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  • Christine Cohen Park

Slushpile Odyssey – Awaiting Answers

I have submissions out now, with a bit of an introduction, at least a name and a letter on my behalf, so not exactly free-fall – and I am in that nail-biting position of waiting for answers.


No doubt many of you will have been here before, trying not to think about it, and yet the mind plays its own tricks. Here I am, say, walking in the sun on the Downs this morning, or grappling with the weight of a dead fox – a magnificent young creature who I found in the garden yesterday, how to give it a decent burial – when a thought will wrest to the floor those mind-vigilantes whose role it is to keep wayward thoughts out, hop over them and have a heyday!


At this very moment, this bright Sunday afternoon, I’ll find myself thinking – the agents I have sent the first chapters to might have seized the moment for uninterrupted reading, impossible during weekdays at the office. And this triggers a memory of how, as a literary agent myself, in a brief period of my earlier life, I used to travel home to South End Green on the 24 bus late on Fridays, with a teenage daughter waiting for her supper and my briefcase weighed down with manuscripts to read over the weekend.


A couple of years later, I left full-time work and took a risk on a novel I was three-quarters through. It paid off. I soon had an agent myself, the loveliest of men. Then he contracted M.E., retired to Scotland and eventually died. Other books followed, then didn’t for a while. Now, some years later, like in Snakes & Ladders, here I am back at the start, throwing the dice again. Wondering whether at this very moment on this splendid late Sunday afternoon, as the sun slips lower in the sky, somewhere in London an agent will be reading the first chapters of my manuscript.


Put the thought aside. Get on with the fox! I now have a heavy black bag and am easing him in with the help of a spade (what a neat fit- and he is surprisingly light) taking care with his beautiful tail, wrapping it around him. Saying a few last rites, what do you say to a fox, is it the same as for ourselves – you’ve had a good life (‘good’ never mind the chickens he might have snapped up, rabbits…) go gently into death.


The fox is snug in the bag. A moment’s rest before I carry it to the garbage bin. My dog, Munro, looks at me encouragingly, ears twitching, eyes trying to get through the message to his human, that it’s time for a walk. But now I’m thinking about that agent again, hoping that if she/he is reading my chapters it won’t be on a phone – how can you delve into a book, let it take you where it intends, on such a minute screen – if not pages, let it be on a tablet, a kindle. Will she/he be too distracted to settle into the book – Three more of these to get through …faster, faster, I’ll skip a few pages…whoops, ten! that’s the Kindle for you – Or dare I hope that the prose and the theme will do what good books have to do at the beginning, enrapture, ensnare. So that for a while a reader pushes out competing claims on their time and dives in I like this writer’s style, I trust her, I’m ready to go with her into what she is showing you, and – crucially, as an agent – I believe other people will the same… There’s a market for this book. Excitement! Could an agent be feeling a whiff of excitement at this exact moment?


I remember, years ago, picking a novel from the slushpile, and it happens very, very rarely, and how my hands became warm, like when you are playing cards and you open a hand full of Royals and aces. And how you read on from the opening chapters, not then but later in the weekend, hoping that the early promise is maintained, that the author can carry her vision through, that it doesn’t sag in the middle, or turn the wrong direction, that she can see it through true. And if so, then the extraordinary has occurred – out of the slushpile you’ve discovered a winner!


I’m at the garbage bin now, trailed by Munro. With the heavy-weight black plastic bag, and the fox’s snout and teeth just peeping out. Sharp teeth. I lift it in. Adjust the head slightly so the bin lid doesn’t press down on it. There are still dead leaves in the front garden. I rake them up to fill them into the sides of the bin. The body of the fox is ensconced, cushioned. It will rest like this till Monday morning when the refuse collectors come around.


Ah yes, Monday, when the agents return to their offices. Will my early chapters be binned similarly, it wasn’t for us, or will they be waiting to be read next weekend, or the one after? Or will that email arrive this week that we all long for: you write beautifully, please send the rest of your novel in…


Come on, Munro, time for your walk.

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