Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sommerloch '06, Part 5

Yesterday came and went, the anniversary I was desperately hoping to avoid.

I've now been in Berlin 13 years. As I was panicking the night before, I quickly did some math, and realized I'd been in Austin 13 years and 10 months, so I'm still hoping to be out of here before that exact anniversary rolls around.

Why am I still here? I realize I haven't mentioned the actual reason. Last June, which is to say June '05, I heard that an old colleague from my newspaper days was now a literary agent, and started corresponding with her. We quickly decided that I should whip together a book proposal based on this blog and my stay here in general, a memoir of expatriation, a narrative of the post-unification years in Berlin, and an inquiry into the whole expat mindset in general. This proposal whisked back and forth in cyberspace, and as last year drew to a close, I started formulating a plan: the book would be sold early this year, and I'd have the advance in time to start looking at rentals in Montpellier when the students left at the start of this summer. So as this year started, I began making plans, putting inquiries in various places for apartments, and so on.

There was one problem. The agent kept disappearing, sometimes for over a month. I assumed she was doing her job, and I was quite happy with the way the proposal was taking shape, confident that after the next revision it'd be ready to take to New York and sell. But these absences started to disturb me. At any rate, in March when I went to SXSW, we had a good meeting, and she was sure it'd just be a little while before it was sold. Not as quickly as I'd hoped, but I was content.

Only one snag remained. She was working with another agent, learning the business, and he wanted to see the proposal. Okay, I thought, fine. So she sent it to him. And there was a resounding silence. Finally, he sent it back with comments. Very strange comments. For one, he wanted the first-person out of the whole book. What? That made no sense at all. Couldn't we just forget that and get the damn book on the market?

Well, no. She finally confessed that she wasn't actually an agent, and couldn't do anything without his okay. In other words, last summer she'd misrepresented herself to me and I'd been laboring under a misapprehension that wasn't my fault.

So I fired her.

Really, I had no choice; I don't know whether her boss was drunk, whether he had no interest whatever in the book idea, or what, but there was no way I could do what he wanted.

And I was left with a pretty good book proposal and no way to sell it. Which caused me to get pretty depressed; I was clearly going to miss the summer recess at the university in Montpellier, and, unless I found some money pretty quickly, I wasn't going to be able to move at all this summer. Plus, I was now firmly committed to doing this book and had no idea what to do next.

I was rescued by the PEN International conference here in early June, and by a friend who'd just sold a book for a good chunk of dough. The first brought me into contact with a bunch of writers, who heard my story and were sympathetic. I told them I only knew one person in the publishing business, and mentioned her name. "But she's now [incredibly responsible job] at [incredibly major publisher]," one of the authors said. "You should just send it to her directly and see what happens." So I contacted her, and she politely agreed to look at it, noting, however, that she'd be gone until after July 4 on vacation.

This gave me a month to go over the proposal and make it exactly what I wanted it to be instead of what someone else thought it should be. I'm happier now than I've ever been before with it, and sent it off on July 6. Meanwhile, I asked my friend if his agent was taking new clients, and wrote the guy, who said sure, he'd look at something by me. So it went off to him, too, around the same time.

And that's where the story ends for the moment. I've heard nothing since, although, given the glacial pace at which publishing works, that's hardly surprising. So I'm waiting.

I'm not happy about this, but what can I do? I'm thousands of miles away from the American publishing scene, barely publishing at all, sending out article ideas to magazine editors who don't answer queries. None of the magazines I do write for pay very much, certainly not enough to pay the rent each month without a lot of effort.

The only thing that keeps me going is the hope that this situation will change soon, that I can get a decent advance and finish the book, and pay off the debts I owe and still have enough left over to put down a deposit on a new place to live in a new city in a new country. The minute I get that far, students or no students, I'm off to talk to real estate agents in Montpellier and to rouse some of my contacts there to see what they know about places for rent.

Until then, I'm stuck.


Achtung, Deutsche Telekom!

In case you hadn't noticed the World Cup is long gone from our city and our country. Yet your hideous pink football design remains on the Fehrnsehturm in Alexanderplatz, a blot on the city's skyline. The championship has been awarded to Italy. Thus, you have only two choices here:

* Remove the pink pentagons and restore the tower to its silvery glory, or
* Re-do it as a giant polpettone (meatball) dripping with sauce and dusted with Parmesan cheese.

Thank you very much, although yes, I know, it's not your policy to listen to your customers.


An end to evil? I was asking myself that earlier this week after the doorbell rang shortly after 10pm. I was making dinner at the time, and so I wasn't much interested in receiving guests, most of whom would know that this was when I usually eat. So I did a rare thing and picked up the intercom. A very young woman's voice was at the other end, talking quickly and none too well, but I understood a couple of words, and buzzed her in.

Soon, my front doorbell rang, and there stood a teenager, between 14 and 16, I'd say. She had on a punky t-shirt and a leather jacket, and I think she must have had on braces because the words hissed a lot as they tumbled out of her mouth. "I'm wondering if you've seen my grandpa," she said, "Herr Böse. We were supposed to go out today and he's not answering his telephone and he's not answering his doorbell and..." I told her there wasn't much I could do, that I wasn't the Hausmeister, and that the Hausmeister lived across the courtyard. "I guess there's nothing for me to do but to call the police," she said. I apologized for not being able to be more helpful, and went and finished making the meal. As I was putting the dishes in the sink afterwards, I saw a commotion in the courtyard, and a fat cop was standing by my window. He knocked on it, and asked if I could help them find the Hausmeister, and I said sure. I went to put some shoes on.

Now, the big mystery here was this: who exactly was Herr Böse? I am generally here during the daytime, and so I've taken in packages for pretty much all my neighbors in this building, the other half of my building, and the building next door. Not a one of them could possibly have been the grandfather of a teenager -- or a grandparent at all. There was one guy, a skinny fellow whose hair was either as badly styled as it could be or else a horrible wig, who drenches himself in cologne and goes out a couple of times a day to get food or a newspaper. If he was wearing a wig, he might be old enough. If I had had a kid at 20, and my kid had had a kid at 20, I could just be old enough myself.

Anyway, things were complicated by the fact that I can never remember the Hausmeister's name and the fact that it wasn't on the doorbells. His wife/girlfriend's name, though, was, as well as a scrawled note next to the buzzer which said "Haus W," which stood for "Hauswart," the DDR equivalent. The cops thanked me and I went back inside.

Now, I'm not one of those people who stands at the window and snoops, unlike a lot of people in this country. But there was a commotion, including people trooping up and down the stairs, radios going, an ambulance siren turning into the street, and, best of all a whoomp! Whoomp! WHOOMP! like someone trying to break down a door. (Having once locked myself out of this apartment and having had to call a locksmith, I'm extremely pleased with the security afforded by the doors in this apartment, since the poor locksmith, without a skeleton key, spent nearly an hour getting my door open). Then there was more noise on the stairs, more radios, and a lot of pounding upstairs.

And that was it.

All I know is that Herr Böse's name is still on the mailbox and the guy with the bad hair said hi to me yesterday as we were checking our mail at about the same time.

Still: two encounters with the police in one year is two more than I've had since I've been here. At least this time I didn't get a ticket.

1 comment:

Marie Javins said...

I found it harder to get an agent than to get a publisher! In theory, it's easier when you have a track record.