It’s strange what you find out in the early hours of the morning, toying with social networking and Googling people from your past.
At around 2am this morning in New York, I was thinking about my literary agent friend Jonathan, who committed suicide . . . When? That’s what I was Googling. We were very close friends and I think of him often, and it distressed me that there was no mention of him online. He had a great brain and was a very funny man, but he was also very troubled: something he put down to the fact that his parents sent him to boarding school when he was seven. Remembering that I met him through the literary agent Deborah Rogers, where he worked, I Googled her and discovered that she died in April this year. Although she has not been my agent for over two decades, I felt incredibly saddened.
When I moved to London, in my mid-twenties, it was she who first reached out and asked to represent me. I subsequently appeared in Faber’s Introduction 9, the fiction series devoted to promoting new young writers. I will leave aside the subsequent loss of a manuscript on a motorcycle, and also the landing me in Paris with no money, shouting to the rooftops in an empty courtyard for Rupert Everett – she had faith in me when it most mattered.
Deborah was renowned for the lavish parties she threw in West London. Anyone who was anyone in the world of London’s literati attended. It was there I met Salman Rushdie, who was incredibly rude to me and, during a conversation, accused me of rambling (I was incredibly nervous in this kind of crowd in my twenties). “Ha! That’s rich,” I replied, “coming from a man whose books you can’t even read further than page three” (I became a great deal less nervous when picked on). I saw Salman again, not long after, at the Jonathan Cape Christmas party (the other hot ticket in town). The fatwa had been declared on him and he was in hiding, although he seemed to turn up everywhere, and we all knew he was coming because his bodyguards who turned up in advance had become familiar faces on the party circuit.
Being a very experienced dancer, I wanted to take to the floor when a jive was played over the loudspeakers. Salman was at the floor, clearly itching to get up too, so I asked him to dance. He seemed delighted, but within a minute left me on the floor alone because I wasn’t doing the jive to his liking. Quite frankly, given his circumstances, he was lucky to have a pair of legs to dance at all. I never read a word he wrote after that, and I can’t say it’s left a gaping hole in my life.
I also met the novelists Julian Barnes and William Boyd at Deborah’s. Julian was a sweetheart. I had communicated with him briefly following his appearance at the annual literature festival in Lancaster, where I was doing an MA in Creative Writing. It was he who told had me I should move to London, although he added that I should not mention the MA – “I already hear the sound of ice not being broken.”
William, too, was adorable, and he and his fabulous wife Susan, herself a successful writer, have since become very good friends – against all the odds. The first time I met Susan was at a Julian Barnes launch party, where I insisted she was the EastEnders writer of the same name. She insisted she wasn’t. I was having none of it. She told her husband that she never wanted to see “that dreadful woman” again. Thankfully, she did, and we have shared many a fine lunch and dinner with much laughter. She is one of the brightest, funniest people I have ever met. Twenty-five years on, I hope I am less dreadful.
Writing about that time today, it seems as if it all happened just yesterday, and yet when I think of everything that has happened since, it seems like aeons ago. Following the Faber publication, I went on to publish a novel with Hutchinson (and that really is aeons ago) and pursue my career in journalism. I have also been through many agents since, none of whom has ever sold a word I have written.
The ability to self-publish hasn’t put agents out of the marketplace, but they don’t have the power they once had. Deborah Rogers wasn’t just an agent, she was a star to be revered and respected, and to be on her books was to know that you had made it.
As an unknown Welsh woman arriving in the capital and living on a £17 a week dole cheque, her support and encouragement is something I will always treasure. Her death leaves the world of books a sadder place, but she leaves many grateful writers and happy memories.
Apart from Salman – who, by the way, really can’t jive.