I was asleep on the floor of the magicians' apartment. Not one, but three magicians lived there, and their mysterious, mischievous, and sometimes macabre props surrounded my living-room floor futon. A straitjacket hung on the coat rack, a mini-guillotine sat over the fireplace, a mechanical monkey poked out from behind the couch, and an artificial arm lay casually on the coffee table. On the bookshelf were Mark Wilson's Complete Course in Magic
and all five volumes of Roberto Giobbi's Card College
This was back in the spring of 2013; I was living in London and commuting twice a week to Bath where I lectured in the university's music department. When I needed to stay overnight in Bath, my friends Gia, Gaz, and Simon, all magicians, were nice enough to let me sleep at their place. It was there, still an hour before my alarm was set to go off, when my phone rang. 6 a.m. It was my agent. "Are you awake?" she asked.
"Yes," I lied.
"Good," she said. "Because I have amazing news."
This was how I was joyfully shoved into the bizarre and wonderful world of professional authorship. This was how I learned of my first deal for Etta and Otto and Russell and James, and how I quickly came to experience the remarkable and intriguing differences between the world of the music industry, where I'd been working for most of my adult life, and the book world.
I took the phone call out on the stairs in the foyer of my friends' apartment building. They were still sleeping and I didn't want to disturb them (not surprisingly, magicians keep late hours... musicians usually do, too). It was to be the first of many bizarrely timed and placed phone calls in the adventure that was this bookselling process: the next week, just as the excitement started to crank up, I was off to Japan for some gigs in my solo music guise Waitress for the Bees.
Here is the first big difference between being a professional musician and a professional novelist: novelists get help. They get a lot more help. Every other novelist I know has an agent to negotiate fees, make network connections, and play smiling good cop when all you want to do is cry at a bad review, or stern bad cop when all you want to do is jump up and down at the prospect of any money at all. Nine out of 10 professional musicians I know do all these things themselves. Unless you're huge, like J. K. Rowling huge or Peter Gabriel huge, you do not have an agent. You do everything. Your negotiations, your bookings, your networking. On the one hand, it's nice to have all that control; on the other: it's exhausting and hard. Choose your poison.
The next strange phone call was almost exactly a week later. I had flown into Tokyo after a jet-laggedly confused night flying and spent the day wandering around this new country with its cutesy billboards and fluid crowds of pedestrians, its shops stacked like dishes, and its subways a knot of incomprehensibility, like something out of Mitchell's Number 9 Dream. I hoisted my viola on my back and killed time being fascinated and out of my element until my sound check and gig that evening at a little café music-space in the Roppongi neighborhood.
I was packing up my instrument and kit after the gig when my phone rang. My agent. I answered it outside on the patio, underneath the endless city lights of Tokyo.
"We've got an Italian offer!" she said.
"What time is it there?" I said.
"Morning... What time is it there?"
"I have no idea."
Another key difference between the music and writing business is loneliness. As a session player or band musician, you're very rarely working on your own. Even solo players always have to be making connections, networking, in order to stay afloat. Writers, on the other hand, can find themselves alone, working solely in their heads and on their computers for days upon days.
I wasn't alone in Japan. In Tokyo I crashed with a musician from another band called Merry Christmas, who were my opening act, and my partner, also a musician, came along too, to help carry kit and decipher train and road maps. We were just outside Kyoto on a day off, walking from the train station to a whiskey distillery (we're both big fans), when my phone rang again. My agent. It was late at night for her. "I'm going to take this," I told my partner.
"Okay," he said. "I'll go ahead and explore the grounds."
The list of differences could go on and on. Musicians can self-publish without stigma; writers cannot. People care what you look like a lot more in music. They take what you have to say a lot more seriously in writing. Writers have libraries; musicians have YouTube. Writers have the blank page; musicians have broken strings. Music is emotion; words are thoughts. Music moves through time; writing through space. All these and more and more. However, it doesn't end there, on different, disparate grounds. There are, of course, commonalities too. Including the one big thing that the two mediums do have in common, the one inescapable, core, thing: They exist to be shared. To be heard. They are both, in their own, very different ways, voices.
It was the final day of the UK-rights auction. The UK, which I call home, ground zero for this book. While Etta and Otto and Russell and James was written about Saskatchewan, it was written in England. All my contracts, all my deals mattered, but this one held extra, emotional weight.
"Done yet?" mouthed my partner, back from walking all around the distillery's grounds twice.
"No, sorry," I mouthed back. My agent and I were working our way, carefully, meticulously, through each offer.
"Okay." My partner shrugged, smiled, and sauntered off toward the parking booth to clumsily cross-language chat with the attendant.
The sun rose high and began to fall again. My phone bill soared. My agent stifled yawns and her voice cracked with lack of sleep. We laid the offers out before us, like Otto does with Etta's recipe cards in the opening to my book. We thought, silent for a moment, and then chose.
When it comes time to change the strings on my viola, there are lots of things to consider. To most, all strings look basically the same, but the littlest difference, silver versus aluminum, tight-gauge or loose, can make all the difference. Some are cheap, some are expensive, but the real thing you're looking for isn't costly luxury: it's the sound that's right for your instrument, for you. The right outlet to project your voice.
The whiskey distillery closed before my phone call ended. My partner got us a souvenir glass from the parking attendant, but we missed the tour, the reason we had taken a tangle of trains out to this distant corner of Kyoto. But that was okay. My partner understood; we could always come again tomorrow, or next year, or the year after that. And I was overjoyed. My agent and I had finally chosen, not the highest offer, but the best. The best outlet to project this voice. And now the adventure could begin.