Selected for Best Australian Stories 2006
IN ORDER TO get my novel published, I told book publishers Allen & Unwin that I was the reincarnation of Emily Brontë.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but I really wanted to get their attention. I didn't want to be another unpublished nobody with a failed novel rotting away at the bottom of the slush pile. I didn't want to write another letter that said "Dear Allen & Unwin, I have written a novel that you may think worthy of consideration ... blah blah blah." I wanted something that would make an impression. So I told them I was Emily Brontë, the young English girl who wrote the tragic Gothic romance Wuthering Heights. I told them I created every character: the passionate Catherine, the dangerous and bad-tempered HeathCliff, the pompous rich snob Edgar Linton. I told them that literature fans everywhere would celebrate the news of my resurrection.
And in return, they sent me a letter that said:
If this is the best you can do after Wuthering Heights, we're in serious trouble.
Yours sincerely, Allen & Unwin
MY GIRLFRIEND PATRICIA was mad. She was always mad. She spent most of her waking hours looking for a reason to yell at me. I had just given her another opportunity.
"You are such an idiot, Tom!" she yelled. "How can you honestly expect them to take you seriously with such a stupid made-up story? Your novel isn't even a damn thing like Wuthering Heights. It's a fantasy epic about dragons and knights, and it's a pretty bad one."
I was hurt. She didn't have to be such a bitch.
"At least I'm trying to do something with my life," I said. "Do you want me to work at the supermarket forever?"
"Nobody cares about Emily Brontë any more," she shouted. "You could at least tell them you're somebody popular and hip, like Hunter S. Thompson."
"That's so unoriginal," I said. "Every young writer thinks they're Hunter S. Thompson."
She started yelling about something else. I didn't want to hear it. I closed my eyes, stuck my fingers in my ears and fantasised about bonking a more attractive girl.
I HAD TO prove her wrong. I was going to put my novel into every unpublished manuscript competition and send it to every publisher in Australia. Sooner or later, somebody would publish it. And then I'd get major publicity for my crazy made-up story. The media would love it. News polls would ask viewers: "Is he really Emily Brontë? Ring this number to vote?" It was genius.
A couple of days later, I sent my book to Penguin, who were equally unenthusiastic. They sent my manuscript back unread, accompanied by a letter that said:
Dear Ms Brontë,
Please do not send us unsolicited manuscripts. We only consider submissions sent by a reputable literary agent or manuscript assessment agency. And if you seriously wish to write for a living, please consider adopting a pseudonym.
I was depressed. Rejected by two publishers! This really wasn't working out the way I had planned. I felt sad. And angry. I wondered how to convince them. Maybe I could find an actor to pose as a past life regression therapist and publicly verify that I was indeed Miss Brontë? Maybe I could burst into the publisher's office wearing a Victorian-era corset? Hang on a moment, where could I get a corset?
I became tense and anxious that day. At night, I paced until dawn. While Patricia was in bed, I walked back and forth across the carpet in the eerie darkness of the lounge room. I dwelled on the burden of being undiscovered and unappreciated and the gloom of my existence.
After a few nights of little sleep and much pacing, Patricia lost it with me.
"Stop walking all night!" she yelled at me over breakfast. "It's very, very annoying."
When I told her what my problem was, she recommended I take sleeping pills. I told her I didn't want to be a druggie. I reminded her that her brother started off smoking a little marijuana and now he was in jail for breaking into cars. That was all she could take. She took her things and left. She wouldn't tell me where she was going to stay. She told me not to ring her. I was alone.
INSOMNIA QUICKLY BECAME dead boring. I decided to spend my restless night hours surfing the internet. I discovered that I quite enjoyed chat rooms. I was drawn to the anonymity of them. They were secret meeting spots in cyberspace where I could be anyone I wanted to be and nobody could see who I really was. One night, I decided to make it interesting. I logged into one under the name Emily B and told the other users I was a young English girl who liked to write poetry in her spare time. I had a lot of interesting conversations, and I kind of liked the attention when SexyGuy81 asked me to email him.
As I was lying about myself so much, I didn't know whether or not to believe anything SexyGuy81 told me. He described himself as "a little on the wild side" and said he loved good whiskey and fine cigars and rocky mountain climbing.
When I was feeling particularly frisky, I logged in as BronteBabe666. I told SexyGuy81 how I liked to wear Victorian-era corsets. Extra tight, to show off my hips. I found that I was really enjoying our flirting. Sure, I was a little ashamed of it. What would Patricia think if she were still with me? But I reassured myself that it was just a little innocent fun. I wasn't gay, I had no interest in being a woman and I had no desire to be seduced by a dangerous bad boy from the Yorkshire moors.
It wasn't long until I mailed my manuscript to another publisher. This time it was University of Queensland Press. History had shown me that I shouldn't expect any success, so it was no surprise when they delivered me another cold hard rejection.
Please refrain from sending us photographs of yourself wearing corsets. In fact, we don't want to see you in any kind of women's clothing, no matter what century it's from. What you do in the privacy of your own bedroom is your business, but it's not something we wish to be confronted with during our busy working schedule.
Yours, University of Queensland Press
I GAVE UP. Disillusioned and miserable, I left my manuscript on a bus and hoped that someday somebody may find it and even appreciate it. I burnt my copy of Wuthering Heights and every possession I had that related to the Brontë sisters, including my Jane Eyre cookie jar. I kept the corsets though. I just thought ... well, I may need them. You know?
A year later, I kicked myself for my own stupidity. The driver of the bus found my manuscript and sold it to Penguin by claiming he was the reincarnation of J.R.R. Tolkien. It turns out there was nothing wrong with my novel. I just didn't know the art of the sell.