About 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
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
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
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!