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Monday, March 09, 2020

my query letter

This is the year I intend to publish my novel, Made a Few Mistakes: a chapter from the Bush years. I have been sending out query letters, but have not had a nibble. So I thought, okay, people read my blog. Some people, at least. So maybe I should crowdsource editing suggestions on how to make this letter work. When I used to write freelance, I had a sense of how queries worked, but this is apparently not my world. Two thousand words on a topic, well, it doesn't take that much commitment. 208000 words, which is how big my novel is - around 550 pages - well, that takes effort. I know this. I've edited the thing down, but it has large bones.
 So I need help.

I've sent out many query types. This is my latest. I've incorporated an insane number of suggestions, overdosing on books dealing with queries and agent interviews dealing with queries. So I am lost in the maze. 

So, if you have suggestions, please mail me at Or leave me a comment. 

Dear x,

May 1, 2003 was an auspicious day. President Bush gave a speech announcing the end of hostilities in Iraq under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” This was the first mistake. The popular conservative Governor of Texas, Hutch Sterling, went to a victory party that night. There he was captured on a telephone camera making out with one of the beauty contestants of the organization that threw the party, the Patriot Foundation. That was the second mistake. The Governor’s wife, Holly, pulled into the parking lot of Austin Wines, popped into the store for a bottle, and brought it back to the car. Later, at around 11:00, her mutilated body was found in the back seat of her car, which was parked at the side of Lake Austin Boulevard up where it runs past the golf course. That was the third mistake. The next day, Joan Malcolm saw it on the news. Malcolm knew Holly, slightly, had interviewed her. Malcolm was well known writer – most known for her first book, Your Enemies and Mine: Notes on the Goth Aesthetic, a surprise best-seller in 1984. Malcolm decided right away that she had to do this murder. In fact, as the months dragged on, Malcolm, it turned out, would have more success than the police in tracing the line that lead from Holly’s body to Hutch’s seeming culpability. That was the fourth mistake.

“Auspicious”. Auspicious comes, according to one daring etymology, from haruga, the entrails of the victim, and aspicere, look. The Roman aruspice would examine the sacrificed animal’s innards, and find there signs of the future as legible to his experience as the signs of the Zodiac in the sky. The case of Holly Sterling did have a victim, one could even say a sacrifice, but what were the signs signifying? In 2003, they signified the confluence of many social forces: the growth of cable tv stations, often reflecting some billionaire’s predilections, where the content was 24/7; the growth of internet media of all type, where content was 24/7; the global war on terrorism complex, taking over a spot that was once filled by the Cold War complex; an economy that was in recovery from the tech crash by means of a mortgage bubble that was growing and growing, debt creating affluence rather than affluence creating debt. Joan Malcolm, who’d made her bones on finding enemies and attacking them, found this new world as full of enemies as the eighties or the nineties, but somehow they had sunk below the old levels. Even the Iraq war, that spectacular fraud, was not up to her level. But the murder of Holly seemed to be something symbolically more, some final revelation of the era’s infâme, and she threw herself into it with a sort of relief. The story traces both the many paths that led all the characters to their moment, on May 1, 2003, and the paths that led some of them out of it.

My novel, Made a Few Mistakes (208,000 words) is a variation on the usual crime novel (for instance, it never comes to the firm conclusion about who done it and why that anchors most crime novels). It is, as well as a crime novel, also a political novel, a state of the nation novel, like Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted or Susan Choi’s American Woman.  It has an admittedly large word count, but one that encompasses a multitude of Shandian turns, giving a sense of the zigzag that pulls the reader – Joan herself, going over her notes, for instance – further and further in.
I am looking for an agent with highbrow tastes in literature and lowbrow tastes in American marginalia. 

I would like for you to represent my novel. [Put in here some relevant info on why]

I’ve published a non-fiction book (Everyman’s Marx, Mark Blatty, 2012), and a translations from German (The Basho of Economics: An Intercultural Analysis of the Process of Economics, Ontos, 2007), as well as numerous reviews and essays for a number of magazines (American Scholar, Poets and Writers, Salon, Feed, etc.) and newspapers. I was the academic book reviewer for the Austin Statesman from 2008-2011.

I am sending the first chapter with this letter.
Yours sincerely,
Roger Gathmann

Made a Few Mistakes
By Roger Gathmann

Chapter 1
Order out of disorder – A shocking crime– Some bit players –
Consciousness and creepiness.

In Rudolf Arnheim’s dense and fascinating Entropy and Art, the famous art historian makes an extended attempt to translate the thermodynamic definitions of order and disorder into the realm of aesthetics. Arnheim was a crossroads savant, a man who liked the idea of viewing, say, aesthetics through the prism of physics and physics through the prism of aesthetics. One of those polymath European refugee types that were knocked around the twentieth century, ran out of cigarettes in refugee camps in France, died lice-ridden in concentration camps in Galicia or Siberia, or escaped the various traps and cattle train cars to spend quality exile time in the US archipelago of colleges where they were as awed by the raw animal beauty of the students as they were non-plussed by the astonishing childishness of their references and mores. The sororities. The fraternities. The football. The chewing gum. In his book, Arnheim introduces his entitling duality with an illuminating example from one of the great rituals of everyday life: shuffling cards.
The usual interpretation of this operation is that by shuffling, say, a deck of cards one converts an initial order into a reasonably perfect disorder. This, however, can be maintained only if any particular initial sequence of cards in the deck is considered an order and if the purpose of the shuffling operation is ignored. Actually, of course, the deck is shuffled because all players are to have the chance of receiving a comparable assortment of cards.

Now, to tell the truth, I was so struck by this passage that I tossed aside Arnheim’s book for the day to absorb its full implications. Day followed day, semester semester, until the need to read until the end died one of those deaths well known to ambitious but promiscuous readers, those who are always seeing in the book they hold an obstacle to the book they really should be reading. It was years ago, but in looking through my notes about the Sterling case, Arnheim’s example leaped out at me from some shadowy corner in the brain. I hope the Master – or his shade, for consulting the Internet, I find that Arnheim is no longer with us, his death surprisingly recent – will not mind if an unfaithful reader such as myself filches it. Shuffling, to be all structuralist about it, contrasts with another image of order and disorder in our contemporary quotidian – the switch. The switch and its rituals. We live in a world of switches, and probably use them dozens of times a day. I counted once myself, one day, in the interests of precision, and got to fifty-five by cocktail time. They have created an unconscious but powerful idea among us that disorder and order are mechanical. They are perfect antitheses. On/off, live current/dead current, the universe/chaos – such is the model. A chicken, in fact, can be trained to operate a switch. But shuffling! Ah, shuffling has something pathetically human about it, something characteristic of our ambiguity-seeking, ambiguity-fearing species! Order in disorder, disorder out of order. Our public lives we like to think of in terms of switches, our private life in terms of shuffles. Ha! I have my doubts.

We all wish that the case of Holly Sterling conformed to our model of the switch. Guilty/not-guilty, victim/murderer, good/evil – we would prefer to find these things at the base of it. The trial, or trials, were constructed, after all, to satisfy this desire. The system is built on these switches: the system of justice, and of our sentiments, and of our newspapers, and of our moral impressions. But those of us who have considered the case as a whole, with its larger ramifications, keep coming upon a shuffle at the heart of it – in fact, a sort of diabolical shuffling of motives, facts and factoids, as though the game that was being played might be crooked, and not at all, finally, a homogeneous order/disorder satisfactory to each player. Order in disorder, disorder out of order – this is what we keep coming back to, as we grope in the dark for some master switch.

So do we begin the case of Holly Sterling in 1991? That was, you could say, her big media debut. Standing on the Circle City courthouse portico next to her husband, Hutcheson, she was making the prim smile of the picture perfect political wife as her husband announced that he was running for the District Attorney post in Williamsberg County. Because he was a Sterling, there was a bigger than normal crowd for such an announcement. And because this was his maiden speech, Hutch was nervous. Becoming more seasoned, he’d use a teleprompter, but on this occasion he made the rookie mistake of reading from his notes. When he got to the phrase, I will put the full force of my fortune behind my duty, he said: I will put the full force of my duty behind my fortune. He paused, knowing he’d bobbled it. Then Holly did an astonishing thing. Her prim smile became a guffaw. She balled up a fist and playfully whacked her husband on the shoulder. He looked at her, she looked at him, and they both laughed. Holly then leaned over and said into the microphone, ooops! The crowd loved it. They loved all of her at the moment, from her bobbed blond hair to her black Gucci pumps. Later, the newscast of the event was broadcast not only in the Austin area, as local news, but on news programs all over Texas.
Or should we begin two years later, on February 10, 1993, two weeks after the burial of Holly and Hutch’s only child, when the couple stood, again holding hands but this time a little more desperately, clutching hands is more like it, as they gave their lives “back” to Jesus, a transaction presided over by the telegenically beatific gaze of the “Wagon Master” of the Frontier Fellowship, the rangy, ‘g’ droppin’ Jebulon McCord?
Or do we push the case back further into their youth, contrasting Hutch’s Houston opulent youth, full of those intimations of future greatness that were a prominent part of his campaign literature, and Holly’s rags to riches story, in which the omens were more ironic and the smoothing hand of the publicist more challenged?
Well, as far as the public was concerned, the Holly Sterling case proper begins with a conversation between an ACP cycle cop and a police dispatcher. Maury Lockwood, the man with the police scanner who caught this transmission for the world at large, was eventually hauled into court to defend himself re the doubtful legality of the tape, and fined at the end of his trial, but nominally, his lawyer having made several pertinent points about freedom of information and the evident disparity between the law’s prosecution of Lockwood and the blind eye it turned to the media; and what with the sale of the thing to KXOX, Maury about broke even. KXOX did better, selling it at a considerable markup to their national network. From there it was picked up by all of the others. By May 02, 2003, the nation, if it wanted to, had heard it ten times on the regular channels, and some exponentially greater amount on the news cable stations. As a result, this is a very well-preserved tape, and it is now archived by many an amateur on YouTube, where you can find it if you need to refresh your memory. Expert listeners have been here, as well as cranks, whose comments are also available on YouTube and a number of conspiracy web sites that I will leave it to the reader to find on his own. Cleaners of data, clearers of interference, scraping down to the vocal thrust through the matter, the levels of noise, the friction of magnetic flicker rubbing magnetic flicker. The tape is all neatly transcribed, except for one controversial burst of static that gave rise to the well-known rumor… Well, about poor Holly’s head, which has joined Marie Antoinette’s and Jayne Mansfield’s in a very special pantheon -- although Holly’s does not belong there, according to the official version.
            And if we can’t trust the official version? But really, isn’t this what the whole Sterling case was, on one level, about?
The female voice in the dispatch office of the APD is anonymous, and some would say Southern, although the brisk pace, the verbal speed, indicating that she had been trained, at least, in getting straight to the point in the least amount of transmission time possible; on the other hand, the Southern slant of the ACP cycle cop’s voice belongs, as we know from TV interviews since, to Paul Strange. Perhaps it is appropriate – or at least more fun, and what is a media circus without fun? – to enter this case via the small fry, the essential bit player. Paul Strange fits the type. Oh, does he fit the type! Poor Paul. When he was picked up on that transmission, Paul was a twenty-three-year-old who’d moved to Austin (“back to Austin”, he insisted) in 2000, a good year for inflow to the booming Central Texas metropolis. He was short for a cop, in fact that was one of the problems he had to deal with when applying to the Accelerated Cop Program, but at some point, his height gained an inch in the official dossier, and he was in. He was baby faced, with droopy eyelids, sleepy, shadowed eyes. Loose about the mouth, and distinctly lacking in the facial hair department – Paul took out his Bic razor only once a week, and then the lather floating about in the pooled water in the sink disclosed a discouragingly thin scum of dark shavings that would cling for days in a ring around the sink until his girlfriend would tell him it was disgusting and she wasn’t going to clean it up again. He’d been educating himself at the Community College in all the arts necessary for the career he’d dreamt of: criminology, psychology, English 101, and management science, which he imbibed sitting, as he invariably sat, in the back row, staring under those somewhat bluish lids at his instructor with no light of intelligence in his eyes, apparently waiting in vain for the strings of sentences and bullet points to cohere into a possible exam answer. The bullet points were new, but the stare, the scribbled scramble of his essay answers, the pity C, were old news, known (and now forgotten) to Old Mr. Maier (geometry), Mrs. Snail (geography) and Miss Annie Mackeral (reading) in, respectively, high, middle and elementary school. These schools were located in Duluth, Georgia, and so at that time was Paul, much to his chagrin. At the age of two, he’d been stored next to his sister, Amee Lea, and a box bearing the title, “Misc”, in the back seat of the Malibu, and hauled to Duluth, with his mother, Bonnie, controlling sibling rivalries  from the front seat as she nervously navigated the speed on the highways going from Austin to Atlanta, treating herself during the one night stopover at the hotel in Natchez to approximately four martinis (which, she estimated, were the equivalent of the usual one valium) to relax the knot she felt in her chest, the stifled fright accumulated from estimating crash opportunities as they opened up constantly on either side of her. Bob and the furniture were already waiting for her in Duluth. Paul blinked at all this, sucked his thumb, cried when Amee Lea poked him (out of boredom more than meanness – Amee Lea was mostly protective of her Boo) but didn’t think much of it until later. Later began when he was six, which is when he was thrust from the warm blanket and snack of kindergarten into the harsh glare and hard seats of elementary school and began his quest to find an edge. Miss Mackeral, using the most up to date theories in psychology (she’d aced her course at Georgia State) wrote a note to Bonnie describing Paul as “lacking in self-esteem.” By sixteen, the lack had been filled somewhat: by smoking pot, by a fanatical devotion to certain cop shows and to the Stone Temple Pilots, and by weaving around himself a story of being really from Texas. In the crowd of freaks he hung around, he gradually acquired the name Tex. He loved that.
What really closed the self-esteem gap, however, was his discovery, as the end of high school came into view, that a certain kind of girl was just wild about heavy lidded, baby faced boys. This type of girl, he was happy to find, was often “kranked” to “do it like they do it on Discovery channel.” Doing it made him simply happy. Paul was very good at the lineaments of satisfied desire, which set him apart from many of his friends, male and female, although he didn’t know it.
Here is an excerpt from the KXOX broadcast, May 2, 2003:
PS:  DHQ, I’m ACP Paul Strange here. I have a bit of a what you call a tricky, uh, situation here … There’s a car here, silver, 02 Lexus, let’s see ... and I’m knocking at the windows. Over.
DHQ: I’m reading you, PC 40, coordinates please, over ...
PS: And you know I have been told that if I run into….
DHQ: Where are you, PC40, over
PS:  Easing the car door open. Its unlocked…
DHQ: That’s a negative, PC40. Coordinates. Coordinates officer! 
[Various background noises:  something metallic, a muffled what the…  Jesus (expletive) …  oh, god damn, a whooshing sound, expletive shit, a rushed sound of bootfalls on pebble]
DHQ: Did you open the door? Tell me you did not open the door.
PS: Door is open. And this woman, this woman, I think I have a part of her on my
[Background sound of croaking and spilling]
DHQ: Are you all right? Officer…
PS: Paul.  My name is Paul Strange. I’m ACP. Get somebody the (expletive) here... Somebody, some sick, oh man, her (static) head.
DHQ: I’m getting a lock on you. A cruiser is coming. Back away from the car.
PS: My dinner come up.

This transmission gives us these for-murder-fans essential anchoring points: a car, a place, a body. Paul Strange had found the night a little too hot, and at a certain point had taken off his gloves, which is why his prints were on the window, the door, the seat, Holly Sterling’s boot. And Paul’s digestive fluids mixed with food were in the foot area of the back seat. This was unfortunate from the point of view of the clean crime scene, as was made evident at various trials. It was not an encouraging start for a candidate officer, either. And when the Austin Chronicle picked up on the fact that Paul Strange was out there that night with a minimum of training, due to a program that had been run on the quiet for two years to increase the police department’s manpower at a low cost, the ACP program was quietly folded. As for our bit player, Strange, he got into a fight in a bar three months later, and was suspended from the program. However, being interviewed three times on television and at the trial gave him the idea of starting his own private security company, which he did. He went bankrupt in 2006.
As soon as the murder squad came on the scene of Strange, the cruiser, and the Lexus, the license plate became an issue.  Detective Chuck Reilly left his partner to debrief Strange again and personally made the drive back to HQ, calling Ludlum at home on his cell. ‘See me at the office,” Reilly testified later, “something like that. That’s what I told him.”
 When Bennett Ludlum got to the scene at 11:30, he’d had his talk with Reilly.

“I just told him that it was the Governor’s car. No sir, I didn’t tell him we got a bomb on our hands. No, I never used the words bomb, explosion, any of that, to my recollection. No, I don’t know why they printed that, sir. I figure they got the wrong end of the stick.”

Everybody at the scene by 11:30 p.m. was aware that this was on a Need to Know basis.
Everybody at the scene did not include Strange, who was getting tired of going through the same story over and over down at HQ.
Not that the body was identifiable with 100% certainty. For instance, there was no purse or wallet in the car. The contents of the glove compartment had been cleaned out. As for the monuments of our mortal decay – for instance, the smell in the car, which had been modified when Strange opened the door but still preserved the overheated smell of blood, Chanel No. 5, urine and feces – these are general enough to form no reliable standard of identification. The woman, on the back seat, was face up. In a manner of speaking. However, a certain circumstance altered the immediate recognition this face would provoke in the observer – if the observer was minimally interested in state public affairs, or fashion, or the society pages of several Texas newspapers. Just that year the cover story in the Texas Monthly. Three cover stories in the last four years. As a matter of fact, Ludlum had known her, in life, in a manner of speaking, enough that she remembered him the last time he’d been up at the Capital[MOU1]  and she’d spotted him. Her memory for names and faces was definitely an asset, they said so in the Monthly article. 
By 12:00 a.m the car had been hauled down to the APD-HQ. The Austin Police Department had located its headquarters on the shadow line between East Austin, where the shadows were poorer and darker, and Sixth street, which was a contact zone for the collegiate and the vagrant, lined with buildings that, under the raw Austin midday sun, looked dirty and in need of repair, but were lit up at night with neon lights that gave them collectively a shadowy allure, to which was added the amplified music broadcast into the street from every other door, making the entire arrangement seem momentarily legendary if you were in the 18 to 22 demographic. The ten story, rambling building, built between two one-way streets and always seeming to be blocked by construction work on one of the streets, barely accommodated the needs of a force perpetually losing its race with the growth of the city it served, as the loser in the last mayoral race – who used the lack of a police force to tout his “concealed weapons for all” theme – liked to point out. Ludlum had been with the force long enough to remember the old HQ, which was made of brick – rather than the fake slate cladding wrapped around the new HQ – and was now inhabited by the Association of Retired State Employees. He’d liked his old office, which looked out on a block of those central city houses that had been converted into lawyer’s offices or get out of jail bail shops.  His office on the third floor of the new building didn’t have an exterior window. The Lexus was docked in a pen in the back of the building, preparatory to a thorough going over. Ludlum had supervised the transfer of the corpse to a stretcher, and watched three men roll it through the metal doors (with the cringeworthy bang, as if the sad dead meat of the corpse could still feel the indignity of this treatment) which would lead to an elevator, a long underground corridor, and the “toyshop”, the domain ruled by Travis county coroner Dr. Bill Herndon. 
Then Ludlum turned to the business of getting in touch with Sterling. That Ludlum did not as of yet have the first clue proves that Ludlum was not a big fan of local tv news.

The pertinent agencies were alerted: the Austin branch of the Texas Rangers, the Protective Detail attached to the Governor’s office, the Austin D.A.’s office, and as was disclosed in four months later, King and Crockett, a limited liability corporation with an image management mission in politics, and a long and complex – or in the words of Frank Crockett, a “mutually fruitful” – relationship with the Sterling administration. The quote is from an article in One of several. Joan Malcolm’s articles. The one that topped Contrarian’s “most emailed articles” list for 2003.
James Loveless was at the center of this one. James Loveless was the man Ludlum approached in the hall that night. Loveless was connected to the APD as a consultant in, of all things, hypnotherapy. Ludlum had conflicted feelings about hypnosis. It was an issue he thought about a lot in high school, when he’d reached a plateau playing baseball, and began to explore around, reading Zen and the Art of Archery, experimenting in self-hypnotic suggestion, applying certain suggestions about forgetting the monkey mind and being in the ball as it left the pitcher’s hand, and this had paid off in elevating his batting average by one hundred points and making him a quicker, more responsive third baseman, not just simply catching the ball but understanding it as he flipped it from glove to hand to throw to out. This had landed him on the bench at U.T., where he was just below the grade that was good enough to start, and where the whole baseball thing had petered out in pinch hitting and pity substitutions at the bottom of the ninth, when it didn’t matter. But at the same time he’d developed other collegiate interests: namely, popular science books and girls from the art department. Going out with the latter, he learned about Mayan prophecy, Neuro-linguistic programing, tarot and lithium. Reading the former, he gained a surface knowledge of quantum fluctuations, the selfish gene, Schrödinger’s cat, the n+ dimension of strings, and the fact that the human retina receives ten billion bits of information per second, but by the time this information is processed by the brain, we operate on one hundred bits. I am, therefore I edit. Of these two world views, Ludlum put hypnosis in the arty girlfriend category. And yet, he’d worked on cases where hypnosis worked, where witnesses – like Lana, the seventeen year old girlfriend of the killer in the South Congress MacDonald shooting – would, unconsciously, reveal information that they had supposedly forgotten – edited out with the 9 billion 999 million some bits they’d trash at every glance.
There was that. And there was that hypnosis had a very creepy aura.
He also didn’t like the idea of letting the unconscious contaminate a nicely constructed case connecting one material evidence to another, which was the most righteous way to go to court. 
So these conflicts came up and expressed themselves in this instinctive shrinking back whenever Ludlum came into contact with the tall, cadaverous Loveless, with his parchment white skin, that white hair, that skull like face, sporting those bespoke linen suits, bending his way through the halls of APD HQ, confabbing with the D.A.  And this, too, put Ludlum off, because he never knew (”it really pisses me off that I don’t know!” he told Maureen, his girlfriend) who Loveless was working for. The man worked for several masters – the D.A., the new Texas Department of Homeland Security, and of course King and Crockett.  When Ludlum joined the APD in 1993, there was an obvious distinction between the state and business. In those days, while the politicians were forever praising “private enterprise”, there was no notion that business could or should take over the functions of the state: taxing, imprisoning people, teaching, fighting wars. This was, of course, no longer the case in 2003, either at home or abroad. The definitions of graft, insider dealing, of equality before the law, of transparency, had been put on the back burner. Now Ludlum was always bumping into some private consultant, some contractor, demanding information they had no right to or providing ‘advice’ and ‘resources’ that you, a) weren’t going to follow because it was bullshit and more paperwork, and b) that you had to be nice about so the guys at the top saw that you were ‘on board.’
Tonight, however, Ludlum was not so irritated by the thought of dealing with the draculine Loveless for the simple reason that he needed to find someone to entrust with the delicate task of telling Governor Sterling that his wife had been murdered and her eyes… well, he needed to be told, and then later they could fill him in on the details. Loveless, Ludlum knew, was connected to Sterling. Somehow. How was unclear, but everything having to do with Crockett and King was unclear. Everything having to do with the new homeland security mandate was unclear, too, but Loveless was connected to that. Thus, when Loveless’s long, slightly clammy fingers clutched Ludlum’s wrist – the man was a wristclutcher rather than a handshaker, which Ludlum imagined he must have gotten from hypnotherapy – Ludlum did not shake him off, but told him that he needed to see him, that they had a problem.
“I’m glad we are finally interfacing Ben,” Loveless said. 
Down in the toy shop Herndon was saying, “bet you it was an ice pick. She should thank God, I guess, that he didn’t pull out the knife for these (and he pointed) until she was probably beyond mortal consciousness.” 

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