I was terrified by all these big-time agents and editors, and especially of one particular agent, who enjoyed more fame and fortune than any of her clients did.
"Send me the manuscript today," the famous agent ordered.
Bullied, terrified, and naive, I sent her my manuscript of short stories, glacially printed out by a five-hundred-dollar Brother word processor.
"You're not ready," she said after she'd read them. "I'll take you on as a client, but we're going to have to work on these stories for a year or two before I send them out to publishers."
I was shocked. I had been dreaming about immediate fame and fortune.
"But wait," I said. "I thought I was one of the major lyric voices of our time."
"According to the manuscript I've got sitting in front of me, you're not even one of the major lyric voices on my desk."
Ouch. That one really hurt. And this woman wanted to be my agent? Was that how agents were supposed to talk to their clients? And who the hell was I, calling myself one of the major lyric voices of our time? I was wondering if I should get business cards that identified me as such, or perhaps leave it on my answering machine.
Hello, you've reached Sherman Alexie, one of the major lyric voices of our time. Please leave a message if you're not too intimidated and I'll get back to you, with my versatile and mellifluous voice, as soon as possible.
Of course, these days my wife, Diane, only refers to me as "one of the major lyric voices of our time" when I stutter or mispronounce a word or say something so inane and arrogant that it defies logic. A few years ago, as we argued about the potential danger in using a cracked coffeepot, I shouted, "You can't heat cracked glass! It will shatter! I majored in chemistry! I know glass! What do you know about glass?"
Yep, I have just offered you scientific proof of the majorness of my voice.
"But the thing is," I said to the famous agent. "I think my stories are pretty good. And I hate to be repetitive, but they said I'm one of the major lyric voices of our time."
"These stories are not major. But you've got potential. I'm a great editor. If we take it slow, we can make this book the best it can be."
"I don't know," I said. "I was hoping things would go much faster."
"Going fast would be a mistake for you."
"I don't want to go slow. I can't afford to go slow."
"Then we won't be working together. Call me if you change your mind."
She hung up without saying good-bye. I'd always heard of people who hung up without saying good-bye. I'd seen them on television and in movies, but I'd never talked to somebody who hung up without saying good-bye. She remains the only person I know who has ever hung up on me without saying good-bye.
I still owe her a phone call.
I would love to call her up and say, "Well, Miss Fifteen Per-cent, we published this book at the speed of the light, and it's now in its 1,220,342nd printing, and it was the basis for a really cool movie called Smoke Signals. Maybe you've heard of the movie? It was released by Miramax, yes, Miramax, that's spelled M-I-R-A-M-A-X, and the audience won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers' Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. Yes, that's Robert Freaking Redford's Sundance Film Festival! And I've published one million books since that first one, and I've hugged Stephen King and been kissed on the cheek by Ally Sheedy and sat in a big couch in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's living room while my feet dangled off the floor, so perhaps you were wrong about EVERYTHING! And by the way, what do you know about glass?"
As they say, revenge is a dish best served with the introduction to the tenth-anniversary edition of a book of short stories.
Eventually, despite my narcissism and naïveté, and thanks to the recommendations of friends, I met the agent Nancy Stauffer Cahoon, who, after reading my manuscript, said something beautiful and surprising.
"That story, 'Flight,' the one about the kid and the jet," she said. "That reminds me of James Tate's poem 'The Lost Pilot.'"
"Wow," I said, falling in literary love. "That story was directly influenced by that poem. Nobody has ever noticed that."
"You had me at hello," Renée Zellweger said to Tom Cruise.
"You had me at James Tate," I said to Nancy.
Okay, I didn't really say that to her. But I was impressed that she talked to me first in artistic terms and only later in financial terms. I hired her immediately (or does the agent hire the writer?) worked with her to edit the manuscript, and immediately cut "Flight" and a dozen other stories . . .
(From the Introduction to the tenth anniversary edition.)