Having spent nearly 8 years writing Married to Muhammad, working on my poetry chops, learning to write narrative non-fiction, studying history, geography, and birds of the Hijaz; learning Qu’ranic Arabic, falling in love with Hans Wehr’s Arabic dictionary with it’s word chains, re-reading stories about the women I’m researching, finding where they went in Ethiopia, savoring the jungle and obelisks of Aksum and the orchids after years of bleak desert; having punched the “send” button a zillion times to Wendy, my poem-angel, and Art, my Arabic genie; and having pinged the entire manuscript for final edit to Matt, the Walt Whitman Scholar from Duke University, I can finally say the book is complete. Done. That’s what my name means – Tamam – the path of completion.
Now I study the business of books. Agents seem slippery and tough as Double O Seven. They appear to have erased their on-line presence and disappeared behind bland listings. One of them, I’ll call her Peony Smith, has the same name as a famous athlete. Her entries read like this:
*Peony Smith 27, is a 6-ft. 3-in. mini-skirted blonde who loves popcorn, Mission: Impossible and André Kostelanetz. She professes to a belief that “positive thinking …”
*Ms Smith lives in Brooklyn with her cat, Boo Boo. Peony loves to garden and learns from an intense Bible study program.
Her own profile might look like this: Peony Z. Smith Literary Agency specializes in the representation of book authors and the sale of motion picture and television rights. Peony Smith’s interests are in literary fiction, commercial fiction, mysteries and thrillers. In non-fiction she is looking for biography and pop culture…
I printed out the list of “the 20 worst agents in the business.” I pick at my thumb nail, and surf the internet for any agent who might light up at the words “Wives of Prophet Muhammad” and “Sufi.” I try to imagine them saying those words over lunch in midtown Manhattan. I leaf through my collection of agent names from the publishing seminar and my bookstore research. I spend hours of hunt and peck to see what shelf my book will grace. It’s a lot like researching what school your not-yet-born-child will walk into for kindergarten. I pick agents from my list and write each a personalized query letter. Michelle Moran’s (Nefertiti) agent never wrote back. An agent whose interests matched my material looks like Suze Orman, which doesn’t feel quite right. In my mind I bond with two agents I’ve found on line, imagine Nathan or Daniel would be pioneering my unusual and exciting book, might chat it up over lunch to an eager publisher. I see myself receiving a friendly note from one, then the other saying, “Tamam, I’ve got a deal, call me!” I picture Peony reading my manuscript late into the night, unable to put it down, like Katheryn Turner’s editor at the end of Romancing the Stone.
But there’s the egg-bound thing that comes with being chicken, or playing chicken with these ultra-serious grown-ups in New York Literary Houses. It makes me shivery, squawky and sullen.
There is a book-birth here somewhere and it’s not over until the book comes out. A favorite story is about the writer, Cris, in New York. Her father introduced us because she is published, so I sent her a page then my proposal, and she offered to introduce me to her agent. Here’s the e-mail:
On Jun 4, 2008, at 5:22 PM, Cris wrote:
Hi Tamam–Good to hear from you. Your book looks amazing. I can’t wait to read it. My agent’s name is Amy W… unfortunately, she’s out on maternity leave right now. I just sent her a note though and asked her what to do–hopefully she’ll get back to me. Maybe she’s still looking at manuscripts, from home? Or maybe she’ll suggest you send it to someone else at the agency…I’ll let you know as soon as I hear. If you want to write to her yourself, you can–her email is…
Maternity leave. I thank her and mention there’s no need to bother a woman who finally got her head away from books long enough to push out a baby and enjoy the fruits of motherhood. Lorin thinks this is funny and tells me I need to write it up. Amy and I are the same but similar, both “with a bump”, as they say in OK Magazine. Pregnant women glow, pregnant book-people glower. Authors tend to be crankier than pregnant women. Probably because they only have the “aut” part of the word, no capitol A and you ought to do this or ought to do that, I oughta be outa here by now. Of course the second part of the word is hor, as in the beginning of horror, or an extremely demeaning word having to do with what some people might turn into just to get published.