I recently learned that Helen McGrath, my first agent and a devoted support of California Writers Club, passed away.
I was lucky enough to find the Mt. Diablo Branch of California Writers Club at the beginning of my career. That was some twenty-odd years ago and I was a bright-eyed, brand-new, and fairly intimidated new writer. Once I finally got up the nerve to attend a meeting, (no small feat) I met Helen McGrath.
Helen was one of the founding members of the club and attended all the meetings as well as served on the board in various capacities. But back then I didn’t know any of that. I only knew that she was a real, live literary agent and I was utterly awe-stuck at being that close to someone who was actually in the business. I can remember having Helen pointed out to me across the room but it was several meetings before I got the nerve up to ask someone to introduce me.
She was very kind.
I was really nervous.
She asked what I was working on.
I looked at my feet and mumbled, “Young adult romance.”
I waited for her to laugh, but she didn’t. She murmured some encouraging words before moving on to chat with someone else in the room.
A few months later CWC convinced me to take on the job of the club newsletter. This was pre-computer days which meant I gathered the news at meetings and over the phone and then did a cut-and-paste mock-up that needed to be printed out. Helen was in possession of one of those rarities, a copy machine. Once a month I would make the drive to her house to drop off the copy. She would make the copies and someone else would stamp and mail them. She had two big dogs that thought the world rose and set on her. They loved Kleenex and Helen would stuff her pockets with Kleenex and pretend not to notice when they would sneak up and try to steal one from her. Every time they succeeded she would just laugh and laugh. A big dog lover myself, the dogs made it easy for me to talk to her. Dogs I knew. Writing I was learning.
One day while I was wrestling with her dogs she asked me how I was doing on my novel. I gulped hard and told her it was finally done.
Then she asked those words that every writer wants to her from a respected professional in the business, “So when do I get to read it?”
I stuttered a bit, blushed a lot, and mumbled something about bringing it to the next meeting. Sure enough, at the next meeting she sought me out and asked for the manuscript. I handed it over, my heart very much in my hands.
The waiting for her response was agonizing. What if she didn’t like it? What if she did? When I went to drop off the newsletter the next month she found all sorts of things to talk about that had nothing to do with my manuscript. I was still too shy to speak up for myself. I finally gave up and turned to leave and she let me get the front door open before she called me back.
“I like it,” she said. “It’s good. I’d like to be your agent.” I floated home on that proverbial Cloud Nine.
Within a few months, she had sold my first novel for me.
During that waiting time between selling the book and waiting to see it in print, Helen invited me to my first ever author event, a huge publisher sponsored book launch in San Francisco. I don’t remember the name of the author or the name of the book that was being launched or even where it was held.
I do remember Helen telling me, “You need to get used to this. This is your life now.”
Thank you, Helen, for opening the door for me and so many other writers over the years.
Wow! What an awesome tribute!
Thank you. We had lost touch over the years and I am sorry that I didn’t get the chance to see her again and let her see how far I had come.
not so random commenter
sorry to hear about your friend…she will live long in many memories of the people she touches for sure.
Re: not so random commenter
Oh, Susan–that’s so hard. I felt like this when I heard that Oakley Hall, my first college writing instructor, had passed away. Not as close a relationship, I’m sure, as yours and Helen’s, but just like it wasn’t supposed to happen.
Hang in there. And she was right–writing is your life.
Thanks, Becky. I hadn’t seen her in many, many years but you never forget those first starts, do you?