Sarah’s debut novel, The Opposite of Me was one of the best books I read in 2010. It begins with the hilariously tragic unraveling of the main character’s life and then tells the story of her return to her childhood home where she plans to attempt to pick up the pieces of her once-promising career and begin anew. However, she does not relish the idea of having to again live in close proximity to her beautiful, popular, and wildly successful twin sister. The Opposite of Me is a witty, fast-paced, sometimes heartbreaking, but thought-provoking and thoroughly engrossing tale about the assumptions we make in our lives, taking for granted that we know certain things to be true. How we react when we discover that we have built our lives upon faulty perceptions can result in defining moments in our own journey. I invite you to read my review in its entirety here.
Skipping a Beat will be available in stores tomorrow, February 22, 2011! Be sure to stop by and read my review then.
How I Found My Agent
When it came time for me to find an agent, I did all the right things.
Except for one very wrong thing.
I figured there had to be a secret way to break into publishing – some special handshake or code word or magic door like the one Harry Potter flung himself through to get to the secret train to Hogwarts – but no one would reveal it to me. So I figured I had just one chance of breaking in: I had to write a really good query letter.
It took a while – as I recall, actually writing my novel was much easier – but finally, I distilled the essence of my book into a paragraph, listed my writing credentials, and spell-checked that sucker to within an inch of its life. Then I blasted e-mails to agents I found in the acknowledgements section of novels I loved. If an author raved about his or her agent, I figured it had to be a good sign.
I got back a few interested responses from agents – along with a note from the assistant to a big-shot agent gushing about my book and how eager they were to read it. This sounds more flattering than it actually felt, because the assistant mistakenly included her email correspondence with the big-shot agent under her note to me. (“Oh, I don’t know,” big-shot agent moaned. “Doesn’t it sound kind of boring?”)
So, I sent out copies of my manuscript by UPS and e-mail, then sat back and patiently waited. A few weeks later, I went to pick up my kids from school and checked my answering machine for messages remotely, which was completely natural since I’d been out of the house for seven minutes.
I’d gotten the call. THE CALL! Victoria Sanders liked The Opposite of Me. She wanted me to come to New York to meet her and her staff. In an effort to sound professional, I spoke in a voice several octaves below normal when I called her back — then became paralyzed with fear I’d have to talk to Victoria this way for the rest of my life.
But before going to New York, I decided to do a little research. After all, I’m a former reporter, I thought to myself smugly as I fired up my computer. I e-mailed one of Sanders’ most well-known clients and explained that she had expressed interest in my book. “Is she still your agent?” I wrote, congratulating myself on my moxie and still-sharp reportorial skills.
Minutes later, a reply dinged into my inbox.
“This is Victoria Sanders,” it said. “I answer [this author’s] e-mail when she is on her European tour. Yes, I’ve happily represented her for seven years . . .”
If I’d been a cartoon character, all of my hair would’ve stood straight up on my head. Thank God, thank God, thank God Victoria has a sense of humor. Later, she told me she’d laughed aloud when she’d read my note.
By the way, a while back I wrote a magazine story about breaking into the publishing world, and I interviewed agents. I asked them what writers shouldn’t do when approaching them – and got an earful. Agents often get letters addressed to rival agents (oops), emails that reek of despair (“I’ve queried 100 agents and been turned down by them all!”) and even abusive, foul-language notes from writers they’ve rejected (shockingly, this doesn’t make agents rush to reconsider).
One of the agents I interviewed was Jeff Kleinman of Folio, the agent for The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein — a Starbucks book pick — and Jeff revealed ways writers have tried to catch his eye. They’ve offered to give him massages, sent him a tiara as a tie-in for a book proposal, offered to hypnotize him, tried to buy him drinks at writers’ conferences and sent him box after box of chocolates. (For the record, he turned down the massage – I think that was a wise call – but took the drinks. Again, a wise call, in my opinion).
So there you have it, my best advice for finding an agent: Do your research, skip the offers of a massage, and make sure you query an agent with a sense of humor, like I did.
Sarah Pekkanen was born in New York City, but grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. After college, she worked as a journalist, covering Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, she was groped by one octogenarian politician, sumo-bumped off a subway car by Ted Kennedy, and unsuccessfully sued by the chief of staff to a corrupt U.S. Congresswoman. She also worked briefly as an on-air correspondent for the e! Entertainment Network, until the producers realized that Capitol Hill isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, what one might call sexy. She then took a job at Gannett New Service/USAToday, again covering Capitol Hill. She was assigned to cover the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and ride in the Presidential motorcade en route. Somehow, she convinced a White House aide to let her stick her head out of the limousine moon-roof during the ride and wave to onlookers. Next, Sarah went to work writing features for the Baltimore Sun, where she interviewed Barry Williams, best known for playing Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch. She says she refrained from asking if he really made out with Marcia, but “just barely.”
Sarah rebelled against her father, who advised her never to become a writer or marry a lawyer, when she wed attorney Glenn Reynolds. They have two sons, Jackson and Will, born just twenty months apart. After taking a break from her career to enjoy motherhood, Sarah returned to writing with a regular column in Bethesda Magazine and commenced work on her first novel, The Opposite of Me. Sarah refuses to discuss the times along the way from when she began writing the book to finally seeing it published that she nearly hurled her computer across the room in frustration or wrote entire chapters that were far inferior to those included in Miscellaneous Tales and Poems, her first book, written with a co-author while in elementary school.
When The Opposite of Me was sold to Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Sarah notes that she rejoiced with a glass of sparkling apple juice. “Yep, knocked up again,” she says. Sarah and family welcomed little Dylan and are currently celebrating the birth of her second novel, Skipping a Beat.
Sarah writes that she “gets a little weepy every time she contemplates her good luck.”
An Excerpt from Skipping a Beat
~~ Chapter One ~~
When my husband, Michael, died for the first time, I was walking across a freshly waxed marble floor in three-inch Stuart Weitzman heels, balancing a tray of cupcakes in my shaking hands.
Shaking because I’d overdosed on sugar—someone had to heroically step up and taste-test the cupcakes, after all—and not because I was worried about slipping and dropping the tray, even though these weren’t your run-of-the-mill Betty Crockers. These were molten chocolate and cayenne-pepper masterpieces, and each one was topped with a name scripted in edible gold leaf.
Decadent cupcakes as place cards for the round tables encircling the ballroom—it was the kind of touch that kept me in brisk business as a party planner. Tonight, we’d raise half a million for the Washington, D.C., Opera Company. Maybe more, if the waiters kept topping off those wine and champagne glasses like I’d instructed them.
I carefully set down the tray, then spun around to see the fretful face of the assistant florist who’d called my name.
“The caterer wants to lower our centerpieces,” he wailed, agony practically oozing from his pores. I didn’t blame him. His boss, the head florist—a gruff little woman with more than a hint of a mustache—secretly scared me, too.
“No one touches the flowers,” I said, trying to sound as tough as Clint Eastwood would, should he ever become ensconced in a brawl over the proper length of calla lilies.
My cell phone rang and I reached for it, absently glancing at the caller ID. It was my husband, Michael. He’d texted me earlier to announce he was going on a business trip and would miss the birthday dinner my best friend was throwing for me later in the month. If Michael had a long-term mistress, it might be easier to compete, but his company gyrated and beckoned in his mind more enticingly than any strategically oiled Victoria’s Secret model. I’d long ago resigned myself to the fact that work had replaced me as Michael’s true love. I ignored the call and dropped the phone back into my pocket.
Later, of course, I’d realize it wasn’t Michael phoning but his personal assistant, Kate. By then, my husband had stood up from the head of the table in his company’s boardroom, opened his mouth to speak, and crashed to the carpeted floor. All in the same amount of time it took me to walk across a ballroom floor just a few miles away.
The assistant florist raced off and was instantly replaced by a white-haired, grandfatherly looking security guard from the Little Jewelry Box.
“Miss?” he said politely.
I silently thanked my oxygen facials and caramel highlights for his decision not to call me ma’am. I was about to turn thirty-five, which meant I wouldn’t be able to hide from the liver-spotted hands of ma’am-dom forever, but I’d valiantly dodge their bony grasp for as long as possible.
“Where would you like these?” the guard asked, indicating the dozen or so rectangular boxes he was carrying on a tray draped in black velvet. The boxes were wrapped in a shade of silver that exactly matched the gun nestled against his ample hip.
“On the display table just inside the front door, please,” I instructed him. “People need to see them as soon as they walk in.” People would bid tens of thousands of dollars to win a surprise bauble, if only to show everyone else that they could. The guard was probably a retired policeman, trying to earn money to supplement his pension, and I knew he’d been ordered to keep those boxes in his sight all night long.
“Can I get you anything? Maybe some coffee?” I offered.
“Better not,” he said with a wry smile. The poor guy probably wasn’t drinking anything because the jewelry store wouldn’t even let him take a bathroom break. I made a mental note to pack up a few dinners for him to bring home.
My BlackBerry vibrated just as I began placing the cupcakes around the head table and mentally debating the sticky problem of the video game guru who looked and acted like a thirteen-year-old overdue for his next dose of Ritalin. I’d sandwich him between a female U.S. senator and a co-owner of the Washington Blazes professional basketball team, I decided. They were both tall; they could talk over the techie’s head.
At that moment, a dozen executives were leaping up from their leather chairs to cluster around Michael’s limp body. They were all shouting at each other to call 911 — this crowd was used to giving orders, not taking them—and demanding that someone perform CPR.
As I stood in the middle of the ballroom, smoothing out a crease on a white linen napkin and inhaling the sweet scent of lilies, the worst news I could possibly imagine was being delivered by a baby-faced representative from the D.C. Opera Company.
“Melanie has a sore throat,” he announced somberly.
I sank into a chair with a sigh and wiggled my tired feet out of my shoes. Perfect. Melanie was the star soprano who was scheduled to sing a selection from Orfeo ed Euridice tonight. If those overflowing wineglasses didn’t get checkbooks whipped out of pockets, Melanie’s soaring, lyrical voice definitely would. I desperately needed Melanie tonight.
“Where is she?” I demanded.
“In a room at the Mayflower Hotel,” the opera rep said.
“Oh, crap! Who booked her a room?”
“Um . . . me,” he said. “Is that a prob —”
“Get her a suite,” I interrupted. “The biggest one they have.”
“Why?” he asked, his snub nose wrinkling in confusion. “How will that help her get better?”
“What was your name again?” I asked. “Patrick Riley.”
Figures; put a four-leaf clover in his lapel and he could’ve been the poster boy for Welcome to Ireland!
“And Patrick, how long have you been working for the opera company?” I asked gently.
“Three weeks,” he admitted.
“Just trust me on this.” Melanie required drama the way the rest of us needed water. If I hydrated her with a big scene now, Melanie might miraculously rally and forgo a big scene tonight.
“Send over a warm-mist humidifier,” I continued as Patrick whipped out a notebook and scribbled away, diligent as a cub reporter chasing his big break. “No, two! Get her lozenges, chamomile tea with honey, whatever you can think of. Buy out CVS. If Melanie wants a lymphatic massage, have the hotel concierge arrange it immediately. Here —” I pulled out my BlackBerry and scrolled down to the name of my private doctor.
“Call Dr. Rushman. If he can’t make it over there, have him send someone who can.”
Dr. Rushman would make it, I was sure. He’d drop whatever he was doing if he knew I needed him. He was the personal physician for the Washington Blazes basketball team.
My husband, Michael, was another one of the team’s co-owners.
“Got it,” Patrick said. He glanced down at my feet, turned bright red, and scampered away. Must’ve been my toe cleavage; it tends to have that effect on men.
I finished placing the final cupcake before checking my messages. By the time I read the frantic e-mails from Kate, who was trying to find out if Michael had any recently diagnosed illnesses like epilepsy or diabetes that we’d been keeping secret, it was already over.
While Armani-clad executives clustered around my husband, Bob the mail-room guy took one look at the scene and sped down the hallway, white envelopes scattering like confetti behind him. He sprinted to the receptionist’s desk and found the portable defibrillator my husband’s company had purchased just six months earlier. Then he raced back, ripped open Michael’s shirt, put his ear to Michael’s chest to confirm that my husband’s heart had stopped beating, and applied the sticky patches to Michael’s chest. “Analyzing …,” said the machine’s electronic voice. “Shock advisable.”
The Italian opera Orfeo ed Euridice is a love story. In it, Euridice dies and her grieving husband travels to the Underworld to try to bring her back to life. Melanie the soprano was scheduled to sing the heartbreaking aria that comes as Euridice is suspended between the twin worlds of Death and Life.
Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that Euridice’s aria was playing in my head as Bob the mail-room guy bent over my husband’s body, shocking Michael’s heart until it finally began beating again. Because sometimes, it seems to me as if all of the big moments in my life can be traced back to the gorgeous, timeworn stories of opera.
Four minutes and eight seconds. That’s how long my husband, Michael Dunhill, was dead.
Four minutes and eight seconds. That’s how long it took for my husband to become a complete stranger to me.