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Vol. 3, No. 3

With an X
by Sylvia Brownrigg

~

She had to start her list with a big name: a hook to draw in all the rest. From there, she could build her new empire. Who better than the great man of letters, Gavin Long?
    Gavin Long's agent—it was Robin Sinclair, of course—proved difficult: couldn't see any reason for Long to leave his loyal editor of many years at Weidenfeld and Nicholson. Xandra had no choice but to go over Robin's head, and meet with Gavin herself. He was an old friend, so she could be straightforward with him: look, Gavin, at your stage, a new launch, a new publisher, a whole new image—it will be great for you. It will introduce you to a new band of younger readers, and you know you'll take your thousands of faithful fans with you wherever you go. How much would you be getting from Weidenfeld for your new book? Robin would settle for that? I'm shooting myself in the foot to tell you this, Gavin, but we'd set aside something substantially bigger than that for you—to give you an incentive to make this move. Have you thought about getting someone a little younger to represent you? A little hungrier? I love Robin, you know I do, but . . .
    Gavin Long, not easily persuadable, was finally swayed by the younger woman. Wasn't she likely to know what she was talking about? So a beautiful relationship of many years—the loyal, literary passion of Gavin Long and Robin Sinclair—came, rather bitterly, to an end. Well, as Xandra said to herself about the situation: sooner or later, all good things must.
    But Gavin Long wasn't enough. Furthermore, the vast sum Xandra had insisted they pay him wouldn't begin to be earned back; Long just didn't sell in those numbers anymore. Roger put pressure on Xandra to come up with some other well-known name, perhaps someone younger than Gavin: he was so establishment, after all. What Roger failed to take into account was that the agencies weren't sending Xandra the right writers. The system seemed to be blocked. Francis Miller only sent her first novels by bland suburban women, while Robin was proving rather petulant about the Gavin Long episode and refused to deal with her. Xandra was still friends with Robin's assistant, Georgia, who was discovering some great new literary talent, but the only novel Xandra had bought so far from Georgia, again for a dramatic sum of money (well, money made headlines, which was half the battle) had, unfortunately, sunk like a stone. Xandra was going to have to fall back on old friends. She called Charles Wyndham and asked him to meet her at her office for a drink after work.
    Poor Charles. How tired he seemed! (Not that he was losing his looks.) Alison had given birth to twins a few months before. Her friend Christina, now a senior editor at Faber—she'd eventually married her boss there—had just had a baby, too. Xandra was glad to be free of all that.
    "I don't have a single idea for a book right now, Xandra," Charles was telling her. He was sprawled over the couch in her office. "I'd give you something if I had it, obviously, but—the TLS is keeping me busy, and the babies, and then Alison—"
    "It doesn't have to be a masterpiece," she interrupted. "I know you're a perfectionist, but—just something light, collegiate, even. You know, along the lines of the first one, Mind-Body Problems." It didn't hurt to remind him what he owed her.
    "That! God." He laughed. "That feels so long ago now, that book."
    "Yes." She came over to the couch, sat close to him along its edge. She started stroking his forehead, in a friendly way—to soothe him in his tiredness. "Do you remember, Charlie, when you first told me you wanted to write?"
    "Yes." He smiled, his eyes closed. Her hand felt good. He did remember it. They had been walking along the Cam, one summer night. "I do. And you told me that you wanted to read."
    "Yes, and I said—"
    "That we'd make a good match."
    He opened his eyes at the realization that her touch had changed. Her warm hand was on his neck now, and along his back. Tired, child-wearied, he looked at his ex-lover. He calculated the privacy they'd have here in her office; surely she had calculated it, too. She was leaning into him now, his old, delicious Alex, and though he could already taste the regret in his mouth, before he'd even kissed her, he knew that something—nostalgia, or lust, or the sheer force of Alexandra Lewis's will—had successfully persuaded him.

 

~

"You should do it, Xandra," Georgia told her on the phone. "It would be good for the list."
    Xandra sighed. "That's what Roger thinks."
    Xandra had been invited to appear on a television arts program called "Hype over Heart: What's Going On in British Books?" She was reluctant to do it; she had turned down such invitations in the past. Herself on camera? That had never been the point of all this. Talked about, important, known: all those Xandra had wanted, yes, but not to be on camera. Roger urged her to go ahead. Her list, quite frankly, was not performing as they'd hoped, and any added fillip of publicity she could get for it would be a help.
    "What would be good for my list," said Xandra, "is a hot author. When are you going to let me have a look at Nick Bly's book?"
    "You'll be the first to know when he's finished it. I can tell you the title though: Reader, I Slept with Him. Isn't that brilliant?"
    "It is," said Xandra with a slight hesitation. "You said it's some kind of parody?"
    "Yes, set in the London literary world. It's quite hilarious— Oh, hi, Robin. Yes, I'll be right in," Georgia murmured. "I must go, sweetie. But: do the program. You won't regret it. I know that producer, you'll be in good hands."
    When Xandra got to the television studio, she was briefed by one of the starry-eyed young lackeys. Xandra wasn't really listening. She was reading the two-page list of potential discussion questions and growing uneasy. The producer was someone named Jane Adams—a name that sounded familiar to Xandra, but then there were too many names altogether in her life, so almost any one might sound familiar. Christina was one of the panelists, so that was a relief (not that Xandra had seen her for quite a while), but otherwise the lineup was grim: the other panelist was none other than Francis Miller, and moderating the spat would be that wretched woman Evie Beaver. Her writing career had never taken off, but she'd found a successful line in spiky arts programming on television.
    "Half an hour till we begin," someone said, as the makeup woman came to daub away the beads of her unexpected nervousness. Xandra closed her eyes to block out her anxiety. Go back, she told herself, to someplace quiet, someplace peaceful. You are sitting in a park in Oxford. It's a warm day. There's a lovely, gentle breeze . . .
    "Hello, Alex."
    Xandra opened her eyes, startled, jumpy; the makeup woman inadvertently cursed her, then apologized.
    "El!"
    It had been years since she had seen her old friend El, and yet here she was, looking almost exactly the same. If anything, a little better now than in those days: a steady serenity lit her face. She must be a practicing doctor by now, somewhere. Worthy creature. "What are you doing here?"
    "I came to see you, of course. I don't normally come to Jane's programs, but how could I not today? I was going to wait to say hello until after, but—I couldn't resist."
    Xandra was perplexed. "Jane . . . ?"
    "Five minutes," came a voice.
    "I'd better leave you. We'll catch up when it's over," said El. "Good luck!"
    Something in that phrase turned Xandra's stomach cold. Her skin felt clammy.
    Hype over Heart: they started right in. Was British culture in some stage of late, debauched corruption—had it absorbed the American sins of favoring celebrity over content, marketing over matter?
    "Alexandra Lewis," Evie Beaver began, smoothly. "Now, you edit a fiction list at Random House, under your own name. What is the reasoning behind that decision? Isn't an editor normally someone who works behind the scenes? What's the logic there?"
    It was a personal attack, more or less, but one for which Xandra was prepared. "My list is a sort of literary brand name. It is a way of signaling to readers the quality of the book they're looking at. I am, if you like, promising a consumer they'll get a good read."
    "Does that mean your titles are more highbrow? You won't publish novels based on scandal or gossip?"
     "An Alexandra Lewis title will certainly have integrity," Xandra said, unruffled, "but there is no shame in publishing books that sell well, whether they're thrillers, or romances, or, yes, the occasional roman à clef. Publishing is a business, after all."
    "Everybody has to have one or two gossip-stirring titles," said Christina from across the table. "For instance, Alison Kaye at Chatto has just paid handsomely for such a novel by the Times's Nick Bly called Reader, I Slept with Him."
    Francis Miller chuckled. "I've heard it's very funny."
    Xandra tried not to look surprised. Nick hadn't finished it, surely? Hadn't Georgia just told her—? As the question crossed her mind, Xandra thought she saw a flicker of auburn from the side of the studio floor.
    "Which brings us to the question of large advances," Evie continued. "Christina Farley, what is your view of this phenomenon? It's been in the press a lot lately."
    "I do think certain publishers, and editors, become intoxicated by their checkbooks." She looked at Xandra. "They forget what the business is about. It's a way of assuring publicity."
    "Alexandra Lewis, you've received quite a bit of attention for the amount you've spent on some of your books. Can you justify that? Do these books earn back the money?"
    "I pay my writers what I think they're worth," Xandra said, trying to keep her voice steady. "It has nothing to do with publicity. We have a strange reluctance, in Britain, to associate quality literature with a decent amount of money."
    "Let's take one of your authors," Evie said. "Gavin Long. Now, there was quite a well-publicized row about the amount of money you paid to take him away from his previous publisher. To put it somewhat crudely, did that decision pay off for you?"
    "I'm not sure it's appropriate to discuss—"
    "The word on that," offered Francis Miller, "was that the book sold no more than a few thousand copies, and thousands had to be pulped. But then, one can't always trust rumors."
    "I wouldn't feel comfortable—"
    "Or, to take another example of an author of yours," continued Evie implacably. "Charles Wyndham. I understand he received a significant advance on a book he hadn't even started?"
    "Well, yes," said Xandra. How did the wretch know that? Her face shone with sweat. On the side of the studio floor the makeup artist shook her head. She'd been pretty, this one, but some faces—it was always hard to predict which—seemed to melt under the bright glare of the lights and cameras. "But Charles Wyndham has a proven track record. One knows Charles Wyndham will write a book that—"
    "Will be an absolute delight," finished Francis. "As his agent, now, I have to say Charles is onto a good thing with this one. May I give a sneak preview?" he asked Xandra.
    "Please, do." Xandra brushed a drop of sweat away from her eyes. She hadn't spoken to Charles about his novel, actually—he'd been rather difficult to reach on the phone—but if Francis Miller was willing to rescue her on this one, she would let him.
    "It's a novel about a university romance," Francis enthused, with an agent's flair for selling the story. "A student nearly makes a terrible mistake falling for the wrong woman. Xoe, she calls herself, 'with an X,' as she's always telling people, rather breathlessly. It is a comedy following the alternative life he'd have had if he'd taken that path. Narrow escape, that kind of thing—a literary Sliding Doors."
    "And that," Evie turned to Xandra, "is the quintessential Alexandra Lewis title, is it? Xoe is the kind of character that the Alexandra Lewis imprint is proud to call its own."
    How circular it was! Charles Wyndham imagining where her heart might have taken her. Alexandra Lewis closed her eyes to the question. To the sight of surrounding hostile faces and the memory of the long journey she'd taken to get here; to the growing realization that there was a long line of these questions, and faces, and betrayals. And right behind them, waiting her turn, the next one, Georgia Montgomery, ready for her own story to begin.
    The panel waited for Alexandra Lewis to collect herself and rejoin the discussion. What they didn't yet understand was that Alexandra Lewis had already left the room, the studio. She had left London already. She was on her way to somewhere else.
    New York. Why not? It was a whole new city, waiting for her, waiting for her like a lover.

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