Last week a friend of mine who has a memoir coming out emailed me to ask if I could introduce her to Lauren Hunter (not her real name), the Books Editor at _____Magazine. Realizing what my friend had in mind, I was quick to cut her off at the pass: convincing Lauren Hunter to read a book written by anyone but a star author, I warned, was akin to convincing MAGA fans to wear face masks.
A few days after my agent sent out my book of interrelated short stories to a dozen or so NYC editors he called to say that the Lauren Hunter, a much venerated editor at at top publishing company, wanted to chat with me in person.
“What does she want to know?” I asked nervously.
“She probably wants to learn a little more about you as a writer. What she can expect from working with you, that sort of thing,” he replied in soothing tones. “Don’t be nervous, Lisa,” he said to the pregnant woman pacing the floor.
The next morning, just as I was about to pass out from hyperventilating, Lauren phoned. I’d spent the entire sleepless night rehearsing. I’d tell her how I’d been penning fiction since I was a tyke; that it was my dream to be a novelist; that I would be open to any changes she had in mind; that I already had an idea for another book; and that I was a really fast writer.
All but the last statement were true.
“Hello, this is Lisa,” I said in a deep steady voice, hoping I’d sound smart and stable; not jumpy and nauseated (which was exactly how I felt). Irrationally, I worried that through the miles of phone line Lauren would be able to see that I was wearing red flannel pajama bottoms and a threadbare oversized Sonoma State University sweatshirt. That somehow she’d know I was the last person on the planet whose photo belonged on the back cover of a book.
“Hi Lisa. This is Lauren Hunter.”
“Thanks for calling.” I replied as I rubbed my four-months-along belly. I so didn’t want my growing baby to feel my tension.
“I wanted to chat a little about Other Fish in the Sea, your wonderful book.”
And then, before I could launch into my spiel; before I could prove my authorial worthiness, she began listing off all the reasons why I should choose her over all the other editors on the planet.
When, during a phone conversation I stupidly mentioned to Lauren that I would be in NYC to visit my husband’s parents, she suggested we get together for lunch to discuss “some things.”
I honestly didn’t want to. We’d met in person, briefly, twice before and she was not of the warm-and-fuzzy ilk. Throughout our time working on my first book together she came off as a detached, distant editor. It was her assigned roll, after all. She was the demanding wrangler of my creative gurgitations. The critical gatekeeper who held the keys to my would-be writing career.
She terrified me.
We agreed to meet at Café Lalo, the same place where Tom Hanks met Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail.” I made sure I was the first to arrive so I could find a table and not have to do that awkward pre-sit-dance—you know the one I’m talking about: it’s when you and the person you’re meeting have to stand in front of the hostess and you shuffle your feet and put your hands in your pocket or mindlessly flap the notebook you’re holding up and down in idiotic waves while the blonde babe behind the podium scans the room looking for a vacant spot and you have no idea if the vacuous small talk about the weather or the crowded subways, is making you sound like a moron.
Anyway, I got there in plenty of time to avoid that and was shown to a two-top at the back of the place. Instinctively, I knew Lauren would want to sit facing the restaurant. She’d want to have the commanding view of the café’s comings and goings. She would be want to see and be seen.
So, duh, I sat facing the brick wall, and, because I had no idea if she’d recognize me by the back of my head, I had to stay twisted around—my hands on the top of the curved slightly splintery wooden chair—so I could catch her when she walked in.
I stayed like that—my upper body curled uncomfortably backwards—for some ten anxious minutes. When she finally breezed in and removed a pair of fashionable sunglasses from her fashionable face, I waved at her like an excited schoolkid who sees her mom waiting at the bus stop after a particularly hard day of kindergarten.
She glided over, saying, “Excuse me,” to the people at the table next to ours after accidentally bumping it while squeezing her way into the slim space between us. Before we even exchanged a word, a perky waitress appeared. “Are you ready to order?” Lauren picked up the menu I’d arranged on the table, gave it a quick glance, and said, “I’ll have the egg salad and a coffee.”
When the waitress looked at me I hesitated. I’d already read the menu three times and had become so overwhelmed with nervousness and nausea, that I’d lost my appetite. (Yes, I was a published author in her thirties; yet I still suffered mightily from Imposter Syndrome. Part of me actually believed Lauren had invited me to lunch to fire me.)
Which she did, sort of. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
“I’m good with just coffee,” I said to the waitress, apologetically.
“So, let’s talk about Hat Trick,” Lauren said a heartbeat after the waitress left. “It’s good, but it still needs a lot of work.”
I’d like to be able to tell you what happened after that, but because of the egg salad, I remember little of the remainder of that lunch date. What I do remember is the waitress placing a huge plate of food in front of Lauren. On it sat an enormous heap of creamy yellow egg salad. Next to it were two slices of perfectly-toasted bread, some paper-thin circles of red onion, and a couple of thick rounds of red juicy tomatoes.
One glance at Lauren’s food and suddenly I was famished. Abandoned-dog-on-the-street-starved. As I watched her daintily convey the onions to the outskirts of her plate before taking three tiny bites of the egg salad and then putting down her fork, my stomach growled and my mouth watered. I wanted nothing more in life than for her to offer me a bite. To say, “I’m done. Do you want the rest?”
Because, yeah, I would have eaten the rest. It was all I could do to keep from reaching across the tiny expanse of table, grabbing a piece of bread and slathering it with that green-herb-flecked egg salad. The salad she was clearly NOT EATING.
She continued to talk about the faults in my plotline while I stared incredulously. Was she really going to leave all that delicious food uneaten. Who does that?
When the waitress reappeared to fill our coffee mugs, Lauren stated, “I’m finished. You can take it,” with me dying a slow deprived death across from her.
Only when the sweet smell of the neglected egg salad had finally drifted away was I able to concentrate on what she was saying and what she was saying was something along the lines of, “…and so I won’t be your editor anymore, but I know you’ll be in good hands with whomever they assign you to…” Lauren was letting me know that she was going to work for another publisher.
Not surprisingly, Lauren and I lost touch. For a few years after we parted ways we exchanged short semi-personal emails catching one another up. After those ended I occasionally bumped into her on Facebook and Twitter—liking this; commenting about that—but eventually our relationship, like Borders bookstores, closed for good.
Then one morning, while sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, I started flipping around an old issue of _____Magazine when suddenly I saw her name. I already knew that after Lauren handed me off to an editor who’d hated my writing, she edited a nonfiction book that became a worldwide bestseller. And, that, following a few more stints in the publishing world, she became the Books Editor for a popular women’s magazine. But, for some reason, seeing her name next to a book review in a magazine I’d never actually read was startling. I looked over at another woman in the waiting room and tried catching her eye. I desperately wanted to say, “See this person? She edited my first book!” with my index finger stuck defiantly next to the printed words: LAUREN HUNTER. I was aglow with misconceived pride. Ridiculous though it was, I felt as if this vicariously made me a member of the all-star literary world.
By the time my clean teeth and I arrived back home I’d decided that Lauren owed me. After all, she’d jilted me for, for, what—a VIP with an important point to make? She’d dumped me and my words onto the desk of an editor who didn’t “buy that Peter would ever leave his wife for Mona.”
Plus, she’d hadn’t offered me even one bite of that egg salad.
The least she could do, the frenzied voice in my head argued, was REVIEW MY BOOK.
I emailed her an incredibly polite, humble and slightly beggy note asking if she’d, ah, be willing to read RASH, my new memoir, which was “really funny and had gotten some terrific reviews.” I closed out the letter reminding her who I was, just in case. I assumed I wouldn’t hear back from her. I wasn’t a bestselling writer or a celebrity or even a person of minor interest.
I assumed correctly.
I told my friend that yes, I knew Lauren way back when, and if I could get her book reviewed, I would. But I had no pull with Lauren, I regretfully informed her. I had some back in 2001 when she thought I was the next “it” girl author. I had even less in 2004, when I coveted that egg salad on her plate. Now, what little connection we’d had was long gone.
After typing “Sorry. Good luck,” I hit SEND and then sat back and stared out my window toward Lake Champlain, watching the small whitecaps bouncing over the breakwater in the distance.
Okay, it was a bummer she didn’t write me, but it was still pretty gratifying to know that the Lauren Hunter had been my first-ever editor. She had thought I was so talented that she’d convinced her bosses to pay me a lot of money for my words. She had ushered me into the next phase of my life. She’d pushed me to be a better writer. She’d made my childhood dreams come true.
If anyone owed anyone anything, I owed her. If ever we were to meet again for lunch, I’d still give her the seat not facing the back wall. Only this time I’d order my own plate of food.
And I would be sure to offer her a bite.