With two memoirs and now a stunning first novel, superagent Bill Clegg has bounced back from the depths of drug addiction
If you have been at the London or Frankfurt book fairs over the past few years, you will haveundoubtedly heard Bill Clegg’s name, probably uttered in hushed, reverential or (if spoken by another agent) possibly envious tones. The context will be something like: “Book of the fair? I hear Bill Clegg is working on another seven-figure deal.”
The New York-based superagent has recently had a remarkable run of getting eye-watering advances after fevered multi-publisher auctions, particularly in début literary fiction, for the likes of Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, Emma Cline’s The Girls and, at this year’s LBF, the wonderfully named DeSales Harrison’s The Waters and the Wild.
Yet Clegg has also been the subject of auctions (conducted by his old boss, William Morris Endeavor global head of literary Jennifer Rudolph Walsh). He has previously published two well-received memoirs that came, in part, out of his day job: they both deal with his descent from hotshot young agent to self-described “paranoid, hallucinating crackhead”. That fall—detailed in excruciating detail in A Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man and its more redemptive follow-up Ninety Days (both Cape)—was a talking point for some time in the gossipy world of New York publishing, and led to the dissolution of Burnes & Clegg, the boutique agency he co-founded with Sarah Burnes.
He decided to publish the memoirs partly to help his recovery and partly because the story was so well- known. Clegg says: “A friend said that when I cracked up it was like the Space Shuttle explosion: everybody saw it and there was nothing left. It was very public, the agency I co-owned was shut down and everyone knew why. I wasn’t employable; it was a disaster. As a result, at that point I gave up a certain kind of privacy that had to do with my sobriety.”
Clegg has now changed tack with his first novel, the beguiling, emotionally wrenching Did You Ever Have a Family (Cape). Though fiction, it does contain many of the themes from his memoirs: loss, forgiveness, pain, redemption and the stultifying nature of small-town America.
Did You Ever Have a Family opens with a literal bang. On the night before her daughter’s wedding, June Reid is standing in the yard outside her Connecticut home and witnesses it explode, killing everyone inside: her ex-husband; her boyfriend, Luke; her daughter; and her daughter’s fiancé. Struggling to cope, June lights out for the territory and drives across the country to the Pacific Northwest. The story is told from the point of view of multiple narrators, including Luke’s mother, the disreputable Lydia; the staff at the motel June holes herself up in; and teenage stoner Silas. A whodunit element drives the story along—why and how did the house explode?—but the real action is the exploration of grief, and of what family really means.
Clegg worked on the novel off and on for seven years. He had the themes, some of the characters and the setting in place (Wells, the town most of the action takes place in, bears a striking resemblance to Sharon, Connecticut, where Clegg grew up). But it all coalesced during a conversation with his brother. He says: “My brother had been in heating and plumbing school doing an apprenticeship and was talking about homes—vacation homes especially—that had propane leaks, which would blow up. I am distracted and restless, so I sort of imagined myself as the person who might leave the gas on. Imagining what that would be like became the doorway into writing about this small town, the people in it and these ideas that I had been interested in.”
There is an intriguing undercurrent of class warfare in the book. Some of the tension is between the “townies” and the moneyed second-homers, like June, who breeze into Wells on weekends and holidays. This is straight from Clegg’s childhood. “Growing up, [Sharon] had maybe 1,500 people and half were weekend or summer residents, most of whom were from Manhattan,” Clegg says.
“Celebrities and the wealthy would blow into town with this unknowable glamour, leading lives we couldn’t begin to understand. I worked for them—landscaping, gardening, raking leaves—during the week when they weren’t there. I would be on these beautiful properties, just imagining the lives of the people who owned them—they were so different from ours. There was a longing and a lot of resentment.”
WME’s Rudolph Walsh is not only Clegg’s agent, she also hired him as a agent—when no one else would—after he got himself clean and sober. After “eight great years” at WME he set out on his own, launching The Clegg Agency in autumn last year. “There was some unfinished business,” he explains. “When I co-owned an agency there was the camaraderie, the ‘us against them’ thing of being in a small firm. I missed that thrill of working in a small team.”
He is optimistic about the future. He says: “Some of the most interesting writing I’ve seen has crossed my desk, some we’ve come to represent, some are just out in the world. In terms of books and literature, there is a lot going on at the moment.”
He argues that the agenting community is a stabilising force in this time of disruption: “In many cases, agents are becoming more of a constant than an editor. An editor may move publishing houses and not have the power to carry writers with them. In my experience, some of our writers have been published by several houses but we remain the touchstone professionally and editorially.”
Even if his latest book becomes a huge hit, there are no plans to stop agenting—far from it. “Before I was writing, this day job (which I adore, and is how I primarily identify . . .) I think I identified with too strongly. The triumphs were too triumphant, the disappointments too painful. I think it wasn’t right-sized.
“Having a separate creative life somehow tempers that. It creates a buffer. It’s a happier, healthier balance between work and creativity. I think I’ll always be writing something, it’s the one place I can go where I can’t be reached. I let my writers know when I go away and write and I can fully disappear. But when I finish a week of writing, I’m sick of my own head and desperate to get into the work of someone else. [Going between agenting and writing] is like a series of reunions, you’re always happy to be where you are.”
Imprint: Jonathan Cape
Pub date: 17.09.15
ISBNs: 9780224102353/ 9781473522039
Rights: Through WME
Editor: Robin Robertson
Agent: Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, WME
Jacket designer: Suzanne Dean
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