Monday, March 5, 2012

In memory of Jack Scovil, 1937-2012

Several years ago, I had a manuscript that I was shopping around to agents. It was in the days when all you could really do on the Internet was see hamsters dance and no one really knew what email was. So I went to the library in the old fashioned way to check out the guide to literary agents. I sent the manuscript out, and the rejections started pouring in. After several months, I called Thomas Fleming, a writer friend who I'd interviewed 10 years before, to see if he could help. He gave me the name of his agent's partner and said I could use his name.

Jack Scovil had been Norman Mailer's agent. And Carl Sagan's. And Margaret Truman's. But I didn't know that then. I was incredibly naive about the entire publishing world. So, in my naivete, I called him and dropped Tom's name. Jack was very gracious and agreed to read my manuscript. I did a little happy Snoopy dance and dropped it in the mail. Only a few weeks later, Jack called me. He would not be taking me on as a client. He said he couldn't exactly tell me what was wrong with the manuscript, just that it didn't work. But then he encouraged me to try again, he liked my writing style.

Fast forward a couple of years. I had written SACRED COWS, with a newspaper reporter protagonist in New Haven. I didn't even bother with query letters this time. Instead, I called Jack right away. He called me a few weeks later and said he would be happy to represent me. He thought the book was "terrific," a word he used a lot when he liked something.

That was 2001. A week before 9/11. Needless to say, SACRED COWS was a victim of terrorism. Publishing was at a standstill. When it started to move again, Jack sent the book out, telling me time and time again how great it was, how it just had to be published. When I heard about the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award competition for a first novel, I asked him if I should submit the manuscript. He said, "It wouldn't hurt." It certainly didn't. The book won, and I got my first publishing contract in 2004.

Jack and I spent 10 1/2 years together, seeing the publication of eight of my novels. He was my staunchest supporter. He was also an amazing editor, helping me turn my books into better books. He was blunt when he didn't like something, but that's exactly what he needed to be. I completely rewrote a manuscript after he told me what I'd written was just not good. "You can do better than this," he chided. And when I turned in the revised manuscript, he called me and told me it was "wonderful."

Jack Scovil passed away on Feb. 23 after a brief illness. I didn't know much about his personal life, except he'd grown up in Utah, went to Stanford, moved to Manhattan and worked at the Scott Meredith Agency until forming his own agency, Scovil Chichak Galen (now Scovil Galen Ghosh) in the early 1990s. He had a wonderful sense of humor, which usually showed up in his frankness about the publishing business. He loved books, and it meant so much to me that he loved my books. Most of the time we spoke on the phone, but we met a few times in Manhattan and once here in Connecticut when he was speaking at a conference. Once, right after SACRED COWS came out, I met him at his office and he told me he had something I just had to see. Three doors down from the entrance to his building was a store that was selling the china replicas of the cows in the Cow Parade, which is featured prominently in my book. One of the last emails I received from him was merely an image of Tattoo Barbie. No note, but he didn't need to write one. The image said it all. He'd told me I was his first and only author to ever have puns in my book titles.

RIP, Jack. Your passing has left a hole in the world of publishing—and in my world. I will miss you.