The Gutter Years
by Marko Sijan

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marko

Eight years ago, on December 31, 2002, I signed a contract for the publication of my novel. It was the happiest moment of my life. I was going to be an author and, ipso facto, a “professional writer.” This was my dream. For years I blamed its death on one man: publisher, agent and literary impresario Sam Hiyate.

Sam and I met in August, 1999. I’d co-written a script for a short film produced through the Canadian Film Centre. The short was being screened, along with five others, at the old Uptown Theatre in Toronto. I was twenty-six. I’d written a short story and conceived of writing a collection of inter-connected stories. A friend knew Sam, who ran a publishing company called Gutter Press, in reference to the type of sensational journalism that thrives on tales of perversion, but also as an allusion to Oscar Wilde’s maxim, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” I thought that was cool. I’d long romanticized the artist repudiating the comforts and decorum of mainstream society, living in squalor. I also thought it was cool that Sam published “edgy, risky fiction.” My story collection in-progress would fit the criteria. I invited him to the screening.

I liked Sam right away. He was pot-bellied and his black hair hung over his forehead in greasy wisps. He had the dark, round, jolly face of Buddha. A crowd was milling and chattering around us as we stood in the hallway outside the main auditorium.

“I was thinking, if you dig the short, you could read my story. It’s gonna be part of a collection called Rotten Kids.”

“Great. Though you might want to re-consider the title.”

“Why?”

He squinted and shook his head.

“It simply isn’t sellable because, you know, if a reader saw that title on a bookstore shelf, I’m sure he’d avoid it like the plague.”

“Okay.”

“You might also consider turning it into a novel.”

“Why?”

“These days, given the shrinking market for literary fiction, first-time fiction writers need to debut with a novel. A story collection from, you know, a no-name simply won’t get any attention.”

“I’m on it. I really like what Gutter stands for. So much crap gets published in Canada.”

He smiled and nodded.

“I created Gutter entirely to go against the grain of Canlit, and because I have such a passion for new authors, I’m always on the lookout for exciting new talent. I have the instincts of a gambler.”

“Has it been tough to make a go of it?”

Still smiling, Sam glanced upward, as if at the stars.

“I lose money on every book I put out, but I’m simply not in it for the money, you know? For me it’s always been a labour of love.”

“That’s awesome. You do get a fair bit of press, though.”

“I have absolutely no problem with exploiting myself in the media. Good press, bad press, it makes no difference to me, because it’s all to promote my authors and their books.”

He’s so honest and shameless and full of integrity. And he’s got balls. He stands for something real. I wanted to be his “exciting new talent.” He liked the short film and the story and offered to take me on. I wrote a draft of the novel in sixteen days.

“I love it. But it’s raw and it still needs a lot of work.”

“Awesome. So . . . Where do we go from here?”

“Keep working on it, and when it’s ready we’ll sign a contract. I’m very excited. This is exactly the kind of gritty novel that could be a real breakout for Gutter.”

“Really?”

I had a vision of the hardcover edition on a bookstore shelf with “Rotten Kids” and “a novel by Marko Sijan” emblazoned on the front jacket.

“But consider changing the title.”

I had no intention of changing the title. I thought it was perfect: edgy and nailing the novel’s content. After expressing his indifference to profit, I wondered why Sam wanted me to come up with a more “sellable” title. I thought little of it, though. I was going to be a professional writer!

I spent the next two years refining the manuscript, though unfortunately I was unable to work on it as much as I would have liked because I was very busy teaching English as a Second Language and having sex with my Japanese, Korean, Brazilian and Mexican students. And smoking pot. A lot of pot.

During that time, Sam ushered me into the Toronto literary scene. At his swanky loft on Power Street, just north of King Street East, he hosted what he referred to as his “Coke and Sex Parties.” I never saw any coke or sex. I did see hardwood floors, bay windows, a sanded deck and well-dressed literary hipsters sipping wine and nibbling hors d’oeuvres on napkins in their palms, chatting about their latest projects. There was, however, a bathroom with a sign on the door that read: “Coke and Sex Bathroom.” I liked being around these important, established artists because of the validation they offered my ego. Their nods of approval as I told them Gutter was publishing my novel and the enthusiasm with which they greeted its pitch swelled my vision of self-importance. I fancied myself a better writer than all of them combined.

But what I liked most about Sam’s “Coke and Sex Parties” was meeting women. Young female students in the Creative Book Publishing programme at Humber College served as bartenders and waitresses. One of them talked from the left side of her mouth and wore purple pixy glasses, crooked. She drank too much the night we met and slipped on the stairs leading from my bedroom down to the foyer, her ass thumping each step on the way down. From the top step I looked down on her as she looked up at me, glasses perched on her lower lip, cackling.

I saw that Sam was erecting himself as a monument to sex. He’d earned some notoriety from a Globe and Mail article in which he’d been interviewed about bad sex scenes in Canadian novels and he’d skewered what he thought was an especially bad one in Andrew Pyper’s The Lost Girls. It involved a couple fornicating in a canoe. Tell-all memoirs of former strippers also aroused Sam’s interest and some of these reformed pole-dancers attended his parties. One of them claimed to be in the process of writing her memoir. She had a nasally voice and a laugh like a punctured accordion, both of which she attributed to her nose job. To protect her surgeon’s work she wouldn’t let me kiss her, and to keep me far away from her nose, we had sex in the manner of dogs.

In the fall of 2001, Sam published Lie With Me, a semi-autobiographical account of the life of a female nymphomaniac. He was aiming to resurrect an old genre called “erotic fiction,” coupling literature with smut. I saw it as another one of his brave attempts to subvert and invigorate the dull tradition of Canadian literature, and it deepened my respect for him. Lie With Me generated some buzz for Gutter and at the launch I met the author, Tamara Faith Berger. I tried to hit on her but she took no interest in me. Good. Your book is shit. I hadn’t read it.

At one of Sam’s parties I also met Azm-ul Haq, who remains among the most ebullient people I’ve known. Pudgy, uni-browed, with a smile so large it sealed his eyes shut, Azmi had recently emigrated from Pakistan, where he may have been director of its national television station. I relished our conversations, enjoying his formal diction and syntax and sing-song East Asian accent, as well as his liberal use of the term “Paki.”

“Why’d you move here? Didn’t you have it made in Pakistan?”

“Ah, Marko, the Paki life is teeming with repression and menace. I would have never been able to render the stories of complex human mosaics about which I’m terribly passionate.”

“What do you wanna do here?”

“It is my raison d’être to write and to direct films and television series. I am currently composing a screenplay about the Paki community east of Yonge, and the bifurcation of their identity subsequent to immigration.”

Azmi used his wealth and connections to build a niche for himself in the Toronto arts scene. He hosted parties at his Bloor Street West condo where I encountered more writers, editors, agents and publishers. There I met author Russell Smith, his chiselled jaw line and flawless coiffure framing a scowl I found inviting. I hadn’t read his fiction but I’d heard they were honest explorations of male sexuality and I liked his “Virtual Culture” column in the Globe and Mail. We stood in the kitchen beside a huge silver fridge, surrounded by the lavish spread of delicious Paki food Azmi’s wife had laboured over. I tried to impress Russell by telling him the humiliating story of an ex, a story I’d promised never to tell anyone, and since the ex was part of the scene and I didn’t want her to learn I’d betrayed her trust, I wouldn’t tell Russell who she was. I said she was a “fellow colleague.” The story had to do with her threatening to kill herself if I dumped her.

“Did you have a notion before that she might be insane?”

“Only late in the game when she started accusing me of gazing at men on the street and wanting to fuck them.”

“Did you?”

I shook my head.

“I had no clue where the gay vibe was coming from.”

The furrows of Russell’s brow thickened.

“Maybe you weren’t aware of it.”

“Yeah, that’s what she said.”

“Sorry.”

“No-no-no, deep down I might be a fag.”

Russell didn’t laugh.

“Anyway, I stayed with her a whole extra year before calling her bluff.”

“At least you were a noble sucker.”

“Yeah, but I fucked a lot of women during that year.”

Finally, Russell grinned and leaned in.

“So who is she? Is she here?”

He kept grinning, but the moment he knew I wouldn’t tell him, the grin vanished and his eyes turned to stone. I thought about inviting him out for a drink in the hope he might help me develop a pitch for the Globe and Mail and get it accepted, but I didn’t. I ran into him at subsequent parties and pretended to ignore him, hoping my feigned indifference would elevate his opinion of me.

During these two years of occasionally refining the manuscript, I presumed my “literary career” had been consolidated. Azmi said I may be “the finest writer in Toronto,” and I kept telling myself that once the novel was published, I’d commit myself to writing. I thought I had time. I made the mistake of actually believing the praise and letting it enlarge my already swollen ego; besides, Faulkner, then my hero, hadn’t published his first novel till his early thirties. I was in my late twenties. And though I felt guilty about it and knew I had to quit, I liked getting high. Every day. Fuck it. You’ll quit when the book comes out. Keep going to industry parties, secure contacts for future projects, get your name out there. Get laid.

In the summer of 2002, I fell in love with Alma Luz Guerrera Contreras Moral, a Mexican ESL student. She was a prophetess of doom with raven hair and small, baby-soft feet.

“I love you.”

“You are professional liar.”

“Why?”

“You are writer. Just you want to feel.”

I decided to move to Mexico. I told her I’d have to return to Toronto for the book launch and my career would likely necessitate my remaining there.

“You are writer. Just you want to have adventure.”

I finished refining the manuscript, finally, and on New Year’s Eve, Sam and I signed a contract. It was still called Rotten Kids, and since he never again took issue with the title I thought I’d won “the battle” to preserve the integrity of my vision. I received an advance of $300 for signing the contract, another $300 for producing a manuscript “satisfactory” to the publisher, and a contractual promise of $400 “upon publication of the Work.” In section #3, under the heading, “Obligation to Publish,” the contract stated:

The Publisher agrees to publish the Work in a quality trade paperback edition within twelve (12) months following the receipt of the manuscript. Should circumstances beyond the control of the Publisher (such as financial constraints, loss of funding, etc.) delay publication, the date of publication may be extended for a reasonable period of time [italics mine], up to eighteen (18) months from the date of the receipt of the manuscript.
Should the Publisher fail to publish in accordance with these provisions, the rights shall, at the author’s option, revert to the author.

Despite the fact that the contract imposed on “the Publisher” no real obligation to publish, as far as I was concerned, my book was going to get published. Sam told me it would launch in September, 2003; I told him I’d return to Toronto by August.

My parents tried to dissuade me from moving to Mexico: “A dangerous place,” according to Mom, “full of ignorant peasants.” When I showed her a picture of Alma, she said, “Oh, she’s really Mexican.” I was twenty-nine and had never been financially independent. Mom still put three-hundred dollars a week into my account so that I could afford the comforts I’d grown up with, my father being a doctor. Neither she nor Dad believed I knew how to take care of myself or had any sense of responsibility or purpose in life. On January 5, 2003, back in Windsor, Ontario (the armpit I was born and raised in), they drove me to the Detroit airport. I cried all the way there. At the airport security gate, Mom said, “See you in a week.”

In early February, after a week-long bout of food poisoning from Mexican lettuce during which time I’d lived in the shower alternately shitting or vomiting, I got an email from Sam that he’d sold Gutter Press and I’d have to re-negotiate my contract with Ed Sluga, the new owner. Sam must have been considering giving up on Gutter for some time, but I’d heard nothing about it. He’d joined the Lavin Agency as a literary agent and said he’d represent me but wouldn’t get involved in my negotiations with Ed, citing “conflict of interests.” I didn’t understand what “conflict of interests” meant. For the first time, I was scared the book deal might fall through.

I was generally scared in Mexico, being tall and white while the majority was short and brown and eyed me with contempt, speaking a language I had no interest in learning. We lived in Tampico, a rancid industrial town with pocked streets, sidewalks caked in soot and buses spewing plumes of black exhaust. Tenements leaned on each other like leprous dominoes. Fat brown cockroaches shared the apartment with us; huge mosquitoes gave me giant red welts. I was teaching English at a private school with students whose parents worked for the multinationals (like Coke and Dell) that funded the school. The kids were spoiled and arrogant and treated me like one of their servants who cleaned their bedrooms and did their laundry.

Alma and her family were Catholic. Had her father and seven older siblings become aware of my existence, they might have killed me. If they came to visit, we’d stuff my belongings in the closet and I’d spend the night in a motel. Every day I thought about leaving, but since I didn’t know what was happening with Gutter and I’d succumbed to the cliché that I could squeeze some material from an ordeal in the abyss, I chose to stay.

Alma and I had told the landlord we were married because Mexicans believe a man who lives with an unmarried woman has fled his wife and children to fornicate with a whore. Alma may have wanted me to marry her, but in truth she was married to her father. Upon his wife’s death twenty years earlier, he’d promised his eight children never to remarry and to sacrifice his life to ensuring they all received postsecondary educations, established themselves in careers and started families of their own; except Alma, who, being the youngest, was obliged by Mexican tradition not to marry but to care for her father as he grew old and sick. At twenty-eight, her trip to Toronto the year before had been her first excursion from home. Her father had diabetes and was blind in one eye and paralyzed in one foot.

Meanwhile, Sam had me forward the manuscript to Siri Agrell, Gutter’s new managing editor. In June, after four months of not getting a single response from several emails I’d sent her, Sam informed me she’d been “very sick” and was now no longer with Gutter. For four months I’d been emailing Ed but he hadn’t replied, either. Sam kept in touch.

“Why won’t this Ed fuck reply to me?”

“He’s reorganizing Gutter and, you know, simply has a lot of admin work he has to take care of first.”

“All I’m asking for is an acknowledgment of my fucking existence.”

“Don’t worry. When he’s ready he will tell you when your book is coming out.”

“Whatever. I’m working on a second novel.”

“That’s fantastic.”

“In the worst-case scenario, when I finish it I’ll come back to Toronto and have two manuscripts to whore myself with.”

“That’s great news, Marko.”

On August 30, I turned thirty. Mom put five-hundred dollars into my account. I called but she wouldn’t talk to me. Dad mumbled a happy birthday wish and kept clearing his throat.

“What’s wrong, Dad?”

He sighed.

“If you don’t come home soon, I don’t know if we’ll survive.”

Dad’s threat only strengthened my resolve to stay. Besides, being Alma’s dirty secret in her closet seemed my proper place. Suck it up, you gutless worm. Being an adult means not being afraid of the dark!

September, 2003, the novel’s supposed month of publication, came and went. On October 30, Sam forwarded an email he’d gotten from Ed: “I’m about halfway through the book [Rotten Kids] and I want to know if we can do this for Fall 2004. What is the guy’s name again? How do I reach him? Are you his agent?” I failed to notice that Ed seemed to be seeking Sam’s permission to publish the book; I was too concerned about Ed’s mental constitution since my name was on the title page of the manuscript and at the bottom of all its 132 pages and I’d been emailing him for the last eight months. That’s okay! He’s going to make me an author! I only have to wait till Fall 2004!

By December 23, Ed still hadn’t contacted me. I called Sam.

“I think Gutter’s dumped my book.”

“I’m not sure that Gutter has dumped your book.”

“I haven’t heard shit from Ed.”

“He’s having some kind of personal crisis.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“You have a contract with Gutter. They can’t just dump it.”

“If you say so.”

“How’s the novel coming?”

“Good. I’m over halfway through.”

“That’s great news, Marko. I’m very excited that you’re well into the new book.”

I hadn’t written a word of a new book.

On January 23, 2004, I forwarded Sam an essay I’d written about infidelity in Mexico for a grotty English language rag published through a university in Tampico.

“This is brilliant. If you ever want to do a non-fiction book about infidelity, let me know.”

“That’s an awesome idea. I’m gonna do it right after I finish the novel. Thanks!”

“If you write a good proposal and a sample chapter or two, I’ll aim to get you ‘50K.’”

“Really?”

“There’s much more money in non-fiction. You could do a brilliant job!”

I thought I understood for the first time why Sam wasn’t pushing the manuscript with Gutter and what “conflict of interests” meant: my interest in getting published versus his interest in making money.

Still, Sam’s reference to the essay as “brilliant” bloated my ego, which was then engorged on January 24 when Azmi – apparently “shooting a series for the Showcase network” – forwarded an email he’d sent to Ed and Vanz Chapman, Gutter’s new managing editor:

. . . did you get a chance to read rotten kids ms? . . . i really think that you guys are sitting on a potential super hit of a book . . . i had the great privilege of reading . . . quite frankly i was blown away . . . in the right hands it’ll probably make a huge 6 x one hour tv series . . . the writer marko sijan is probably the finest talent north of mexico . . . i’ll bet anything that he’ll be huge in the coming years! . . . this is the kind of book that may sell well (if translated in urdu and hindi) in south asia – the market is huge out there, as we discussed!!!!!

Ed kept ignoring me. Vanz, too, till March 24, when I got his number from Azmi and called him.

“I wrote you two months ago about Rotten Kids coming out in August.”

“Marko, am I mistaken, or have I not responded to you every time you’ve contacted me? I could be wrong.”

“Has Gutter dumped my book?”

“No, we haven’t dumped it. We’re just clearing up some admin stuff.”

“August, then?”

“We don’t usually release books in August. If anything it’ll be in the fall.”

“Look, I’ve been with Gutter since December 2002 and had a Fall 2003 release pushed back to Fall 2004, only to be ignored for the last six months.”

“Again, I’m new here so I could be wrong. But all I’m saying is it’d probably be a September/October release as opposed to an August one, the difference being a matter of weeks. I’m meeting with Ed today. I’ll confirm and get back to you tonight.”

He didn’t. The next day I called Sam.

“They [Ed and Vanz] can both fuck themselves and pray they never meet me face to face.”

“I talked to Ed. He wants to do the book in the fall.”

“Bullshit! I’ve heard fuck-all from that asshole.”

“I told him you might not want to, in which case he’s saying you’d be breaking the contract and he would like the advance back.”

My skull started melting.

“I’m gonna cut his throat.”

I was living in a state of epic delusion. I saw myself as a victim whose drive to succeed had been crushed by publishing industry charlatans. Not only did I believe I was fed up with Gutter and wouldn’t deal with them anymore, I empowered myself by resolving not to tell Ed and Vanz I wouldn’t allow them to put out my book. Though it was under contract till September, I decided to send it elsewhere.

Not that I actually did. But author Elyse Friedman was generous enough to put me in touch with Michael Holmes, publisher of ECW Press, where another friend, Jen Hale, happened to work as an editor. On May 4 Jen informed me that Michael had found the manuscript “very strong, but he already has several projects on the go for the next few seasons.”

She did include links to other presses to whom to forward the manuscript, adding:

It would be tough with you in Mexico, but it’s worth a shot. This must be very frustrating for you. I know how our authors get if the book comes out a couple of weeks or even days after we told them it would. You sound like you’re much more accepting of things.

That night, Alma and I got drunk. It was the eve of Cinco de Mayo, the day 200 years before when Mexico had driven out its French invaders. With the bathroom window open we were having loud sex in the shower, till the old spinster sisters next door started slapping their brooms against the wall, screaming, “Alto, los diablos!”

I put on shorts and was about to head out the front door.

“Where you are going?”

“To get my smokes from the car.”

“I will bring them.”

Alma stumbled towards me, naked.

“Ha ha,” I said.

“I am serious.”

She reached for the door and opened it. I slammed it shut with one arm and wrapped the other around her waist. She tried to wriggle out of my grip and pry the door open with both hands.

“What the fuck are you doing?!” I asked.

“I am a hooker!” she screamed, clawing at the door. “I am a whore!”

The next morning it must have been a hundred degrees. Beside me Alma lay enclosed in a nimbus of sweat, softly snoring. I could hear men in the surrounding apartments, yelling and laughing as they watched the annual Cinco de Mayo soccer match between Monterrey and Mexico City, for which they’d prepared by drinking all night. Suddenly, the power went out. A moment of awed silence seemed to bend the walls, as if the seventh seal had been opened. Then the men started cursing and screaming, knocking over television sets, smashing bottles against walls. The dozens of homeless dogs squatting around our apartment started howling: first one, then two, then slowly a multitude. I lay in a fetid pond of sweat and stared at the ceiling.

I sent the manuscript to none of the presses Jen had recommended. On May 23, I got an email from Michael Guy-Haddock, Gutter’s layout designer.

“I have an update on your book. Call me. “Rotten Kids” will be coming out this fall.”

I told Alma the wonderful news. She dumped me. I was ecstatic.

At the airport security gate, we kissed and wept.

“Are we really doing this?” I asked.

“You made me so happy. You made me to live again.”

On the plane I resolved that this time I’d return home and finally start writing seriously: three hours a day, every day, as I told Sam I’d been doing since the late nineties.

A friend picked me up at Pearson airport. We drove to his place and got high.

On June 6, I met Michael and Vanz, not Ed, at the Gutter office on the Esplanade. Vanz was tall, sturdy and Afro-Canadian, a writer of “Caribbean fiction.” The sides and back of his head were shaved; on the crown sat a patch of cactus-dreads. I’d sent them the manuscript for a final copy edit and we discussed cover design and layout. As for the fall release, they were still waiting for confirmation from Ed. I was starting to wonder if Ed existed.

I left the Gutter office and visited Sam. He was living at the Drake Hotel, in the process of starting his own agency, “The Rights Factory.” (A rumour held that the Lavin Agency had sacked him.) It was mid-afternoon and I’d woken him up from a nap. He sat up and yawned. His hair stood up in shoots of grease, his belly stretching his t-shirt, underwear taut around his testicles.

“How’s the book coming?”

“Oh, it’s done but it’s . . . hundreds of pages of handwritten notes. It’ll be a while before you can see it. I’m actually working on the proposal for the infidelity book.”

“Great. When can you get it to me?”

“In a week.”

We signed a “Rights Factory” contract and I became his client. Again.

In early July, I handed Sam a twenty-page proposal for a book on Mexican infidelity. In fact, the first two pages summarized the infidelity stories I’d recorded; the last eighteen chronicled my relationship with Alma, though I hadn’t cheated on her. Shamed and castrated for lacking her father’s integrity, I hadn’t dared sneak out of her closet and cheat.

Sam was not pleased.

“It’s just an uninteresting story about two people who should have broken up a long time ago.”

And then, at long last, I met Ed. It happened in late July in a chance encounter at a Drake Hotel literary event. Sam happened to be there and he happened to be talking to Ed, though I didn’t know it was Ed till Sam introduced us. Short and balding, Ed wore a red polo shirt under a brown tweed jacket. At first he was polite and friendly, but when I kept scowling at him, he stiffened and stopped smiling. Sam tried to warm the air by mentioning to Ed how excited I was for the launch, then swiftly excused himself. I recalled Sam’s reference to Ed’s “personal crisis” as Ed fixed a cool gaze on me and broke the silence.

“Sorry about all this . . . Dirty Rotten Kids will be out in the fall.”

“When exactly?”

“We have a number of things we still have to do.”

“Like what?”

“The design and layout come next.”

“I thought Vanz and me had taken care of that.”

“Right. He and I will be getting together . . . We’ll be in touch.”

He nodded with the speed of a woodpecker.

“Please . . . I just wanna know if Gutter’s actually gonna publish Rotten Kids.”

“Why wouldn’t we?”

I scoffed, but he didn’t flinch.

“To start with, I’ve been waiting over a year now.”

His eyes started wandering.

“I understand your loss of . . . But Gutter’s more organized now, and we’re all jazzed up to publish your book.”

“For sure?”

“We’ll be in touch next week.”

“Okay, but – ”

He locked his eyes on mine.

“Look. I can’t say when in the fall just yet. I’m under the gun on several issues here.”

I suddenly felt timid. Assuming his “personal crisis” involved whatever “issues” had him “under the gun,” I was pinched with guilt and gave up pursuing an unequivocal guarantee of publication. As Ed excused himself, I decided he’d given me just enough to float my turd of hope.

On September 1st, my contract with Gutter expired and the book rights were available to me. I hadn’t heard from Ed or Vanz in over a month. I wanted to withdraw the manuscript, again, and now I had legal recourse to do so, but it was easier to sustain the illusion that Gutter would come through. I called Vanz.

“Is there any reason for me to think there won’t be a Rotten Kids published by Gutter Press?”

“It was in the catalogue we sent to distributors, so it will be done. I’m meeting Ed tomorrow. I’ll get the details and call you back.”

He didn’t.

On October 2, I attended a friend’s wedding in Stratford. She was marrying Andrew Pyper. Andrew looked august with his salt-and-pepper curls, black-rimmed glasses and pin-striped suit, and since he was arguably Toronto’s hottest author, I seethed with envy. A crew of Toronto literati were in attendance and I held them in contempt, including veteran literary agent Anne McDermid. She sat across from me at dinner. Her short hair looked auburn-dyed, her eyebrows pencilled-in. I recalled the gossip I’d heard: apparently she preferred to represent young men and if she liked you, she would make you successful. Our eyes met. She smiled; I didn’t. She asked who I was. I mentioned my novel was coming out in the fall.

“Who’s putting it out?”

“Gutter.”

“They’re having troubles, aren’t they?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your novel about?”

I’d done this so many times I recited the synopsis in a breath.

“Rotten Kids spans ten hours in the lives of five teenagers whose stories intersect and influence one another’s outcomes and illustrate how exploitation is a basic function of human intercourse.”

Her smile turned mischievous.

“It sounds very intriguing. Do you have representation?”

“I do, but thank you.”

I looked down at my plate and resumed eating. I felt empowered to have turned down such a powerful industry figure. Besides, I was committed to Sam. Contractually.

On October 7, I had coffee with Azmi. He seemed measured and aloof, his uni-brow waxed down the middle. He’d also lost at least fifteen pounds. He wore a tight t-shirt pressed to his flat stomach. He said he was “very busy” and our meeting was brief. I mentioned I’d been high every day since returning from Mexico. He shook his shrunken head.

“Ah, Marko, your mind is an indispensable asset. As a writer, it is your only invaluable possession. I do hope that you will take better care of it.”

I didn’t. That was the last time I saw Azmi.

On October 12, Vanz sent an email.

“Ed thinks late October/early November, but email him to confirm.”

I did so. Ed replied the same day!

“We’ll be in touch next week.”

That was the last time I heard from Ed.

On November 17, I emailed Vanz.

“Late October/early November, huh?”

“I’m still waiting to hear specifics from Ed.”

I was numb. By this point, I was smoking four or five joints a day. I convinced Vanz to meet me for coffee.

“I’m withdrawing the book from Gutter.”

Vanz looked down, pressed his lips together and nodded.

“I understand. I’m sorry, man. Wish I could do more, but Ed runs the show.”

“So . . . Can you just level with me? Was Ed ever gonna publish my book?”

“Of course.”

“Of course?!”

“Listen. Gutter hasn’t paid its dues to the OAC this year. All our publications are suspended.”

“Is Gutter going under?”

“I really don’t know.”

On February 4, 2005, I got an odd email from Sam, which contained a string of correspondences between him and Ed.

“Marko has expressly withdrawn Rotten Kids.”

“Are you telling me as Marko’s agent?”

“He has no faith for the way he’s been treated the last 16 months. I’m trying to get clarification on the status of the book at Gutter.”

“Are you asking as Marko’s agent?”

I emailed Sam.

“Thanks for the update. Just a reminder that I legally withdrew Rotten Kids last November. It officially has NO status at Gutter.”

I emailed Ed.

“My contract with Gutter expired on September 1, 2004. I’m seeking publication elsewhere. You’re a fucking prick. I’m going to hang you by your scrotum and throttle you like a piñata.”

For a few minutes I stared at the last two sentences, deleted them and sent the message.

On February 21, I got another odd email from Sam.

“I may have found a new publisher for Gutter and if Ed agrees to hand it to her, then we can submit to whomever we want.”

What are you talking about?! Why can’t we “submit to whomever we want” now? I also didn’t understand why he cared about Rotten Kids, or why he was trying to find a new publisher for Gutter. I thought he’d turned his back on it. Any affiliation would be a “conflict of interests,” remember? Fucking charlatan. At the time I often wondered what “conflict of interests” really meant, and what constituted Sam’s relationship to Gutter after he’d become an agent. I failed to invent any satisfactory answers, but trying to do so was easier than just asking Sam for the truth.

On March 24, more than a month after our last email correspondence, I paid Sam a surprise visit on Wellington Street at his “Rights Factory” office in a low-rise building with hardwood floors and the plumbing and ventilation system outside its walls. He was sitting at his desk and reading something on his laptop, clicking the mouse. I pulled up a chair and sat facing his profile, the space of a metre between us.

“I wanna start freelancing for magazines. Try and get my name out there. Start over.”

“Great.”

Since I’d long ago attained the bliss of the liar who believes his own lies, it never occurred to me that Sam must have known my claims to wanting to freelance and writing daily and working hard on a number of projects were false. In the five years we’d known each other, all I’d produced was a novel, a short essay and a lame non-fiction book proposal.

“So . . . How does it work?”

He kept his eyes on the monitor.

“How does what work?”

My fingers started tingling.

“How do I write a pitch?”

He looked at me as if to blurt something out, then turned back to the monitor.

“As soon as I have a chance, I will send you some sample pitches along with links to how to pitch to Details, Maxim and Playboy.”

The clicking of the mouse reminded me of the cockroach scuttling across the bedroom floor as I’d watched Alma sleeping and thought, What the fuck am I still doing here?

My hands were heating up.

“What about Rotten Kids?”

He said nothing for a few seconds.

“Start with the big houses like Knopf and Penguin. Submit it to them, and when they…you know, if they pass on it, send it to the mid-sized presses: Thomas Allen, Anansi and so on. If they pass, send it to the small ones.”

A web page he was on froze and he shook the mouse, clicking rapidly. It reminded me of when Alma had been doing the dishes and a cockroach scuttled between her legs. She screamed. I tried to stomp on it but it kept scuttling left and right.

“Okay . . . Do we submit it through ‘The Rights Factory’? How does it work?”

“For a small novel like yours, it simply wouldn’t make a difference. You might as well submit it yourself.”

I remembered chasing the cockroach in circles around the kitchen, stomping and missing. Alma kept screaming.

“Won’t it just end up at the bottom of a slush pile? If it’s submitted in a ‘Rights Factory’ envelope, won’t it get read faster?”

“Not necessarily. Small novels like yours are a low priority for big houses, regardless of who’s submitting it. It’s a real long shot.”

As he spoke I watched the profile of his jowl ripple, his belly doubled over his belt, the creases of his pants bunched up around his crotch. I clenched my warm fists as I recalled the cockroach crunching under my foot. Alma stopped screaming and fled the kitchen. I watched its pink innards glistening, and as I thought about not wanting to wipe them up, I stood there and remembered the conversation I’d had with Mom a few days earlier. She mentioned she was old and would soon be dead. When that happened she wanted to be cremated and flushed down the toilet.

“Why?”

“Funerals are a charade, like everything else in life.”

Sam looked at me. He raised his eyebrows and I sensed he was preparing to tell me how busy he was and I should leave. His eyes seemed to bulge with unwavering confidence. I stared at his jolly serenity and imagined lunging at him and tackling him to the floor. I pinned his arms under my knees and mashed his face to a pulp. During the beating, however, his expression remained jolly and serene.

“You all right, Marko?”

“I should go.”

I left his office and haven’t spoken to him since.

It took me a long time to understand that Sam didn’t betray me. He was a friend and mentor who introduced me to an exciting world and facilitated many happy memories. Sam tried to help me so much as the limits of his time allowed; once he smelled I was a fraud, he rightly tossed me aside. He had his own ambition to pursue and I no longer fell within its purview. As for Ed, his “personal crisis” could have involved any number of issues, and he may have been powerless against the juggernaut of his own dysfunction. Gutter was. And like the contract, neither Sam nor Ed ever guaranteed my book was going to get published.

I left Toronto and gave up writing (while assuring friends and family I was writing every day), then eventually started again by scrutinising every comma in the manuscript, re-writing it multiple times, and re-titling it Mongrel. Eventually, with help once again from Elyse Friedman, I did secure a publisher for it, but the truth is I’m still bitter it didn’t get published seven years ago. These seven years have involved a lot of brooding over what happened and what should have happened, and the result is now I’m largely indifferent to my book’s impending publication. I wish I could say I learned a great deal from my ordeal with Gutter Press and I’m a better person for it, and that years later, I no longer hate Sam. But I can’t. I hope I never see him again. And now the thought of calling myself an “author” or “professional writer” makes me want to punch another hole in my bedroom door.

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