My friend and fellow agent Mary Sue Seymour passed away yesterday, after a long and courageous fight with cancer. I just wanted to mention it because Mary Sue was one of the nice people in this business, with a friendly and gentle spirit — something that maybe doesn’t describe a lot of us in the industry. She was friendly to me, even when I was being viewed as a less-than-likable person by some folks. There’s a story that I’ve long wanted to share…
A few years ago, I used to do a regular post on some of the awful proposals that were sent my way. It was done in the vein of SlushPile Hell, or the late, lamented Miss Snark, with a view toward poking fun, talking about the dopey side of this business, but maybe with a bit of educational content for writers. Still, it was basically a way for me to share funny stuff that I saw and rarely got to talk with anyone about. (I still remember sharing the worst opening line I’ve ever seen in a novel: “Ring! Ring!,” said the telephone. I believe the response I offered on the blog was Barf! Barf!, said the agent.)
Some people got it in the spirit with which it was intended. Others didn’t. I work in both the general market as well as the religious market, and let’s just say some people on the religious side weren’t terribly enthusiastic about my poking fun at their bad proposals. I’ve long felt too many Christians have become humor impaired; trading in their ability to laugh for a serious countenance because, you know, the-world-is-lost-and-people-are-going-to-hell-so-how-can-you-laugh-in-the-face-of-such-despair?!! I thought it was the dumbest argument I’d ever heard, since laughter is one of our most uniquely human traits. Not everyone agreed with me.
I got a bunch of cranky emails. At least one group of writers started coming onto my page regularly, just to complain about my tone and lack of charity, and to basically question if I was fit to work in the industry. It got personal. I was at a conference one time where somebody decided to unload in public, talking about my blog, my words, my personal life.
Mary Sue was at that conference, and, at a panel, she made a point of saying she thought my blog was great — that it was funny and offered good information, and that people should relax and be willing to laugh at themselves. I saw her after, and we talked. She admitted that it wouldn’t be her style to create a blog that poked fun at someone’s bad idea, but so what? She knew it was meant in good fun, and she said she had laughed a lot, having read some of those same proposals and having had the same thoughts about them that I had. Then she told me, “People need to laugh more, Chip. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
I always appreciated that Mary Sue, a woman who was considerably nicer than me, would come to my defense. But that’s what she was like. She was warm and friendly, and never acted like we were somehow “competitors.” (A pet peeve of mine. Some agents act like we’re in a battle with each other — we are not. You represent your authors; I represent mine. It’s not like there is only one slot at Random House and our two novelists are vying for it in some sort of Author Death Match, for goodness’ sake.)
The world has plenty of cranky, abrupt people. It’s nice to make friends with somebody who spent much of their life on the other side of the ledger. Rest in peace, my friend. You’ll be missed.