Memorial RoseAbout Virginia Kidd

First, my inadequate thanks to all who have written me so kindly in sympathy since Virginia's death.

Charles Brown and others have asked me to write something about Virginia Kidd, and I told them I couldn't. It's too soon. It takes me months, years, to understand a loss. I can't write anything personal about Virginia now, if ever. But I did want to say something in honor and celebration of her being, and what I can do is talk about our long relationship as literary agent and client. As her client is how I mostly knew her; and her life and work were so intertwined and of a piece that talking about her as agent, though it's by no means the whole Virginia, might give a glimpse of her.

How did we come together? Virginia had clear, strong views on responsibility and seemliness in her profession, and felt that an agent should not solicit a client. But she could give a fairly broad hint. She nominated one of my early novels for a Nebula. When I began to realise I needed an agent, of course I thought of her. Very tentatively and with some embarrassment I wrote and asked her if she'd be at all interested in trying to find a hard-cover publisher for a book I'd already sold to Terry Carr as a paperback Ace Special. I said probably that couldn't be done, and anyhow it was a strange, wintry kind of book that would probably annoy people, called The Left Hand of Darkness.

Virginia wrote right back: Yes, I will handle it, but I want to represent all your work, not just some of it.

To me this was like asking Can I have a chocolate? and being given a five-pound box. Oh, well, I said, yeah, sure, OK!

Elsewhere in this web site you can find one of the letters Virginia got when she was trying to place the book (it IS unusual to sell a contracted paperback as a hardcover!) She never showed it to me till years and years later.

The gnarly, publisher-grab-all contracts I'd signed BV — Before Virginia — complicated her existence for years, but she never scolded me for my ignorance in signing them. She just laughed. She knew how hard it is to read a literary contract. She knew her business, and as her clientele, her contacts, and her experience grew and widened, she carried me a long way from where I'd started.

We worked together for well over thirty years, yet only met, I think, four times. Once we shared a hotel room for a few nights at an early SFRA meeting. Virginia introduced me to the lazy delights of the room-service breakfast, and we had a great time talking shop and catching up with each other as actual people. But mostly we knew each other in our letters. I don't think I was ever not glad to see Virginia's handwriting on an envelope. We wrote thousands of letters, I suppose, over the years. They were always shop-oriented, but full of other stuff; we both rambled and chatted and gossiped and confessed and joked; and in this cheerful and unmanly fashion, we did our business.

I don't believe that any other agent, in any other agency, would or could have furthered my writing career, and my writing itself, as Virginia did. I was supremely lucky in having her as my agent. I've had tremendous good luck with editors, too, but a lot of that wasn't luck — it was Virginia, finding the good editor, the right editor for me.

The main thing was, she backed me. I was her horse. I knew she thought I was a winner, but even if I lost I was her horse. She never meddled with my prose (although she was a demon proofreader). She mostly liked what I wrote. When occasionally she didn't, she told me why, delicately, and then trusted me with the decision: to rewrite, withdraw, or submit the piece. And if I said Submit it, no matter how out-of-line and difficult to place it was, eventually she sold it.

She would handle any kind of writing I gave her — realism, fantasy, sf, experimental — for kids, YA, adult — short stories, novels — fiction, nonfiction — even, now and then, poetry.

For a long time I didn't realise how unusual this is, how narrow many agents' agendas are — they won't "bother" with short stories, won't go outside a genre, etc. Of course she loved an easy sell, but she'd send what I wrote where she thought it might sell, and if it didn't, she'd try again. And if she hadn't dealt much in one of these fields before, she went right in, sussed it out, found who the people she needed to know were, and charmed them.

She and I didn't talk a lot on the phone, we kept a paper trail; but with her soft, slightly Southern voice and manners, she was a phone wizard. In the later years, unable to leave Milford and get to New York, she had to do almost all her deals by phone. More than one editor has said to me, a little wistfully, "I don't know quite how she talked me into it!" — or told me how they missed her calls, after she retired.

Her literary taste was highly educated and naturally acute, and further sharpened, I imagine, by her years of being Mrs James Blish. She was a real reader, discriminating and adventurous. She welcomed the unconventional. She liked to take a risk.

She took care to build and keep up a solid network of foreign agents and agencies, so that often she'd sell a book in Holland or Japan as soon as she'd sold it here. This is another area many agents simply ignore. It takes a lot of work.

She told me of every request and opportunity that came my way, but never, ever, pushed me to write for a market or to suit a particular editor. This may sound strange to you, if you see it as an agent's job to do just that — to make the client find and fit a niche, or follow a profitable lead of any kind. And it is an agent's job to put selling first. But Virginia never crowded me. She respected my freedom, my license to write what I wanted to write, as she respected her own freedom to sell what she wanted to sell. She'd pass up a big, fat deal for a smaller, solider one that I liked better; she never held it against me when I balked at a sale that would constrain my writing in any way at all.

Only once did she parlay me into the situation I guess many writers are in a lot of the time: having to write a book that's been paid for but not written. Our normal pattern was, I'd write the book, then she'd sell it. But she made a three-book deal, and the third book didn't exist yet. I caused her so much misery, moaning and squalling as I tried to write the wretched thing, and the deal was so disappointing anyhow, that we never again sold anything of mine that did not already exist in final or nearly final form.

I'm sure that often she moaned herself and cried This stupid Ursula will drive me mad! in the night watches in her old house, Arrowhead, down by the Delaware. But I think she saw that my way was never going to be the fast road to quick bucks, but that it might be a long, wide road that went to some places worth going. And we went to them.

I doubt there has ever been a literary agency remotely resembling that household beside the Delaware. In the early days, I know Virginia kept most of the Agency files under the bed. Her methods were unorthodox, but she trained up several generations of agents in that house. I caught a couple of glimpses of the labyrinthine psychological complexities of the establishment. It seemed a bit like a performance of Marat/Sade crossed with Der Rosenkavalier.

I was bitterly sorry when Jim, who had been her Prince Charles almost as long as Prince Charles, and finally inherited control of the agency, died early in so promising a reign. I am deeply impressed by the solidity of the house Virginia built: surviving first her retirement, then Jim's death, the Virginia Kidd Agency continues as a collaborative venture by four of her protegees. In their competent hands I feel my work is safe, and Virginia's legacy lives and thrives.

I come back to what I wrote above, "She loved to take a risk." I was, to start with, and often since, one of her major risks. I never was a safe horse. But oh, what a joy it was, racing under her colors!

— UKL


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Updated Sunday July 13 2008