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Even Shakespeare had issues with his literary agent

by Molly Moynahan

"Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent".

William Shakespeare

“O world, world! Thus is the poor agent despised. O traitors and bawds, how earnestly are you set a-work, and how ill requited! Why should our endeavor be so loved, and the performance so loathed?”

William Shakespeare

I have no idea whether Will’s agent was a friend or foe but it’s nearly impossible to get a writer to say anything about their agents other then expressing deep devotion, admiration or respect. However, they simply will say nothing about their former agents because who knows what horse’s head will end up in their literary safe place?

So, as usual, I will expose myself and speak of what has recently occurred between my literary agent and myself, a woman I was devoted to, admired and respected but have just divorced. I say divorced because it feels like a divorce, especially the one I had with my second husband that took years even though we were both dating different people albeit occupying the same Chicago two-flat. We were reluctant to pull the trigger for a number of reasons, mainly devotion, admiration and respect. Nevertheless, the relationship wasn’t working.  There was no spark, no urgency and while we enjoyed our time together, there was no passion .We loved the baby we had together but the partnership had reached its sell-by date.

My agent is wonderful, a great reader and a person I grew to love immoderately, possibly because my beloved eldest sister was killed violently and she took her place. Or possibly because she praised my work lavishly and seemed genuinely sure that I would be a writer publisher were eager to sign. She was brilliant, connected, positive and kind, but also honest, critical and pragmatic. She sent my novels out to publishers with a clear vision in mind.

As we went along, I moved to London from New York, Dallas and then Chicago. I had a baby, a divorce, taught college creative writing, remarried, and became a high school English teacher. I wrote several novels, which didn’t sell and got a movie gig in London that was fabulous and then terrible.  I wrote a female version of Braveheart about a legendary Irish woman named Red Mary: Maura Rua.

Our first meeting with the producer, who went on to produce Once, featured my ex-husband arriving with our newborn and that producer looking at me clutching my son and remarking, “She’s so hormonal.” The other producer was a friend, so our meetings were warm and fuzzy and everything seemed rosy and amazing.  After being wined and dined at the London Groucho Club and promised the moon and allowed to speak to Ralph Fiennes on his sister’s cell phone and praised to the skies by a major Hollywood producer, I was kicked to the curb. The Hollywood producer wanted his own people and that was that.       They sent a fax to my husband’s office.

I called my agent raving about lawsuits and friendship and my “art” and she listened patiently for about a minute and then said: ”You either take the money or you do it yourself. That’s the movie business.” Then she told me she had a client lunch and hung up.

In 2002 I hit a bottom. I had sent her my latest book, a novel about death and teenagers, I was teaching full-time, getting divorced and my new boyfriend’s daughter had given us all head lice. My ex-husband was in love with a woman nearly twenty years younger then me. As my boyfriend combed the lice shampoo through my hair, I sobbed and said, “I’ll never get published again.” My boyfriend, an Iron Worker responsible for several parts of the Chicago skyline said, “Maybe you should write stuff people like to read.”

Or something similar. This from a person who had not finished a single book since middle school. It ’s a miracle he is now my husband.

The next morning was the first day of school. I checked my e-mail as I left the house and there was a cryptic message from my agent stating that two publishers wanted my novel, Stone Garden. There would be an auction that afternoon. I hadn’t even known she’d sent it out to be read. I was in a full-blown anxiety attack by the time I reached school to sit through interminable meetings about gang violence, the achievement gap and what to do if a kid in your class had a nut allergy. 

“My book’s getting auctioned,” I told one of my fellow teachers. “What book?” the teacher asked.

No one I worked with knew I was a writer. I had shed that skin and assumed the persona of the nutty English teacher. Who could blame me? It had been 13 years since my second novel was published and I was absent from the Chicago literary scene.

   After school ended I went to the gym, and as I was leaving, my cell phone rang. At this stage of my owning a cell phone I still wasn’t sure how to answer it, and the one time I had called my boyfriend after seven hours of parent conferences the previous year, I immediately crashed into a parked car I’d failed to see. “Hey, I’m calling you on the cell phone! Crash!”

So I answered it very carefully and my agent told me my book had sold for six figures to a huge publisher. I felt very sick. “Thank you,” I said.

“We did it,” she said.

“I love you,” I said.

“I love you, too,” she said.    

And so we did it, and things went very well. Foreign sales and movie interest, a full page rave in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, great critical responses, people saying things like, “I didn’t even know you were a writer,” a heartfelt apology from my ex-husband for his lack of belief in my persistence, a quietly proud conversation with my father. No one in my classes died from nut allergies or gang violence. I went on cable television in Delaware and read all over the Midwest.

My boyfriend preened and claimed to understand the novel even though he never finished it.

We took a trip to New York where I met my new editor and my agent and they met the ironworker and acted all girly while I pouted. But I loved her and she loved me. And now it’s over. They didn’t want the next novel; I was advised to work on an ill fated if promising vampire novel and she had some major personal tragedies. Our phone calls grew less frequent and . . .sadder. I felt abandoned and frightened by the intensity of grief anticipated if we split up.

We split up. I can no longer casually allude to “my literary agent.” I don’t have one. But this is where I started, unrepresented and passionate and quietly writing my first novel while I waited tables and tried to believe in myself as an artist. I am an artist, not a commodity, not a salesperson or a product. I still love her; I think she still believes in me.             

Molly Moynahan is the author of three novels. The most recent, Stone Garden, was a 2003 NYT Notable Book. Her website address is Her blog is

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