BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
I’m a middle child. This means avoiding conflict has been a skill I’ve spent decades honing. I was always the child selected to sit in the middle of the backseat between my two brothers on those long summer vacation car rides. Because my father was one of those people who believed that using air conditioning was bad for his gas mileage, the temperature in the car usually hovered just above spontaneous combustion. Heat fueled my brothers’ tempers, and eventually they’d start punching each other. I still have the scars to prove it.
More recently, I had a house cleaning crew that was so bad I had to spend hours re-cleaning what I’d just paid them to do. My husband told me I was ridiculous and that I should fire them. Gulp. After three years of this (yes, three), I finally devised a diabolical plan to divest myself of these incompetent cleaners without any conflict. I wrote to them in Portuguese (this was their native language), courtesy of an online translation site, and left the note on my kitchen counter before leaving for the day. In the note I explained to them that my mother-in-law (deceased) would be moving in with us and taking care of all the cleaning. They never showed up again so either the Portuguese translation was accurate, or they believed that the ghost of my mother-in-law would haunt them if they crossed my threshold again.
If only all such break-ups could be so easy. My son’s girlfriend of three years broke up with him via text, leaving emotional scars that have taken nearly a year to fade. So when it became clear to me that it was time to part ways with the literary agent I’ve had for fourteen years, I was torn between sticking my head in the sand and continuing with the status quo, or pulling up my big-girl pants and doing what needed to be done.
What made this decision so hard was that my agent hadn’t really done anything wrong. My restlessness had to do with those two words I myself fall victim to whenever I think about conflict: status quo. My career was moving along in the right direction, and things were finally happening for me. Since the beginning, my career has been more tortoise than hare, and I’m okay with this. Slow and steady wins the race, right? But things had been moving so slow and steady that I’d begun to feel as if I’d never get to the “next level” because both my agent and I were so comfortable being where I was. Not one to make a hasty decision, I’d been contemplating a move for over a year. Okay, almost two years. It was only when I realized that I’d be up for a new contract in the near future that I knew it was now or never.
An author friend of mine told me that at one point she’d been in my shoes, and her agent (an elderly woman) died peacefully in her sleep right before my friend could contact her with the news she was letting her go. Not that I wanted this to happen to my agent, of course, but I couldn’t help but have thoughts of her sudden retirement or even joining a commune somewhere where she’d be unable to agent anymore. Hey, I’m an author. I’m allowed to have an active imagination.
Like the uber-organized and methodical Melanie Middleton in my Tradd Street series (okay—let’s call her anal-retentive), I did my research on all the writing websites about the most professional way to end an agent-author relationship. I took notes. Contacted author friends who’d done it before and strategized with them about the best way to do it. I read endless blogs online (written by authors and agents) about how to diffuse a potentially volatile discussion—a PVD. Something which, as a middle child, I’ve been successfully avoiding for decades.
What I learned: Be respectful. Be appreciative. Be thankful. Don’t pass blame. Make it quick. So I did—in an email. I thanked my agent for getting me to where I am today (she’s been my agent for my first 18 novels, including 8 New York Times bestsellers), but that I felt that it was time in my career to make a change. Everybody agreed that email was the best way as nobody wants to be blindsided by a phone call from out of the blue. I offered to call her later, but she declined. And that was that.
I won’t lie and tell you that at a recent conference where we were both in attendance I wasn’t looking at every potted plant as a place to duck behind if I saw her. I’m a middle child, remember? I’m sure in time I will be able to walk up to her and say hello and even sit down for a cup of tea. And I have never doubted that I did the right thing.
My new agent is an agent I never thought I’d have the moxy to speak to, much less be represented by. In the short time we’ve been together, she has made things happen that I couldn’t have imagined even a year ago. I’m heading to the “next level” and I’m glad she’s by my side, navigating for me while I do what I’m supposed to be doing—writing. The experience has left me empowered, and maybe even ready to leave my middle child syndrome behind me.
The other night my husband and I went out to dinner and my chicken was over- cooked. But I ate it anyway because I didn’t want to be a bother or offend the cook. I guess not every situation calls for big-girl pants, and that some things never change.