When a glamorous literary agent falls prey to a violent stalker, she discovers that the publishing biz can really be murder, for fans of The Spellman Files and Maisie Dobbs
“Suspenseful . . . Barbara Rogan cleverly explores . . . our capacity for self-deception and weaves it into an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.”
Jo Donovan always manages to come out on top. Originally from the backwoods of Appalachia, she forged a hard path to elegant lunches and parties among New York City’s literati. At thirty-five, she’s the widow of the renowned novelist (and notorious playboy) Hugo Donovan, the owner of one of the best literary agencies in town, and is one of the most sought-after agents in the business. But all this is about to fall apart, as a would-be client turns stalker, a hack shops around a proposal for an unauthorized tell-all biography of Hugo, and a handsome old flame shows up without warning.
Both a seasoned author and a former literary agent herself, Barbara Rogan knows the publishing world from all angles. Fans of Lisa Lutz and Jaqueline Winspear will adore Jo Donovan and Rogan’s wickedly sharp tale that skewers the dangerous fictions we read—and the dangerous fictions we tell ourselves.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.32(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.14(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Barbara Rogan began her publishing career with Fawcett Books and later founded a literary agency in Israel. The author of eight novels and coauthor of two books of nonfiction, she lives on Long Island in New York.
Read an Excerpt
“Start at the beginning, Jo,” he said, opening his pad just like a TV detective. “What happened first?”
As if I knew when it began. Endings are unambiguous—a slammed door, a final chord, the vacant, glassy stare of the dead—but beginnings are always a matter of perspective. Sometimes you can’t tell where a story begins until you reach the end. That’s fine if you’re writing fiction, but in real life, it’s too late.
I explained this. He said, “You’re making it too complicated.”
“‘Just the facts, ma’am’?” I said.
He smiled as one does at an oft-heard joke. I looked at him properly for the first time. The boyishness was gone, but the lines around his eyes and mouth suited him, lending gravitas to his face. His eyes were green, but a darker, warier shade than I remembered, rain forest instead of meadow. I wondered if he’d ever married. His ring finger was bare, which meant nothing. Hugo and I exchanged rings when we married, but Hugo never wore his. It chafed him when he wrote, he’d said.
“A series of incidents occurred,” I said. “But I don’t know how they’re connected, if they even are.”
“Just tell me what happened,” he said. “Let me make the connections.”
How strange, I thought, that Tommy should be giving me the very advice I give my writers. “Just show what happens,” I tell them, “don’t explain it.” He waited patiently, his pen motionless against the pad. I saw that he was a man who understood the uses of silence.
“It began,” I said unforgivably, “on a dark and stormy night.”
In the well-ordered world of fiction, murder and mayhem never arrive unheralded. For as long as men have told tales, disaster has been foreshadowed by omens and signs. But if there were portents the day my troubles began, I never saw them. True, the city sky was overcast; but if every passing rain cloud is to be taken as a sign of impending calamity, we might as well all close up shop, don sackcloth, and take to Times Square with hand-lettered signs.
If anything, the day had been remarkably ordinary. It was the first Wednesday of July, and we’d all stayed late for our monthly slush-pile session, gathering in my office around a battered old conference table piled high with manuscripts and query packets. I presided at the head of the table in what I still thought of as Molly’s place. To my right sat Harriet Peagoody, currently the only other literary agent in the firm. Harriet was a pale, bony, gray-haired woman with long, restless hands, an Oxbridge accent so well preserved it smelled faintly of formaldehyde, and an air of martyrdom for which I was to blame—for until my prodigal return, she had been the presumptive heir to our little queendom. Her assistant, Chloe Strauss, sat on her other side. Chloe was an Eastern cultivar of the West Coast Valley Girl, dressed in a short, swingy skirt and one of those baby-doll shirts all the girls wear these days. Opposite her sat Jean-Paul Devereaux, our intern and resident hipster. Beneath his sports jacket, his T-shirt read: eternity: when will it end? Twenty-two years old and fresh out of college, Jean-Paul was a tall young man possessed of such extravagant good looks that our bestselling client, Rowena Blair, had asked him to pose for the cover of her latest blockbuster, an offer he had declined. He had dark eyes, olive skin, and luxuriant black curls. Chloe, two years older, was pale, blond, and petite, and I thought they’d make a pretty couple, but Jean-Paul never paid the poor girl any attention.
Lorna Mulligan backed into the office clutching a loaded tray in plump, efficient hands. Today she wore a boxy white blouse and a plaid skirt, a parochial-school outfit that added fifteen pounds to her not-insubstantial frame. Although Lorna was my secretary—she scorned the title “assistant”—it wasn’t actually her job to make coffee. Office policy was that whoever finishes one pot makes the next; it lent an egalitarian gloss to the agency, though of course the distribution of profits was anything but. Still, Lorna had herself taken on the task of fueling our monthly conferences. She distributed the mugs and handed around a box of doughnuts. I took my favorite, lemon-filled: a little tartness to balance the sweet. Harriet, as always, chose the old-fashioned doughnut with no cream or glaze, then looked enviously at mine. Chloe passed, and Jean-Paul took two. Lorna never ate any herself, though she must have had a sweet tooth; she took her coffee with four sugars. Now she seated herself at the foot of the table and opened her notebook.
We began, as usual, with the hopeless cases. Other literary agencies don’t bother keeping notes on rejects, because office time is better spent serving actual clients than discussing those we’d rejected. But Molly had always kept records, saying that sooner or later every agent overlooks a great book, and when it happened in her shop, she wanted to know whom to torture. After she retired, I kept up the tradition. Eventually I’d put my own stamp on the agency, and these meetings would be the first thing to go; but for now I preferred to follow closely in my mentor’s size-9 footsteps.
Jean-Paul and Chloe took turns reading out titles, explaining in a sentence or two, sometimes from the work in question, why they recommended rejecting it. They were our first readers of all unsolicited submissions, and most often they were the last.
Chloe opened with a book called The Autobiography of a Nobody. “The title says it all.”
Then Jean-Paul. “The Secret Life of Gerbils. You don’t want to know.”
“Oh, but I do,” Chloe said. “Is it kinky?”
“If you’re into rodents.”
“Speaking of gross, my nomination for submission of the month: To Pee or Not to Pee, by Dr. Wannamaker.”
Even Lorna the Dour laughed.
“You made that up,” Harriet said.
“I swear on my mother’s urethra,” Chloe said. And so it went, with much joking and laughter, for another couple of hours, by which time we had disposed of the hopes and dreams of scores of aspiring authors. Outsiders, listening in, would have thought us heartless, but outsiders never had to wade through a literary agent’s slush pile, which for people who love literature and language is as much fun as vivisection is for animal lovers.
My thoughts wandered. I looked around my office, thought about redecorating, and decided once again against it. I’d kept all of Molly’s furniture, even her desk chair, which was too big for me, because it made me feel as if she hadn’t entirely left. The only personal items I’d added were half a dozen framed photos of Hugo, including one by Annie Leibovitz that I particularly treasured, and the pearl-handled dagger that he bought me in Morocco, which served as a letter opener. Molly had disapproved of the photos. “They give the impression that he’s the reason you’re sitting in this office.” As if he weren’t; as if I’d be running my own agency were I not the widow of the great Hugo Donovan. Only Molly, who loved me like a mother, could imagine otherwise.
The little sliver of sky visible between the towers of Third Avenue was turning green. There was still an hour to go before sunset, but a summer storm had been threatening all day. A burst of hail pelted the window, and it brought back a vivid image from our honeymoon in Paris: the two of us in bed, my head on Hugo’s chest while hailstones clattered against the tiled roof and he recited Emily Dickinson. Wild Nights – Wild Nights!/Were I with thee/Wild Nights should be/Our luxury!
Inside my office, the atmosphere had also changed. Chloe was leaning forward, speaking eagerly. “I know it seems, like, gimmicky? I know it won’t appeal to everybody? But at heart, it’s really an old-fashioned epistolary love story updated to the electronic age. The pages are funny, fresh—the best I’ve ever found in the slush pile.”
“A first novel?” I asked. Chloe nodded, and I sat up, because good first novels come around as often as tax cuts for the poor. “What’s it called?”
“It’s clever, but . . .” Her voice trailed into silence and she looked at Jean-Paul, who immediately took up the baton.
“Titles can be changed. Personally, I like it. If I saw it in a bookstore I’d pick it up.”
“The title?” Harriet demanded.
Chloe held up the title page. “I LUV U BABY, BUT WTF?” it read. “A novel by Katie Vigne.”
I laughed and glanced at Harriet. I was braced for fireworks, but she just looked puzzled.
“Chloe. Do you mind?” My secretary sounded put-upon, and Chloe hastened to turn the page in her direction.
Lorna read it silently, moving her lips, and copied it into her notes. “What’s ‘WTF’ mean?”
Chloe and Jean-Paul exchanged glances. Lorna was twenty-three years old, their contemporary; how could she not read basic texting? “It means,” Chloe said, “‘I love you, baby, but what the fuck?’ The whole novel is written in texting shortcuts; tweets, actually.”
Harriet gave her assistant the look Cleopatra must have given the asp. “And you’re recommending that we read this gobbledygook?”
“Harriet, the girl can totally write.”
“But she can totally not spell.”
“It’s a whole other language, thought and emotion pared to the bone, like poetry.” The pitch was fluent, no doubt rehearsed, but Chloe had wrapped a strand of blond hair so tightly around her finger that the tip had turned white.
“It’s unreadable,” Harriet said flatly.
“Not to people who grew up texting,” Jean-Paul said. “In Japan, there’s an entire industry of cell-phone novels.”
Chloe added, “Even people who don’t text will pick it up from the context. Or there could be a glossary.”
I looked from one to the other. Chloe had excellent taste; and it was interesting that she and Jean-Paul had joined forces on this submission. I was curious, but Harriet was unmoved.
“I do not read books in which ‘love’ is spelled L-U-V. I do not read books with ‘fuck’ in the title.” She turned to Lorna, who sent out all our rejections. “Add a line to the form. Say that while her work in its present form is inappropriate for us, we would be interested in seeing anything she writes in standard English.”
In the silence that followed, I stared at Harriet’s adamant profile in amazement. Even for her, this was way over the line. If she wasn’t interested in this novel, fair enough; every agent has places she won’t go. But she had no right to speak for the agency—to speak for me.
“Ask for a partial,” I told Lorna.
Harriet’s head whipped around so fast I was reminded of The Exorcist. “Excuse me?”
“The first fifty pages. Chloe, you read them. If you still like it, I’ll have a look.”
“Thank you,” Chloe mouthed.
My fellow agent had gone bright red. “Far be it from me,” Harriet said, “to question your judgment, Joanna. But as someone who has worked in this office longer than you have, let me remind you that there is a reason we represent the kind of writers we do. This agency has a reputation to uphold. That novel is symptomatic of the devolution of the language that we of all people must oppose.”
Harriet often took it on herself to lecture me, but “Joanna” was a particularly nice touch; I hadn’t been called that since the age of nine, when I first read Little Women. Her resentment had nothing to do with this particular novel, which was just one more in a long line of proxy battles. She saw me as a usurper, although in fact I’d joined the agency before her. Working as Molly’s assistant was my dream job, but I kept it only for a couple of months before meeting and marrying Hugo. Harriet came on board a year or so later, and she’d settled in for the long haul, hoping, perhaps even believing, that one day the business would be hers. But when I returned to the agency after Hugo’s death, it was as a partner; and when Molly retired last year, I bought her out and became the sole owner of the Hamish and Donovan Literary Agency, while Harriet remained an employee—well-compensated, but an employee nonetheless.
“The language is always in flux,” I said mildly, “and good writers like to play. At least it’s not something I’ve read a thousand times before. If the kiddies think so highly of the first few pages, I think it’s worth a look.”
“The kiddies?” Jean-Paul sounded offended. I raised an eyebrow. At twenty-two, he was thirteen years my junior. How else could I see him but as a kid?
It was dark out by the time we finished, and the hailstorm had dwindled into fitful rain. We said our good nights and the others filed out, carrying stacks of rejected proposals like little baby corpses. We’d rejected 122 submissions and decided to ask for more pages from two, the texting novel and one other: about average for a slush-pile session.
There was no time to go home before my evening engagement, a book launch in a SoHo restaurant, where I hoped to get something to eat in between air kisses and paying court to Rowena. I’d dressed that morning with the evening in mind, in black silk trousers and an unstructured jacket, cinched over a lacy white camisole. All I had to do was slip on high heels and fix my makeup. There is such a preponderance of women in publishing that many don’t bother anymore. Not me. An agent needs every bit of leverage she can get, and looks are leverage.
In the private bathroom adjoining my office, I brushed my hair to a dark sheen, removed my makeup, and started from scratch. The face in the mirror was pale and smooth, unmarred by lines of worry or sorrow. No gray showed in the sleek black hair that fell straight to my shoulders. At thirty-five, I was older than I looked but younger and prettier than I felt. There was something Dorian Grayish about this disparity, but I couldn’t regret it. That was the face Hugo had loved. Not just the face, of course; but I knew my husband too well to imagine he’d have married me if all my other assets had come wrapped in a plain face and dumpy body. A person who grows up on her own learns to make the most of whatever she’s got. Sooner or later, what I was would catch up to what I seemed to be, and then there’d be a reckoning. For now I was living on the cusp: young enough to possess a young woman’s power and old enough to know how to wield it.
I left my office and walked down the hall. As I entered the dimly lit reception room, a figure rose suddenly from behind a desk. I let out a shriek. Jean-Paul came forward, hands raised. “Sorry, Jo, sorry. Didn’t mean to spook you.”
“I thought everyone was gone.”
“I wanted a word, if you have a moment.”
“A moment is all I have. Tonight’s Rowena’s launch, and she’ll never forgive me if I’m later than she is.”
I locked up and we turned toward the elevators. In addition to my purse and umbrella I was carrying a heavy manuscript bag. Jean-Paul took the strap from my shoulder and put it on his. I smiled my thanks and in the dim light of the corridor thought I saw him blush. The elevator arrived, and we got in.
“Jo,” he said, “I was wondering if I could stay on after the summer, not as an intern, but as your full-time assistant.”
“What about law school?” I asked, for he’d been accepted to several.
“I can defer for a year or two. If I even go.”
“You’re having second thoughts?”
“I never really had first thoughts. The thinking was done for me.”
I considered it. When Molly retired, I absorbed her entire list. Six months later I fired Charlie Malvino and took over a dozen of his clients as well. My workload was Sisyphean. I needed another assistant, one who read submissions. Lorna didn’t, which I couldn’t really complain about because she’d been upfront about it. “I’m a first-class secretary,” she’d said. “I’ll organize your files so you never lose anything again. I’ll screen your calls, answer your correspondence, keep your schedule. The office will function like it never has before. But I’m no judge of writing and I won’t pretend I am.”
Not your usual agency hire. But my last assistant had just left me for a subrights job at Viking, and the one before that had run off to start her own agency with an editor friend. I was tired of smart, ambitious kids with minds of their own, for all that I’d been one. Lorna was young, but one had only to look at her, with her sensible flats, bargain-basement clothes, clunky glasses, and the excess weight that encased her like an old down coat, to know that she was the very antithesis of her flighty predecessors. She had worked for a temp agency that specialized in publishing, so she knew the business; and because she’d temped for us on occasion, I knew she was a hard worker and brighter than she looked. And she was happy to work for the salary I offered.
Jean-Paul wouldn’t last long, I thought. He’d come to his senses and go to law school, or he’d accumulate a bit of experience and find a job that paid better. But he’d undoubtedly be an asset for as long as he stayed. He had a nice touch with clients, friendly but respectful, unlike Lorna, who, despite her youth, seemed to regard them as unruly children.
“I’ll think about it,” I said. “But you should too. Publishing’s a tough racket, and the pay’s ridiculous compared to what you’d make as a lawyer.”
“I don’t care about that.”
“You should. Money matters. Have you talked to your parents about this?”
I knew at once I’d said the wrong thing. Jean-Paul scowled. “I’m old enough to know my own mind.”
Meaning, I supposed, that I’d married Hugo at twenty-two. What a strange turn this conversation had taken. I was relieved when the elevator shuddered to a halt and the doors slid open. The building was prewar, but the lobby had been sleekly redone, all glass and polished black marble. The night man was reading a magazine at the security desk. He glanced up as the elevator opened, then shoved the magazine into his desk, stood and touched his cap. “’Night, Ms. Donovan.”
“Good night, John.” There would come a day, I thought, when I would enter a room and no man would notice; but that day was not here yet. I started opening my umbrella as we left the building, but there was no need. The rain had let up, for now at least, and through a parting in the clouds a bright crescent moon shone down on the glistening avenue. After the rain, the Manhattan air smelled as fresh and clean as a sea breeze.
Jean-Paul handed me my tote bag, and we parted on the sidewalk. As I walked south, a man burst from the alley beside our building and rushed toward me. “Jo! Jo Donovan!”
I stopped and turned to face him. He wore a belted trench coat, sopping wet, and a fedora tilted down over his face, so that in the dark I could hardly make out his features. He’d spoken as if he knew me, but I didn’t recognize him except from old Bogart flicks. “Sam Spade, I presume?” I said.
“What time do you have?”
Reflexively I glanced at my watch. “Seven fifty.”
“Mark the time, Jo. Remember this moment. Both our lives are about to change.” His voice throbbed with emotion. It was the sort of voice that sounds good on the radio, deep and smooth. I noticed a parcel under his left arm that looked suspiciously like a manuscript.
“Let me guess: you’re a writer.”
“Not just a writer,” the voice said, “any more than you’re just an agent. I know what you really are, Jo. And soon you’ll know what I am.”
One has to make allowances for writers, especially the unpublished ones. Rejection gets to everyone after a while, and those poor bastards swim in a sea of it.
“Look,” I said, “if you have something to submit, use the guidelines on our website and I promise we’ll read it. This isn’t the way.”
“I did. It never reached you. Someone in your office intercepted it and sent it back unread.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because if anyone had bothered to read it, they’d have recognized it for the work of genius that it is. Also, you failed the test.”
I sighed. “Let me guess: an upside-down page?”
“Which came back the same way.”
“Two hundred sixty-two.”
I laughed, couldn’t help it, though I knew it would only make him angrier. Presumption, thy name is Writer. Our guidelines ask for synopses and the first five pages only, no more material except by request. At least a quarter of submitters ignores those guidelines and sends us their full manuscripts. Clearly Sam Spade was one of those. Even so, it was impossible not to feel sorry for him. A person can pour his heart and soul into a book and still end up with something only a mother would read.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get the answer you wanted,” I said, “but we take on very few new clients, and once we determine that a book is not for us, we don’t continue reading. We get hundreds of submissions a month; if we read them all in full, we’d have time for nothing else, as I’m sure you understand. But of course you should try elsewhere. I’m just one agent. There are any number of good ones out there.”
“Not for me.” He held out the manuscript. “You’ll understand once you’ve read it.”
There’s a reason agents barricade themselves behind assistants and secretaries. Rejection is unpleasant for the rejecter as well as the rejected; a little distance makes it easier to bear. But I had no intention of being bullied into reading something we’d already turned down.
“I can’t help you,” I said firmly. “And for future reference, this is hardly the way to recommend yourself to any agent.”
“You still don’t get it. No other agent will do.” He slid closer.
“I know what you are, Jo. You were Hugo’s muse. Now you’re going to be mine.”
A jolt of fear ran through me. I had misjudged the situation. This wasn’t the usual writerly egotism. This was something else.
You can’t live in New York without occasionally encountering crazy people. They used to scare me till I learned the protocol: keep moving, look straight ahead, and feign deafness until they go away. I was good at feigning deafness, having practiced it often when Hugo’s old girlfriends called.
He stood in my path. I stepped to the side, but as I made to pass him, he reached out and grabbed my arm.
I didn’t stop to think. The umbrella was in my free hand and I swung it, striking him solidly across the chest. He flew backward into a lamppost and came back at me.
I faced him squarely, fear banished by anger. How dare he touch me? How dare he mention Hugo, compare himself to Hugo! Dropping my tote, I grasped the umbrella stock with two hands and struck a batter’s stance. I heard steps, running hard; then hands clutched me from behind and pushed me aside. Nose to nose with my accoster, Jean-Paul shouted, “Get the fuck away from her!”
Too angry to welcome interference, I tried to slide past him, but Jean-Paul wouldn’t budge. He shoved the writer hard in the chest. “Grab me, why don’t you?”
Sam Spade backed away, cradling the manuscript to his chest. “Kid, you just made the biggest mistake of your life.” He inclined his head toward me, shadowed eyes groping. “I’ll see you later, Jo.”
He turned and walked away. Jean-Paul lunged after him, but I grabbed his arm. We looked at each other. His face was flushed, fists clenched. I could smell his rage. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“I could have used a few more whacks.”
“Who was he?”
“Nobody. Some idiot who can’t take no for an answer.”
“A writer? Someone we rejected?”
“What an asshole!”
“Comes with the territory,” I said, but that was just to calm him. Overeager writers were indeed a fact of publishing life, and I’d met my share at writers’ conferences; but this felt different, creepy, and far too personal.
Jean-Paul mastered himself with a visible effort. “I never realized agenting is such a contact sport. Nice umbrella work, by the way.” He picked my tote up from the sidewalk and slung it over his shoulder. “I’ll see you to the subway.”
“I’m fine,” I said, but he walked me anyway.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan:
“A terrific read! A thriller with a psychological heart of mystery, a double-ended love story, and a fascinating look at the world of high-stakes publishing.”
—Diana Gabaldon, New York Times bestselling author of Outlander and An Echo in the Bone
“Clearly, the most dangerous fictions are the ones we tell ourselves.”
—J. A. Jance, New York Times bestselling author of Judgment Call and Edge of Evil
“Required reading: A glamorous New York literary agent has a lot to fear—and not just from reading bad novels. In Rogan’s thriller, uber-agent Jo Donovan finds members of her uptown inner circle brutally murdered shortly after she rejects a manuscript. But things may get worse: She is certain the detective sent by the NYPD is not New York’s finest. In fact, he’s her ex-boyfriend. You might want to lock your door.”
—New York Post
“Rogan gives readers a lot of insider publishing tidbits and provides a very likeable and believable protagonist in Jo.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Fast-paced and witty, full of deftly drawn characters, Rogan's literary mystery introduces a tough but compassionate heroine and an entertaining new series.”
“This literary mystery . . . [is] a perfect beach read.”
“Boasting an exciting pace, well-constructed scenes, and inside information about the publishing word, this engaging mystery will attract readers of P. D. James’ similar Original Sin (1995), an Adam Dalgliesh crime story set in the London publishing world.”
“Rogan does a masterful job of juggling the mounting suspense with a full-bodied portrait of New York literary life . . . The fresh setting, the tricky plot, and the strong characterizations make A Dangerous Fiction one of the outstanding mysteries of 2013.”
“A clever mystery . . . [with] an appealing, empathetic narrator.”
“The tension is inescapable as the novel races to its dramatic conclusion.”
“A Dangerous Fiction not only has a suspenseful plot, but a cast of colorful, carefully drawn secondary players who advance the theme that we all may be living a dangerous fiction—not really knowing others, not really knowing ourselves. . . . Barbara Rogan cleverly explores . . . our capacity for self-deception and weaves it into an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.”
Reading Group Guide
When a would–be writer brandishing a bad novel accosts literary agent Jo Donovan, she writes it off as just another occupational hazard. A ridiculous figure in trench coat and fedora (Jo calls him Sam Spade, a nickname he readily accepts), he’d been rejected by the agency but persists in believing he’s destined to be a great writer and that Jo will be his muse. Scary, yes, but well within the realm of failedwriter madness. But when her agency and writers fall prey to vicious pranks, Jo senses something far more sinister than your run–of–the–mill egomaniac.
These attacks are accompanied by an implicit and repeated threat—“Can you hear me now?” The police are called in, including detective Tommy Cullen, whom Jo had dated—and dumped—years before. With little evidence to work with, everyone is a suspect. Jo carries on bravely, minimizing the danger to herself, until a dear friend turns up dead.
As the police waste precious time investigating Jo herself, the real criminal remains at large, and Jo fears more of her friends may be in danger. Her staff and her writers rally around her, offering support and protection, but the tension is inescapable as the novel races to its dramatic conclusion.
As well as being a white–knuckle thriller, A Dangerous Fiction gives readers a remarkable inside view of the publishing world. Fast–paced, witty, and filled with suspense, Barbara’s Rogan’s superb mystery is about both deception and self–deception—the dangerous fictions we read and the dangerous fictions we tell ourselves
ABOUT BARBARA ROGAN
Barbara Rogan is the author of eight novels and coauthor of two nonfiction books. Her fiction has been translated into six languages. She has taught fiction writing at Hofstra University and currently teaches for Writers Digest University and in her own online school, Next Level Workshops. She lives on Long Island and blogs at barbararogan.com/blog. Visit barbararogan.com and nextlevelworkshop.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH BARBARA ROGAN
Q. You worked for Fawcett Books in New York and started your own literary agency in Israel. How did that work personally affect your own writing life?
The result of having worked as an editor and agent is that I know a lot about the publishing process and the industry, and I have great respect for the people who work in it. Of course, like most knowledge, this is a double–edged sword. The upside is that I can be a better, more effective partner in the publishing process, which I really do see as a cooperative effort. The downside is that the more you know, the more you worry. Neophyte writers can sit back and enjoy the boat ride, and I sometimes envy that. I tend to see the boulders up ahead.
Q. To what extent is Jo Donovan a reflection of you?
Apart from being clever, gorgeous, and sexy, you mean? Actually, Jo is who she needs to be for this story. Plot and character, I believe, are two sides of the same coin. What happens to Jo arises out of who she is and the choices she’s made. That said, we do share a profession, and I think I drew on some of my own characteristics as an agent in creating Jo. Like her, I was a strong advocate, as well as a bit of a mother hen, even though at the time most of my clients were older than me.
Q. In the novel, Jo describes writers as arrogant, insecure, ever–watchful creatures with fragile egos and an endless need for praise, though she obviously feels a great affection for them as well. Do you share her view of writers?
I’m not sure Jo sees writers as having fragile egos. Writing’s a tough profession. Most writers encounter a lot of rejection, especially in the early part of their careers, but often afterward as well. The fragile souls tend to drop out. But I do agree with one thing Jo says of writers: “Every one I’d ever met was bipolar, the poles being arrogance and insecurity.” The arrogance (her word, not mine) is really a deep–seated conviction that their work has merit and deserves to be recognized. Without that belief, writers are likely to have given up somewhere along the line. The insecurity comes from the nature of the work: “trying to cross a chasm on a bridge of words,” as one character puts it.
Q. The characters in the novel are aware of the many ways real life is often stranger than fiction . Hearing one of Max’s theories about a possible motive for the criminal, Jo calls it “feeble.” But Max responds: “Feeble for fiction, maybe. Real life has lower standards” (p. 163). The characters are very conscious of the differences between life and art. Is that something you were consciously aiming for, or just a result of the literary terrain they live in?
I’m not sure how conscious it was—these things tend to be a lot clearer after the fact—but the intersection of reality and fiction is very much at the heart of the novel. In part this is due to the characters’ profession, which is saturated with fiction. But I was primarily interested in the way people fictionalize their own lives, eliding the messy, discordant parts, rationalizing the irrational, and imposing structure and a moral order borrowed from fiction and fairy tales.
Q. Jo feels that great writers like her husband Hugo are allowed to flaunt the rules of conventional society to serve the demands of their own genius. Does Jo really believe that or is she just using it as a justification for Hugo’s bad behavior? What’s your own take on the great writer–as–philanderer?
Jo has to find some way to justify Hugo’s behavior if she’s to go on being his wife, which she very much wants to do. The genius-trumps-all argument is a convenient excuse. For me, writing is a profession like any other, and a good book doesn’t absolve bad behavior. My own take on Hugo? I’d have kicked him to the curb.
Q. Do you plot out your novels before you begin or let the writing itself determine your direction? What most surprised you in writing A Dangerous Fiction?
I plot out the story roughly before I start writing; then I plot in more detail as I progress through the book. What surprised me most was how much I ended up liking Jo. More than any main character I’ve ever written, she has serious flaws and shortcomings. But she also displays great strengths and qualities that I particularly admire: courage, compassion, loyalty, and humor. I ended up caring a lot about her, and I hope readers will as well.
Q. How much research did you do for the book? Is that an enjoyable aspect of your process?
One of the great benefits of my profession is the opportunity it provides to delve into worlds very
different from my own. It’s a fallacy that fiction writers can just “make it all up.” To create a story that feels authentic to the reader, the writer has to get it right, both the facts and the ambiance. I generally do a lot of research, not just reading up on subjects but getting out of my office (a pleasure in itself!) and walking the walk. For previous books I’ve spent weeks trailing doctors through inner city ERs, hung out with homicide detectives, and schmoozed with retired spies—who wouldn’t be fascinated? In the case of A Dangerous Fiction, though, the research load was relatively light, since I know New York and I’d been a literary agent myself. And what I didn’t know, my agent, Gail Hochman, did.
Q. Could you talk about your prose style? Much of the novel proceeds quite briskly through pages of dialogue with little or no narrative intrusion. What’s the appeal of that kind of writing, for you and for your readers?
I like dialogue because you can convey so many levels of meaning with it, some of them conflicting, and what’s not said can be as important as what is said. Dialogue is not just a vehicle for revelation but also for concealment, manipulation, seduction, and misdirection. A conversation that seems light on the surface may have dark undertones. So I tend to write a lot of the stuff, and in the case of A Dangerous Fiction, that style meshed well with the setting and the characters. Publishing is a world full of unapologetically smart people
in which clever conversation is valued; and of course clever conversation is also fun to read. In the back of my mind, as I wrote this book, I was hearing Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table and the wonderful repartee of those classic thirties’ movies like the Thin Man series.
Q. What are the most pleasurable aspects of your writing life? What are the most challenging? How hard was writing A Dangerous Fiction?
The most pleasurable part is the actual writing. When it goes well, I am transported to another world, the story’s world; it’s almost like living a second life. The most challenging part is plotting, which feels rather like playing three games of chess simultaneously against opponents who are all better than me. (Or at least I imagine that’s how it feels. I’ve never actually tried the chess thing.) This was true of A Dangerous Fiction as well. It was fun to write once I got the basic plot down. That was the tricky part: keeping plenty of viable suspects in the mix while planting enough clues to be fair to the reader.
Q. What mystery writers have most influenced you? Who are your current favorites?
That is the toughest question of all, because there are so many I admire, and I’ve learned from all of them. Like many writers, I was weaned on Nancy Drew. I love the classic mystery writers, American and British: Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Patricia Highsmith, Ross MacDonald, James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Peter Dickenson. Among more contemporary writers, I admire Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, Barry Unsworth, P. D. James, James Lee Burke, Scott Turow, Alexander McCall Smith, and Gillian Flynn. All these authors have one thing in common: mysteries aside, they are first–class writers.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The book kept me guessing until the end when the final twist is revealed. Part of what I enjoyed about the book was the idea of story and how we create our own story often because we are afraid to face what really happened. The protagonist is the young widow of a well-known author. She owns one of the top literary agencies in New York. She believes that she had the perfect marriage. She refuses to listen to anything that conflicts with the story of her marriage that she has convinced herself is true. Ultimately her inability to critically examine her past puts her in the path of a murderer bent on revenge. A want-to-be writer begins stalking Jo Donovan after his manuscript is rejected by her literary agency. Her world begins to rapidly fall apart after various actions threaten her agency and people close to her are murdered. A couple of her clients offer help. One of them, a former FBI profiler turned writer, encourages her to go to the police. The NYPD detective assigned to the case turns out to be her former boyfriend who has a very different perspective of their relationship and how it ended. Everyone is a suspect at some point as the police try to find Jo’s stalker and the murderer (are they one and the same?) before the murderer strikes again. Disclosure: I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.
Suspense to the very end. wonderful characters and a mystery plot that kept you turning the pages to see what was next. Plus to got to learn a lot about the world of publishing, editors, writers and those dreaded rejection slips. A great, enjoyable read. I look forward to the sequel.
“Write what you know.” This advice to writers probably dates back to the days when writing was done on papyrus scrolls – if not back to the days before the act of “writing” actually existed. Barbara Rogan must have given that advice to many individuals, and she followed it herself - “A Dangerous Fiction” is set in the world of the New York publishing houses. Literary agent Jo Donovan, widow of author Hugo Donovan, owns a Manhattan-based agency. It has the day-to-day problems of any business, However, when a wannabe writer approaches her from the darkness after a late night at the office, the issues that the agency must face quickly morph into extraordinary issues. The would-be author quickly crosses the line to stalker. A fired colleague keeps popping up at the same functions, in the company of a current employee. False correspondence under the company's banner cause issues for clients and ripples in the literary world. All of this leads up to the need to involve the Homicide department ... I found it difficult to get into this novel. The world in which the action occurs is far from the one I exist in, with authors and major publishers and book deals and such, and it took me some time to develop a feel for the characters in the book. However, once I did, the book became a page turner. Everyone – EVERYONE – was a suspect, including our protagonist (at least as far as the police were concerned) AND including one of the police officers, who had a “past” with Jo Donovan. This was the author's comeback after 10 years away from the word processor, and it is obvious that she had a lot to say after storing it in for all that time. Unfortunately, it also appears to be the most recent book from the author, as well; perhaps she is into her 4th year of a new sabbatical and will come back with another memorable novel. RATING: 4 1/2 stars, rounded up to 5 stars where 1/2 stars are not permitted. DISCLOSURE: I was provided with a free copy of this book in a random draw. No conditions were placed upon acceptance, although it was strongly hinted that a prompt, honest review would be appropriate. If “prompt” is defined as “within 5 years”, then I achieved it with plenty of time to spare.
Descriptions of characters are short, and shallow. There is no substantive description of the surroundings. Action crawls. Is the book written for those with ADD? I find nothing compelling. It's not the subject matter. There is no deep current or structure for my mind to attach to, as I read.