Villanova or: How I Became a Former Professional Literary Agent
It is my third morning at the annual conference of the Sagebrush Romance and Western Writers Association of the American West (the SRWWAAW). I am installed at one of several tiny round tables in a beige antechamber of the first floor of the Oklahoma City Embassy Suites. This is the one-on-one room, just a few steps up the wheelchair ramp from the hotel’s high glass atrium, with its twinkly canned music and breakfast buffet. I am seated across from a writer named Maria Passel, who is 32 and has a glass eye. She lost it, she explains, when the left side of her face was mauled by a bear.
John Hodgman, writer of The Areas of My Expertise (an almanac of complete world knowledge compiled with instructive annotation and arranged in useful order) lives in New York City. There, he curates and hosts The Little Gray Book Lectures, a monthly colloquium of readings, songs, and dubious scholarship. He is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a frequent voice on public radio’s This American Life, where he posed this question, among others: “Which superpower would you choose: flight or invisibility?” (The correct answer is invisibility.) Further fiction, nonfiction, and genres in-between have appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, and The Believer. He has performed at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, as well as on the great stages of Chicago, Philadelphia, and London’s Barbican.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- JH: The seventies seemed to me to be a period of rare respectability for SF, though I was hardly an expert on the subject and still am not. It seemed a boom time for speculative fiction, when the fantastic was not just contemptuously tossed into the back of the bookstore, and the provocative fictions and metaphysical thought experiments of Pynchon, Borges, Bartheleme, and Dick all enjoyed an equal footing and had not yet been moved into their respective genre ghettos. Of course it was also a very male world, and I got to thinking of what it would be like to be a woman in this world. At the same time I had been thinking again about the writers conferences I had attended back when I was a professional literary agent—the shadow literary community of the un- and under-published authors that thrives in Radissons and Sheratons and Marriotts throughout the country. I realized that if such an author was still alive today, that would be where we would find her. I also had been thinking of Dick’s visionary experience/mental breakdown, in which he thought he had tapped into a cosmic mind that spanned all of time.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- JH: Most challenging, I think, was learning enough about the lives of enough 70s era SF authors to be able to fake some knowledgability about the subject. I am largely indebted to Jason Evans for early tutoring on this subject and the great novelist Sean Stewart for later fact checking and instruction.
- HT: Have you ever been to a writing convention like the Sagebrush Romance & Western Writers Association of the American West (SRWWAAW)?
- JH: As mentioned, yes. This story owes its life largely to the OK City Embassy Suites where I spent two nights meeting and counseling writers. It was enormously illuminating and frightening and also heartening experience. If you live in NY and work in publishing, you really have no idea how many people in the world are writing, writing, writing. And they all are yearning so desperately for the validation of a big publisher. But at the same time, they are writing and talking and flirting among themselves, sharing work and developing styles and finding readers all on their own, and largely leading a more meaningful and vibrant literary life than they would under the disinterested patronage of the Bertelsmann corporation. I should note that the bar at the actual Embassy Suites is called Johnny B. Goode’s. Bowties is the name of the bar at the Radisson in Columbus, OH.
- HT: Why do you think everyone wants to write trilogies?
- JH: Why trilogies? That is an eternal mystery.