Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Quiet Endings

There is a time in our lives when it seems that our parents will be there forever, when we get out of bed in the morning without a single pain, when our career dreams seem infinitely possible.

And there is a time in our lives when we know that our parents -- and ourselves -- are not exempt from mortality, when everything hurts first thing in the morning and when our career highlights are in the past or largely so. And when endings no longer surprise us, but still tug at our hearts.

I had such a moment yesterday, when Susan Ann Protter, my long-time literary agent, called to say that she was retiring and closing her agency. Why did I imagine that she would go on forever? Why did I feel a twinge at her retirement -- at age 71, for heavens sake? We talked about the recent loss of her beloved dog. We talked about the difficult logistics of closing an agency where dozens of royalty accounts for books sold remain active and must be passed on to another for safekeeping. And we talked about the past.

When we first encountered each other in 1976, I was an established magazine writer dreaming of writing books. But her interest wasn't sparked by one of my articles or a query. She saw the clarity and passion of my writing in an angry letter.

I had written it to a New York psychologist who wanted to collaborate with me on a book. After he had gone through four or five agents and refused to consider any changes to  a seriously flawed proposal, I wrote an angry but measured letter pointing out the proposal's conceptual and structural problems. He sent my letter to Susan, the latest agent he was trying to persuade to represent him, with a note that "I've found a new and wonderful writer!" She read the letter and liked my writing style, but didn't want to have anything to do with the psychologist. She called to ask if I had any other ideas I could do on my own or with someone else. I had longed to write a book on teenage health and sexuality with my friend Chuck Wibbelsman, a physician specializing in adolescent medicine. Two months later, she sold that book to Simon and Schuster and "The Teenage Body Book" was born. It won the "Best Book for Young Adults" award from the American Library Association a year after its initial 1979 publication. It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies world wide in a number of foreign language and domestic editions. The latest U.S. edition was published by Random House in 2008.

"It will probably be the last," Susan said yesterday. "Dr. Oz is coming out with a book on teenage health. It will probably be the death knell for "Body Book."

"Probably," I said. "But it has had a nice, long run."

So have we, Susan and I.  It hasn't always been easy.  Susan tells you what you need to hear, not always what you want to hear, but I've learned, over the years, to trust her judgment implicitly.  On two occasions, I overruled her judgement -- both for financial reasons -- and turned out to regret my decisions -- once with a book that had a bad contract that ended up causing me no end of grief and once with a year-long speaking tour that disrupted my smooth writing schedule and was the beginning of a downward slide in my career.  And there were the times when I left her agency -- once in a fit of omnipotence, once in a move to get my career back on track -- and each time I ended up coming back. There were times of anger and times of triumph and times of delightful mutual understanding.  In short, over the years, we became family.

Because she is family, Susan's closing her agency doesn't mean closing the door on our relationship.  I will always care how she is doing and feeling and what she is up to.

And because I'm not ready to retire as a writer, I will work with another agent, Gene Brissie, on future projects. Gene is a fairly new agent but has spent more than 30 years as an editor and publisher at major New York publishing houses. We first met when he was a very young editor at Simon and Schuster and his first editorial project was the original "Teenage Body Book" in 1979.  Gene is also a skilled professional and someone who will tell me what I need to hear, not always what I want to hear.  He is also someone with whom I share a long history and a professional yet familial relationship.

But there will never be anyone in my life quite like Susan -- with her larger than life personality, her tendency to be blunt, occasionally outrageous, always caring. Who knew all those years ago what a long and productive professional path we would travel -- and, despite or maybe even because of all the conflict and pain, shared victories and adventures in the changing world of publishing -- how much I would grow to love her?

We've had a good long run, indeed, Susan.  May retirement be another good long run and excellent adventure!


  1. What a beautiful and loving tribute to a professional colleague who turned out to be someone far more important and meaningful.

  2. I sense pride and resignation and a tad of nostalgia with this post. She had been a sure thing, a known source of professional support in your writing life. Her retirement reminds you that all things end; all life has a cycle.
    And this is a wonderful lesson for all of us to ponder over.