Beth Miller

Writing and tea


Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs Lincoln?

Posted on June 27, 2010 at 8:27 PM

Winchester. Previously, simply a posh city with a nice cathedral. Now, a word which strikes an icicle through my heart.


‘Which agent are you meeting first?’ asked a fellow wannabe.

‘Denise Iceberg’, I replied.*

‘Oh, I’ve just seen her! She’s really nice! She said her list was full, but she liked my book.’


Her list was full? Then why come to a conference where the whole point was for writers to meet agents who might sign them up? Still, on the bright side, that meant it would be an unpressurised encounter, a good practice for my later meeting with Trudy Maxwell.*


Later, outside a room, waiting with others about to have one-to-ones with agents, another writer asked who I was meeting.

‘Denise Iceberg.’

‘Oh, I’ve just seen her! She’s really nice! She said her list was full, but she liked my book.’


Oh yeah? This was looking good. If slightly repetitive.


The bell went and we trooped in. All around the room, people said goodbye, stood up and left. All around the room, the next appointees took their seats opposite agents and began to talk. Except at Denise Iceberg’s table. She and the writer carried on chatting. I couldn’t hear the words, though presumably they were along the lines of her list being full and her liking the book. I stood there like every kind of yellow citrus fruit, as the minutes ticked by, keenly aware that my 15 minute appointment was being eaten up. A facilitator noticed I was standing alone, the only girl at the ball without a dance partner, and told Denise it was time. She finished up languorous goodbyes, and finally, five minutes late, I sat opposite her and said hello.


She didn’t say hello. She said: ‘I’m not really the right person to see your book.’

I had been worried about this; I knew her fiction list didn’t fit too well to my book. So I said, ‘Yes, I had wondered...’

‘Because I am an observant Jew, and this book is anti-Jewish.’

‘It is?’

‘All British Jews are anti-Jewish.’ Denise was American. ’I remember first coming to this country and meeting Freddie Raphael, and thinking, what the hell is his problem?’

I gazed at her.

‘They have these ‘United’ synagogues and think they’re devout, then they do whatever they like. All this business in your book of watching television on a Friday night.Pfah!’


That’s how I was brought up, though, I failed to say. Does it matter, really, as it’s what the characters do, I failed to say. Can’t characters in a book do things you don’t approve of, I failed to say.


‘I went to Howard Jacobson’s wedding and there were 276 people there, none of them Jewish...’


I started to fade in and out, as she told a well-worn anecdote about how she educated a roomful of people about Jewish traditions. Wondering what, exactly, this had to do with my novel. Finally, I got a word in. ‘Can I clarify what you said earlier? You think the book is anti-Jewish?’


‘It’s not just your book, it’s the entire publishing industry. No-one will touch a book with a Jewish or Israeli theme.’ She mentioned a publisher. ‘He said he’d publish anything by an ethnic minority. So I said, Jews too? And he said, any minority except Jewish.’


I'd thought I'd come to this meeting completely prepared. The days and weeks I spent working on my pitch, fine-tuning my synopsis, polishing my chapters, researching her list, looking through her author's books. Turned out I was actually completely unprepared. The power agents hold, when you're a nobody, is so immense, they can, on a whim, decide to simply air their prejudices at you, and there's little you can do about it. Apart from stand up for yourself. But in all my preparation, the one base I hadn't covered was to think about how I might defend my religious upbringing, and my right to write about it. So I sat there like an arse, quite unable to assert myself, while she lobbed a few more grenades into my lap. Just because she could.


‘The theme in your book, this pretend Jewish thing, it’s so familiar, you know? I’ve seen it so many times.’


I wanted to say it was only familiar to a handful of London-based Jewish women in the publishing industry, but she was off again. ‘What’s that Maggie O’Farrell book? The first one?’

‘After You’d Gone?’

‘Yes. You know that was all about her relationship with William Sutcliffe, except of course he didn’t die: he just became Orthodox. Well everyone hated that, thought she was terrible for writing it.’


Thought it won awards. And hey, you know what? I liked it. I failed to say.


With a minute to go, she flicked through the chapters I’d sent.


‘Reminds me of that writer, Allegra something. Allegro?’

‘I don’t know her.’

‘Yes you do. Anyway, you write better than her. We all wonder how the hell she got published.’


Time was up. She was clearly going to be prompt for the next person. As long as they weren’t a secular Jew.


‘Well’, she said, handing me back my work as though it were dirty loo paper, ‘If you WANT to send it to me again, you can, but you probably don’t...’


I smiled. ‘That’s all right, thanks’, I managed, and staggered out of the room.


Phoned J in tears, and luckily he reminded me that I used to have encounters like this quite regularly, when I worked for a Jewish HIV organisation. People who, like the character in one of Woody Allen’s films, couldn’t hear about dew in the morning without thinking someone was dissing a Jew. Jews who were much more comfortable with Christians and Muslims and Zoroastrians than liberal Jews like me; who believed we had carried on Hitler’s work of destroying the Jewish race, as one rabbi memorably accused me. Jews who would be astonished to have it pointed out that they were the ones demonstrating bigotry and racial hatred.


Under other circumstances I would have coped okay with my next meeting, with Trudy Maxwell. Renowned for being harsh, she was actually much nicer than Denise. Though she told me my writing was ‘flabby’, my story ‘petered out’ and my main character a mere ‘ventriloquist’, she nonetheless said she liked it, thought I had 'something', and would see it again when it was tighter. The most interesting thing she said was, ‘The Jewish thing. I like that. You don’t see that too often. It’s your unique selling point and you need to bring it out more.’

Uh huh?


Alas, I was too shell-shocked from my Denise encounter to process this as a positive meeting. I was due to spend the night in Winchester, and attend several events, but instead I crossed my name off all the lists, checked out of my hotel and got the next train home.


Other than that, I had an utterly marvellous time.

Oh yes. And my sweetly optimistic post below ('The pitch is a bitch')?

No-one wanted to hear my pitch.

* Not their real names. Though I'm happy to tell you their real names.


Categories: Winchester Writers' Conference, Agents, Jews