Friday, January 07, 2005

Trying to sell my latest novel

In 1989 I was first struck by the idea that became my novel Randham Acts. From my query letter to publishers and agents:
"After receiving his latest rejection letter, aspiring writer Hugh Longford purchases The BlockBuster™ plot generation software, which analyzes fiction and suggests ways to "punch up" storylines. Soon, Longford consults BlockBuster™ about real-life problems, including a miserable co-worker who makes his job unbearable and a "ball busting" history exam threatening to derail his university career. Meanwhile, the mother of his girlfriend suffers a catastrophic nervous breakdown suggesting she might be capable of violence."
I completed the final draft of the novel in October 2004 and have queried more than two dozen agents and publishers. Most have rejected my proposal as quickly as the mail would allow. After the experience of finally seeing my first two books into print (As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories and a volume of poetry, Forever & a Day) and hearing firsthand numerous reader responses to the work (all positive to varying degrees), I realized that I'm writing salable fiction, fiction readers want to read, but it's a matter of getting beyond this blurred, slicked wall of jaded, blunted reading palettes with which too many editors and agents are afflicted. I guess this blog is my way of appealing directly to readers. To what end? So that readers will storm Random House like the Bastille and demand that Matt St. Amand's novel be published!? That makes a pleasant fantasy, but even I feel embarrassed indulging it. No, I'm appealing directly to readers so that they have this front row seat in the hotdog factory and see just how the books they buy and enjoy make it to their bookstore shelves (or don't make it there).

This is my way of being a tree falling in an unpeopled forest, curious to hear if I make a sound.


Randham Acts
Five Years Ago

A teacup exploded against the wall.

Martin Sayer ducked.

A saucer crashed against the wall.

“Please.” It was the first word he said to his wife in three months.

Entering the living room he saw that she was full into a manic phase. He needed no psychiatrist to explain that. He should have guessed she was off her medication.

Bev glared at him.

He began to apologize. It would have all the calming effect of pissing into a forest fire. His daughter Stephanie told him about the letters and phone calls from bill collectors. They shut the telephone off last month. From the newspaper Martin Sayer learned he missed his father-in-law’s funeral three days ago.

“Please,” he said. After three months of booze, cigarettes, and sleeping on a friend’s couch he felt queasy-weak, exhausted. He wanted to sit down, take Bev’s insults and accusations and then sleep for a week.

Bev uttered a high, whining sound. Her eyes bulged as she charged at him. Martin possessed all the reflexive grace of a fly with its wings torn off. Bev was at him in an instant, fists flailing. He raised his hands. She pummeled his abdomen and chest, landing punches on his chin and cheeks, boxed his ears and bashed him in the nose.

Martin’s lungs were aflame. He cried for help, but his throat was sealed. The burning in his lungs spread through his chest like a meltdown. Blood thundered in his temples, his vision grayed. He sank to his knees gaping at his Bev’s snarling countenance, grabbing at one of her wrists. She struck him on the chin, jerking his head back so hard Martin’s neck flared with pain. Then the world fell to blackness.

Hearing a car pull into the driveway, Stephanie wondered if it was her father finally returning home. She pushed her studying aside as the front door opened. She frowned. The family entered by the back—

A dish crashed outside.

“Dad?” she said.

Another crash.

She opened her bedroom door and entered the living room. She stared at the scene: her father kneeling on the floor, red-faced, gripping his chest, her mother thrashing him with her fists. When her mother bashed him on the chin, sending him sprawling onto his back. Stephanie lunged across the living room, tackling her mother from behind. They tumbled against the couch and onto the carpet knocking a lamp from a side table. Bev fought to free her arms. Stephanie grappled with her mother’s shoulders. Bev head-butted her in the nose, bringing tears to Stephanie’s eyes.

Her younger brother Adam came out of his room.

“Get help!” Stephanie shouted.

He stood there stunned.


He ran out of the house.

Bev writhed in Stephanie’s grip. Stephanie’s arms numbed with the strain. She wondered if she could hold her mother until the police arrived. Her father’s eyelids fluttered. He foamed at the mouth. Stephanie wanted to go to him, but she didn’t dare relinquish hold of her mother. She wrapped her legs around her mother’s thighs. Bev’s squealing guttural sounds became sobs.

Stephanie pressed her cheek against the back of her mother’s fever-warm head. Stephanie closed her eyes, saying, “I love you, Mom. I love you. I love you.”

* * *

Chapter Sixty Two

Hugh stood in the bus shelter wondering if Derek would come after him. He didn’t. Hugh touched his head. There was blood streaked across his fingers. He still couldn’t believe it, Derek clubbing him with a bottle. How the hell did he know it was me under the umbrella? he thought. Shit, he would’ve clocked anyone coming out that door. Hugh’s head roared with pain. The right elbow of his jacket was torn and his jeans and jacket were wet and dirty.

What if he shows up with friends next time?

Hugh didn’t want to think about that.

Soon the 1C bus approached. Hugh fished some coins from his pocket. The bus stopped and the doors opened. Steph’s dad was at the wheel. Mr. Sayer didn’t look up as Hugh dropped his fare into the coin slot and headed to the back of the half empty bus.

Hugh had planned on going after the history exam tonight. Stephanie had the car and there would be no questions about where he went after work. Sooner I get that damned exam, he thought, the sooner I can stop worrying about it. Bad as the night was going there was no real reason to call off the plan. He didn’t feel like going home to the empty apartment to mull the tortures he should have perpetrated on Derek or to write a heated e-mail message to Manny.

Hugh glanced at Mr. Sayer’s expressionless reflection in the rearview mirror. This is like a bad dream, Hugh thought. What’ll happen in the secretary’s office? I’ll find Mom and Dad having sex on the desk?

He had not seen Mr. Sayer in two months and the man didn’t look well. Seemed like he had lost weight. Hugh didn’t remember his face being so jowly. His complexion was gray. As he drove, Mr. Sayer let out a few raspy coughs. Hugh recalled Stephanie fearing her dad was back on the cigarettes. A low grade contempt surfaced in Hugh. He ditched his family, he thought. I should ask where he’s been.

One look at his dull eyes and Hugh knew he didn’t want to hear Mr. Sayer’s reply. Who cares anyway? Hugh thought. Steph’s moving in and that’ll be that.

He watched the stop near his apartment go past.

So, I’m going to do this, he thought.

When the bus stopped in front of RU, Hugh exited through the rear doors. The drizzle had stopped. His watch read quarter to ten. Campus was empty, save for a few people standing by the library’s entrance, talking.

Hugh walked down the wheelchair accessible ramp at the side of the social science building. The doors there were locked.

“You gotta be kidding,” he muttered, walking around to the front of the building. If this is locked, I’ll break in, he thought. The first door he tried opened. Hugh jogged up the stairs to the history department.

The door of the TAs’ office was shut. Hugh pressed an ear against it, listening for activity inside. Nothing. All of the professors’ office doors were closed, too. Hugh passed the secretary’s door to check the intersecting hallway. Empty. Even the door to the photocopy room was locked.

Pulling the newly cut keys from his pocket, Hugh tried each of them in the door. Three of the five fit the lock’s keyway, but none of them unlocked the door. He tried the keys again, making slight adjustments on how far into the keyway he slid them. Backing the keys out, millimeter by millimeter, Hugh tried the door handle at every point. By the time he got the third key into the lock, his hands throbbed. He jiggled and cajoled the key. Finally, he slid it all the way in and pressed up on it with his knuckle. The door handle turned.

Stepping into the darkened office, he wondered if he left wet footprints in the hall. Shit, he thought. Too late now. Get this done and it won’t matter.

He took a penlight from the backpack’s pouch and shone it at the filing cabinet’s lock. Hugh went through the same process of coaxing the contraband keys in the lock’s keyway. There came a moment when he wondered if he would just have to break open the filing cabinet. Then he started over, fiddling with the keys in the lock to a slower, finer degree. One of the keys finally turned.

Holding the penlight in his mouth he searched the folders in the drawer. The folders were in alphabetical order by the professors’ last names. He knelt down, pulled open the bottom drawer, searching for DR SARCHUK. As he flipped through the folders, he heard a sound in the corridor. He stopped, breathing hard with the penlight clamped in his teeth.


TA? he wondered. Prof? Janitor?

The footsteps stopped and there was another sound—someone trying the handle of a locked door.

Did I lock the door? Hugh wondered.

He rounded the desk, shining the penlight on the door handle. The plunger was out.

The footsteps came closer. When he heard the sound of another door handle being jiggled, Hugh pressed in the plunger of the secretary’s door, locking it. And if I left footprints, he thought. What if the janitor comes in? Break the coat tree over his head?

He backed up to the desk, facing the door and grabbed his backpack. The footsteps stopped outside of the secretary’s office. Hugh held his breath as the doorknob was jiggled. A moment later, the footsteps continued down the hallway. Soon, they were gone. Hugh still had the penlight clamped between his teeth. His jaw ached.

Returning to the filing cabinet, he searched until he found Dr. Sarchuk’s folder. He opened it on the desk, looking through the pages for one with his course number on it. When he found it, he dropped himself into the secretary’s chair.

He took out the Polaroid camera and photographed the exam. After the assault on Derek, the camera’s body was cracked on the bottom, but aside from that the camera seemed to work.

As the camera ejected the fourth photo of the exam a car came to a squealing stop in the street outside. Hugh peered out the window. A campus police car pulled up.

As Hugh backed away from the window, someone pounded on the secretary’s door. “Come out! We know you’re in there!”

Hugh’s nervous system went incandescent.

There was the jingle of someone fumbling with keys beyond the door. Hugh’s mind threatened to go blank, then he pressed his palms to the edge of the desk and rammed it across the tiled floor with a great screeching flourish, crashing it against the door. He stood there a moment, breath coming quick and shallow, wondering what the hell to do. He looked at Dr. Sarchuk’s exam on the desktop.

They’ll know it was me.

He pulled the bottom drawer from the filing cabinet and dumped its contents onto the desk. A key slid into the door handle. Hugh turned to the window, raised the latch and pushed the pane out as far as it would go. He dropped his backpack into the shrubbery below. Behind him, the door was forced open against the desk. He heard voices in the corridor. Hugh sat on the window ledge and spun around so his legs dangled outside. As the desk’s legs screeched against the tiled floor, the office door opening against it, Hugh slid out the window and hang-dropped fifteen feet into the evergreens below. He landed hard, raising a mist of rain droplets and evergreen needles. A lightning flash of pain shot through his mouth as he bit his tongue. He rolled into the foliage. His feet flared with sparkling pain that dissipated after a moment. The wet earth clung to him. He was tangled in the evergreen branches. He fought his way free and grabbed his backpack.

His first thought was to flee down an intersecting side street—

Exhaust plumed from the tailpipe of the campus police car. There was no one inside the vehicle.

Hugh leapt out of the evergreens.

The clumped mud stuck to the bottoms of his sneakers. It was like wearing uneven platform shoes. Leaving a muddy track across the pavement, he jumped into the campus police car. His thighs collided with the steering wheel—the seat was moved up too close for him. The CB squawked static gibberish. Tossing his bag on the passenger seat, Hugh threw the car in gear and sped away. In the rearview mirror he saw two figures come out of the social science building and run down the sidewalk after him.

When he hit Pickering, he hung a right.

“What am I doing?!” Hugh shouted in the car. His tongue felt like a piece of rubber.

A few blocks from his apartment, he turned into a neighborhood. He drove to the far end of the street, and parked the car amid a row of vehicles along the curb. He grabbed his bag and darted across the street, running in between houses, cutting through backyards, through alleys, until he finally scaled the fence giving onto the parking lot behind his apartment building. It was only then, in the shadows by the garbage dumpster, that Hugh stopped to catch his breath. Nausea spiraled through him. Every inch of exposed skin on his hands, neck, and face stung from the campus evergreens, and the hedges through which he plunged after ditching the car.

Fingerprints, he thought. My prints are all over the steering wheel. He wanted to cry. He looked at his hands, and the fatalism dropped away; his hands were covered with mud. Like gloves. Didn’t matter either way, he had never been fingerprinted. Hugh spit blood and hobbled across the parking lot to the rear door of the building.

As he entered, he saw someone standing in the glassed-in foyer at the front of the building down the other end of the first floor hallway. Hugh cringed against the stair railing. They tailed me, he thought. Somehow. But then he recognized the person in the foyer. It was Adam, Steph’s brother.

“What the hell?” Hugh muttered, rising. He went to the foyer, opened the door as Adam pressed the buzzer by the intercom.

“What’re you doing here?” Hugh said, his speech slowed by the gash in his tongue.

Adam looked at Hugh, not recognizing him for a moment. “What happened to you?”

Hugh looked down at himself, covered in mud, pants and jacket ripped, soaking wet. “Don’t ask.”

“I wanted to talk. Is this a bad time?”

Hugh laughed. “No,” he said.

He led Adam up to his apartment. Every part of Hugh ached and stung. He kicked off his mud-caked shoes and dropped his muddied backpack by his desk. He went into the kitchen and grabbed two beers. As he handed one to Adam. “Don’t tell your sister.”

Hugh downed his beer—the cold liquid felt good on his injured tongue—and went into the bedroom. “Fire up the computer and go online, if you like.”

In the bathroom, Hugh spit blood into the sink. In the mirror, he looked like he wore military camouflage make up. Hugh stuck out his tongue and examined the bite. Halfway back, on the side was a red imprint. The outside of the wound was already turning white. He ran the cold water and slurped some from his hands, rinsing out his mouth.

He ran the shower. As he pulled off his shirt, his muscles screeched through his back and neck and shoulders. He found the Polaroid photos in his pants pocket and looked them over. The exam pages were surprisingly legible. Half the exam, he thought. He stashed the pictures in his shaving kit.

After his shower, Hugh came out of the bathroom wearing boxer shorts and his robe. He grabbed another beer. Adam sat at the desk. As Hugh approached, he saw pictures of naked girls on the screen. He laughed. “Make yourself at home.”

Adam turned, his expression somber. “She goes to my school. I thought she was my girlfriend.”

“What?” Hugh said, leaning closer, looking at the pictures. It was all of the same girl, a pretty brunette, naked in the usual porn poses.

“Her name’s Sue.”

Hugh sat on the couch. “Did you take those pictures?”

“No,” Adam said, taking the armchair. “She—”

The telephone rang.

“Hang on.” Hugh hobbled to the phone. “Hello?”

“May I speak to Hugh Longford?”

“You’re talking to him.”

“This is Randham Regional Hospital calling. Stephanie’s had an accident.”

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