glass edifice opposite (home to top agents CAA). Through the central ‘hole’ in the building I look at the distant hills and wonder what’s out there. Frankly, it’s a giant metaphor.

Big corporate film agents; small boutique agents; agents who love books; agents who drop names that make you blink. Ah yes, downstairs is Will Smith’s company? I see, so you represent Miley Cyrus? Through the big and the small, I have my chosen group – the film agents to whom Greenhouse will offer partnership on our upcoming projects with film potential. We don’t want an exclusive tie-up with one agency – we want personal passion and belief; the right agent for the right project. The film business is very, very tough and these are the guys who do the deals out here.

Watching the hotel fill up, in a matter of hours, with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of SCBWI conference attendees.  It’s a swarm! An inundation! I skulk behind a plant with my cappuccino, watching.

The hotel Business Center. Like a mole I inhabit this dim, underground world for hours at a time. In fact, the manager even gives me a discount – he’s so sorry for anyone shut down there when the sun and pool are calling from above. It’s here I receive the two-book offer on my recent submission. And it’s at the Faculty Dinner, out under the stars, that I realize other top NY editors want it too!

Listening to Sherman Alexie kick off the conference with his extraordinarily powerful speech. And then meeting him in the lobby. Be still, my beating heart, I am in awe of this man.

Critiques, critiques, critiques. In the world’s chilliest room, I do seven half-hour one-to-ones with writers. Show not tell, imbue your writing with a sense of place, try to focus your story in those early pages – I find myself repeating the same tips.

Finalizing a deal for a middle-grade novel by one of SCBWI’s Regional Advisers. What could be more exciting than letting an author know at this conference that they will be published!

Lunching with old friend Riley Ellis of Fox at the studio’s Commissary. Riley (film scout and executive producer) was involved with LAST OF THE MOHICANS and MARLEY AND ME, and so many more films. We talk about many people and many books.

Lying in the sun in an armchair out on the hotel’s deck. I sink behind my Kindle, my nametag concealed, reading manuscripts and listening secretly to fascinating conversations between writers. Everyone has a story – how they came to be here, their dreams.

My birthday – and phone calls/texts from my family in various parts of the world (sister in Spain, sons in London and the West Bank). My first workshop: ‘Writing and Selling in the Global Marketplace’. A fair turnout as I talk about selling rights, being published abroad, contractual issues.  Did they enjoy it? Did they find it interesting?

Birthday dinner in Beverly Hills with Elizabeth Law (Egmont) and fellow Brit/former-publisher-turned-film-scout Fiona Kenshole (Laika). Elizabeth spots someone famous at the next table – I know his face, but goodness knows what his name is.

THE PANEL – Looking out from the stage at 1,100 people. Aware of the giant images of ourselves behind our heads. Searching carefully for the right words to answer Lin Oliver’s questions about our agencies and the marketplace. Knowing how important the nuances are, and the privileged role we have in guiding authors towards publication.


The Golden Kite Awards. Richard Peck, Richard Peck, Richard Peck. If I could speak half as well as him I would have to die happy.  Here is greatness.

Smiling and chatting and answering questions – a lot. No more incognito. No more manuscript reading on a quiet Kindle.

Talking and talking, holding a plate of food, and a glass of wine – simultaneously - at the New Moon Ball. Everyone is so friendly, and the costumes are amazing – well, at least my dress is blue.

My final workshop: ‘A Recipe for Writing the Breakout Novel: 5 Ingredients for Success’. A lot of people. More than I’d ever have believed.  Greenhouse authors Val Patterson and Lindsey Leavitt are at the back as I read from their books, which feels very special. I love this – just love it. OK, I’ll be honest – I’m having a wonderful time.

Flying home overnight – drained but exhilarated. I unpack and go straight to my computer. Things don’t stop, and I have an auction to prepare for. Someone once said – ‘If you do the job you love, you never do a day’s work in your life.’

Los Angeles. Inspiring, significant, strategic, exhausting. Fun. And I’m already excited at the thought of going back.

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