"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The query letter was written on pale pink stationery and dated Feb. 14, with a return address in Yonkers, N.Y. After describing her collection of love poems, the author wrote:
“Many end their prayers with: ‘In Jesus’ name.’ Very few are entitled to use His name. I am one of them.
Mrs. Jesus Christ.”
We felt as though we’d stumbled upon King Tut’s tomb. Who knew? Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, was married and living in Yonkers.
The quality of the poems aside (they, like so many religious artifacts before them, have sadly been lost to history), divine intervention didn’t seem to be working much in Mrs. Christ’s favor. Hers was only one of thousands of unsolicited, unagented submissions, better known collectively as the slush pile, that were sent annually to the publishing house where I worked as an editorial assistant.
Some publishers consider reading slush a waste of resources and no longer accept it; some bribe their assistants to read it by throwing slush-and-pizza parties (presumably figuring that nothing makes cheesy fiction go down easier than a little cheese and pepperoni). My publisher welcomed all slush and handed me the reins. Thus for two years, in addition to fulfilling my normal editorial duties, I hired freelance readers, generated form rejection slips, evaluated the rare promising submission and fielded phone calls from every would-be Frank McCourt with a manuscript in his drawer and an Oprah’s Book Club Pick in his dreams. I wish I could say that serving as a conduit between the publishing elite and the uncorrupted masses taught me valuable lessons in compassion and grace. Instead, it convinced me that the world is full of lunatics.
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Diary entry written after one week on the job:
The sad thing is that I have this attitude now toward authors who send in unsolicited manuscripts. Before, I thought that the slush pile was great because you could discover some talented genius and that all these authors laboring away in obscurity without agents were so noble. Now, I consider every unagented author to be slightly psychotic and deranged, and every unsolicited manuscript to be bad.
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It’s a worthy sentiment to give every aspiring writer a shot, no matter how long that shot may be. After all, every slush writer fervently believes that his manuscript is just as good as what’s being sold at Barnes & Noble and that all he needs is a snappy cover letter and a foot in the door to get a publisher to realize it, too. Yet the sad truth is that the vast majority of slush is, to put it kindly, unpublishable. Not good or bad, just … there, bland and forgettable, like an unadorned rice cake. If the odds of discovering something special in the mix are slim, it isn’t because publishable manuscripts are sprinkled with pixie dust, but because so much of what’s submitted seems like varying degrees of the exact same thing.
The same holds true, in fact, for submissions sent directly to acquisitions editors. Every editor’s in box is piled high with mail from big agents, small agents, writers met at conferences, friends of his wife’s dentist and people who plucked his name off a book’s acknowledgments page. Some of these submissions, generally the ones sent by respected agents, will be read carefully; some will get little more than a glance. There’s really no other way to do it.
So overwhelming is the volume of mail to be read (and, given the current perilous state of book publishing, so arduous the acquisitions process even for a worthy project) that often a weary editor’s guilty wish isn’t to fall in love with a manuscript, but to be able to reject it quickly before moving on to the next. As Walker Percy wrote of his reluctance to consider the manuscript for “A Confederacy of Dunces,” “My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.”
This gap between inspiration and publication is epitomized and exaggerated by the slush pile, a teeming smorgasbord of mediocrity sprinkled with healthy doses of the awful and the insane. Fair or not, there’s a kind of self-selection process that governs the pile, the perception being that good writers are the ones who manage to stay off of it in the first place. The job of our readers was to sift through the pile and find the exceptions to the rule. It was a Sisyphean task at best. Every day, boxes of self-help, pet-inspired wisdom and near-death experiences would cycle through my office to be read and rejected in what seemed a never-ending stream of futility. Being on the slush pile was the literary equivalent of being on death row.
It was the phone calls that were the bane of my existence. Most of those who called were probably hardworking folks who showed courage just by picking up the phone. By God, I hated them.
Slush calls were tedious, time-consuming and instantly recognizable, starting always with the caller telling me where she was from. “Hi, this is Rhoda James from Tallahassee, Fla.?” Then a pause. I never understood what I was expected to say to that. Perhaps I should inquire as to the weather in Tallahassee? Or did Ms. James want to assure me that she wasn’t that other Rhoda James, the slutty one from Dallas? (Sometimes a caller would clarify that she was calling “long distance” from Tallahassee. I took this as a hint that I should talk fast.)
“How are you doing today?” the caller would continue cheerily. Pause. “Fine,” I’d grunt. As if she cared that I was facing five deadlines and catching a cold. Then Ms. James, explaining that she had a novel/management guide/memoir to submit, would describe her manifesto to me in intimate detail and no matter how I tried to cut her off with the submission guidelines (cover letter, first three chapters, SASE), she’d doggedly continue with the story of how she’d battled back from pneumonia and learned to appreciate life. And oh, she’d rather not send the first three chapters. Could she send chapters 5, 12, and 27 instead?
The callers who irked me most were those who hadn’t done their homework and were using me as some sort of research tool. They asked me how to publish a book, how to get an agent, what kinds of books we published. One gentleman inquired, “When you publish my book, how much will you pay me?” Another wanted to know, “How many copies of a book do you usually print?” (When I said it depended, he countered, “So, what then? Millions?”) I was astonished at these questions; I couldn’t imagine dialing the general number at Miramax and asking how to make a movie. There’s a place you can find this information, people. It’s called a bookstore. Look into it.
What callers didn’t, and couldn’t, know was that aside from handling slush I had a busy full-time job as an editorial assistant, and thus the less time I spent on the phone answering their questions, the happier we would all be. But no such luck. While I took care not to act overtly rude or dismissive, in time the sound of my phone ringing got me so tense that I needed to act out. I changed my voice every time I answered the phone, alternating between perky, professional and vaguely patronizing. As a caller chattered, I’d silently eat my lunch or conduct elaborate conversations in sign language with colleagues passing by. After a while, pricked by resentment and guilt, I stopped answering the phone altogether.
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Letter to a friend after one month on the job:
“I’ve realized that I have to stop being so nice to them [slush callers] because I don’t have time to sit there and listen to someone talk to me for 15 minutes about their novel entitled ‘Bill Cosby in Heaven,’ which I have been assured is more literary than their other novel about a kid who escapes from the Waco cult to blow away his stepfather and all the other people who bug him.”
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Then there were the crazies. Writers, of course, are infamously neurotic, but slush-pile writers are a different breed altogether. Take, for example, the caller who told me, in rushed, slightly slurred speech, that he wanted to submit his poems on “love, death, sex and my mother.” Somehow he managed to inform me that he’d been in and out of the mental institution and hadn’t had sex in eight years. When I gave him our prohibitive poetry guidelines, he thanked me and said he guessed he’d “go back to praying to Bobby Kennedy.”
Another gentleman called saying that he was only in town from Germany for one day, and would I please read his manuscript sooner than the standard two months, or discuss it with him over a cup of coffee? After ignoring my repeated refusals, he showed up in our lobby. “There’s a man here who wants to talk to you,” the receptionist whispered, “and I think he’s crazy.” Weary and pissed off, I broke down and agreed to read his manuscript and leave it at the front desk for him by the end of the day. The lanky blond beamed as he offered me a blank manila envelope. I barked at him to include his name. He wrote simply, “Karl.”
Karl’s manuscript exhibited all the signs of a crazy-person submission: written on a manual typewriter, single-spaced with no margins, utterly incoherent. (Alternatively, the cover letter might be handwritten in a childish scrawl, the page enlivened with line drawings of planets and aliens. Letters sent from prison are also usually handwritten. But neatly.)
I read a paragraph, stuffed the manuscript back into the envelope with an unsigned rejection slip and left it at the front desk, hoping that was the end of it. But that evening, a colleague came by and told me there was a young man asking for me in the now-deserted lobby. I freaked. A crazy person whose manuscript I’d just rejected was stalking me … and he knew me by name.
Gallantly responding to my panicked pleas for help, one of our executives dispatched Karl — who, as it turned out, had arrived after the receptionists had left and only wanted to know where his manuscript was — and escorted me out of the building. Unfortunately, as soon as we parted ways, I remembered that I’d forgotten some books in my office. Turning back alone to retrieve them, I felt like the hapless teen in a slasher flick, the audience screaming, “Don’t go back, you moron!” as the rejected writer grinned in the shadows.
In the end, it wasn’t the crazies that proved the biggest threat to my own sanity. The dirty little secret — the one that made my job both easier and harder — was that all unsolicited submissions sent to my publisher were in fact routed to an editor who didn’t exist.
Duncan Klein, as I’ll call him, had been created years before, after another slush handler had started to get calls at home. The name was listed in several writers’ directories and served as a code: Anything addressed to him was presumed to be slush. Duncan Klein was my alter ego, my grown-up invisible friend. It was, to say the least, a dysfunctional relationship.
As Mr. Klein’s putative assistant, I told callers that he was “not in”; if pressed, I explained he was “on vacation.” Once or twice, I said he was on an extended camping trip and couldn’t be reached. Gradually I got tougher, painting Mr. Klein as a recluse who never met or spoke with anyone at all.
Lying, which had never been easy for me, was now a job requirement. I pretended to take messages that I warned would never be answered; I put people on hold, twiddled my thumbs and then said I’d consulted with Mr. Klein; I gave him a distinctive signature. I half-hoped someone would call to complain that the signatures on their two form letters (signed by different readers) didn’t match, so that I could say Mr. Klein had broken his hand skiing and was temporarily using his left hand instead of his right. But no one ever noticed.
Much as I grew to loathe my imaginary boss and the company he kept, I remained strangely protective of his reputation. “I’d like to talk to Duncan,” callers would say. How rude, I thought, bristling. He could be 90 years old, and you’re calling him by his first name? “I’m sorry,” I’d reply indignantly, “Mr. Klein isn’t in, may I help you?”
To some slush callers, I was an ignorant underling to be treated with contempt. Duncan Klein, on the other hand, held the real power. More than one caller mentioned that he’d “chatted with Duncan” about his work; one of my predecessors told me a caller claimed to have met Duncan at a party. Small-time agents visiting New York called to make lunch dates with Duncan Klein and expressed outrage at his lack of professionalism in declining. (I didn’t point out that cold-calling a work of fiction didn’t lend these “agents” much professional credence.)
Only once did I have to ask a fellow assistant to pretend to be Duncan Klein in order to appease an irate slush writer, the victim of an editorial mix-up, who called every half-hour but refused to let me handle his problem. The minute the caller thought he was talking to someone with authority, his anger and condescension vanished. Come to think of it, that’s sort of what it was like working for a real editor.
Slush was both my albatross and my entertainment, with anything remotely comic circulated to my friends around the office. We got infantile hate mail (“I hope you slip in doggy doo and chip an elbow”), vulgar haikus, modeling head shots, a query for a novel titled, with no apparent irony, “Finnegan’s Wake.” One person sent in a Ziploc baggie containing a swizzle stick and what we guessed might have been excrement. An office favorite was the query letter from “Santa’s little Brother … Uncle Billa Claus.” Chapter titles for stories from Santa’s “personal diary” included “Naughty Bells,” “The Hole in the Wall” and “Basement Surprise.” I’m guessing the “surprise” wasn’t a new skateboard.
Was it cruel of us to make fun of the slush? Sure, maybe. But we were overworked, underpaid assistants at the bottom of a lofty totem pole, and putting down bad writing was our way of lifting ourselves up. For me, swamped as I was with mail and phone calls and complaints, it was easier to think of slush writers as anonymous, deluded nut jobs than to contemplate the effect that our rejection slips might have had on them. And anyway, what would be the point if I did? To our credit, we readers did give every single submission, no matter how ludicrous, a fair and honest appraisal. During my reign as slush handler, a few projects garnered further consideration from our editors; one was even published.
Duncan Klein, whose existence had become more hindrance than help, eventually retired (I told people he was “no longer with the company”), and I moved on to other jobs. And these days, as a freelance writer, I am chagrined to find that the worm has turned. Suddenly, I’m the desperate one, the hopeful neurotic who waits impatiently only to be met with rejection or no response at all. Interestingly enough, my background in slush sometimes works against me: I am less persistent than I could be, worried that editors will find me annoying and pathetic. In my weaker moments, I wonder if my story pitches are being passed around, ridiculed and ignored. I wonder if the people I’m querying even exist. Maybe what goes around really does come around.
But I never, ever call.
Patricia J. Chui, a freelance writer and editor, is the author of "The Little Book of Peace" (Lyons Press).More Patricia Chui.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)