Monday, October 8, 2012

A Pyre of Books

Rejected novel drafts serve as the best kindling. Passionate flames of authorial disappointment quickly consume a page, leaving barely a trace to scoff at. Yet compound that single page into chapters upon chapters of dismissed text, and a veritable explosion is primed to ignite. Character arcs; plot twists; spelling errors; all yelp and holler with the crackling combustion of cherished labor. Literature degrades into neglected ash, allowing a homicidal phoenix to rise and take flight. Though well aware of this fatal trait, Herman Mildew, most infamous of editors, was recklessly preparing a funeral pyre of extinguished hopes beneath his feet.
I knew Mildew well. He was my editor for close to ten years, ever since I dropped out of college to pursue my youthful dreams of writing.
Taking a year to complete my first novel, I struggled to scrape together enough money for rent and Ramen. Luckily, I had also managed to pick up a gig as a restroom attendant at a night club. With a life of text by day and abuse by night, I gradually transformed myself into a fledgling writer. Then the heart-pounding day arrived in which I planned to place my draft before the world. Thanks to fate, the world just happened to be Herman Mildew.
After sending the draft off to Puffin Publications, I waited. With each passing dawn, I would lie awake, stomach churning with anticipation of how my work would be received. Weeks crept by, then a month. A feeling of resignation began to seize my mind, and I started preparing to move in with my uncle in Boston. No sooner had I surrendered my goals to life’s cruel hand, however, than I received a rank, garlic-scented manila folder in the mail.
Stealing away to my apartment like a roach caught in light, my mind began to sway. Questions of my own self-worth began weaving in one ear, out the other. My hands shook; the seal ripped open; my eyes hungrily attacked the material contained inside.
I was underwhelmed.
Smeared offensively across the front of my (now stained) novel draft was a Post-it note reading: “The protagonist is too whiny. Man him up.” Attached beneath the note was an address and hours of business, as well as a most unforgettable name: Herman Mildew.
To satiate your curiosity, my novel was a bildungsroman of life in Japanese-occupied Manchuria during the twentieth-century. That “whiny” protagonist Mildew referred to was an eight-year old orphan boy living in a bombed-out ghetto.
With flushed cheeks, red like cherries, and with a stomach and wallet both on empty, I stormed in to see this “Herman Mildew”. At the publishing house, I was let into a hazy, smoke-filled office. At the back of the office reclined the most offensive, grease-haired, red-nosed, double-chinned human I could ever care to meet. In a large ash tray sat the working draft of a novel, burning with sorrow, flicks of paper rising on its heat currents. Mildew took out a fat cigar, lit it over the combusting composition, and stuck it between his yellow teeth. My eyes met his, and I felt like I could see into the pits of Hell, deep and black. He kicked out a chair, and said, “Congratulations. Your novel I kept.”
Five years later, I was finishing my second book and ate three square meals a day. Five years after that, I was traveling to seminars and fan meet-ups around the world, living a life of fulfillment. Now I am judged before you, accused of murdering the only editor I have ever known. Suffice it to say I am not surprised Herman was murdered. Yet by no means did I take his life.
Though my writing and work became successful under Mildew’s eye, not all potential novelists shared the same fate. Too often had I seen bright-eyed people, whose pupils echoed the rays of the sun, enter the red-brick publishing house on Fifth Street, only to leave with tear-stained cheeks and broken spirits.
During my time at conventions and seminars, I would overhear whispers of “that gross sack of perspiring hatred.” Mildew had established himself as some sort of legend, or rather a curse. Of all editors, alive or dead, he had been fixed as a villain, a sinister force in the world of literary careers. I, an acclaimed best-seller due to Mildew’s guidance, observed from afar as sentiments began to bubble and broil.
I knew Mildew for ten years. Within those ten years I had seen him make a living out of burning novels before they could live, before they could inspire, or teach, or comfort. I had seen aspiring writers leave the publishing house swearing oaths of hatred, even vengeance. The thing is, though, Herman Mildew saw it, too. He saw the waves recede, and could smell the tidal fury of disgruntled writers fast approaching. Mildew just laughed. Sometimes I wondered if he had a heart. I would drift off over my coffee, contemplating all the repulsive habits and acts of that reckless man.
After a while, I came to a conclusion of sorts. Herman Mildew was a self-righteous individual, who believed he had to purify the literary stream by fire. As an editor, he felt a divine calling to view works and their creators with a terribly judgmental eye, seeking to ascend only the greatest to authorship. Do not mistake me: I object to any notion that I am some form of master-race writer. But, in Herman Mildew’s mind, I might have been.
I do not know how Herman Mildew perished. Perhaps he died of a stab-wound, right through the clogged artery. Maybe someone shot him in the shower, penetrating his thick, bull-headed skull. Or, maybe he was burned on a pyre of books; a most ironic and befitting end for an editor of his reputation.
Whatever his fate, I did not play a role. Herman Mildew paved the way for my success, my happiness, and my life: I would never repay him with bloodshed.

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