Remembering a Guy Named Kirby

Back in the Permian Era of my life as a writer, after surviving the stings of more than 200 rejection slips and having finally sold a few stories (at a penny per word) to a handful of sky-fie magazines, it had never occurred to me that maybe someday I would need a literary agent. Of course, I knew they were Out There because I’d seen tons of their ads and come-ons in the pages of Writers Digest, but I didn’t see much of a current need for representation at that point given my meager output.

But that all changed one weekend in the mid-seventies when my writer-pal, Charlie Grant and I were attending a raucous SF convention know as “LunaCon” in New York City. As newly-admitted members of SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), Charlie and I used to go to a lot of conventions back then because it was good place to meet other young writers in similar straits and also the occasional editor who might be interested in buying something from new(er) writers such as we.

Quickly learning that writers liked to drink, we always headed to the hotel bar where there was always a good chance we’d run into a writer or an editor who should meet us and know we were the lean and hungry barbarians at their gates. And so there we were sitting at the elliptical bar of a hotel I’ve long ago forgotten where I ordered a bourbon on the rocks and Charlie his signature Harvey’s Bristol Cream—quickly realizing there was nobody else sitting around who we recognized. Which meant we did what we usually did, We talked to each other about the singular driving force in our lives–writing and getting published.

I guess we’d been there for a few minutes when this guy kind of materialized behind us, and tapped us both on the shoulders. “Excuse me,” he said. “I was listening to you guys and I was wondering if either of you have an agent.”

Yeah, just like that.

Charlie and I looked at each other and then at the guy who was grinning affably. He was young–late twenties or early thirties, handsome in that boyish way, and dressed in a suit that hung on his lean frame like he’d forgotten to take the hangar out of the jacket. We said neither of us had an agent yet, but it sounded like a good idea. He smiled at that and said: “Great, my name is Kirby McCauley and I’ve just moved to the city to start my agency. I’m here to sign on some writers, and you guys sound like you might be just who I’ve been looking for.”

We made room for him at the bar and we talked for an hour or two and more than a few cocktails. He told us he was recently moved to Manhattan from Minneapolis, had been a lifelong fan of SF, dark fantasy, and horror. He had an easy way of speaking with an almost constant smile on his face and he had the charm of a Leprechaun. Young KirbyCharlie and I liked him right from the start, and by the end of the afternoon, we were both represented by a New York literary agent. For the next year or two, Kirby kept picking up young writers of our generation like Karl Wagner, Ted Klein, George Martin, Dennis Etchison, and a bunch of others. He was our friend as well as our agent, and Charlie and I would often get into New York and run around the city with him. He had excellent radar for great bars and restaurants, and I cant ever remember him steering us wrong.

Months went by, and I had continued to sell stories to some of the magazines and lots of original theme anthologies which we popular at the time. And then I get a call from Kirby who asked me point blank when I was going to have a novel ready for him. The question was that two-by-four against your head that changes everything. I paused because I didn’t really have an answer for him, finally admitting I hadn’t much thought about it yet. He chuckled and told me I’d never be a real writer just selling short stories, that I had to write books if I wanted to make a living at what I loved.

And Kirby was right.

Problem was . . . I’d never written anything longer than 40 pages, and the idea of typing out more than 300 on a typewriter was like contemplating the Hindu structure of the Universe. Although I kept a notebook full of weird ideas for stories, I had no clue if any of them would be complex enough to sustain a book-length narrative, and I told him pretty much those exact words. Right then, Kirby said something to me I’ve always remembered: “Don’t kid yourself, Tom. You’re a good writer. You’ve got good ideas and good story sense. Go for it.”

Kirby had this easy confident air about him–so much so that I could do nothing less than believe him. And I spent the next few months taking out some story-ideas for test drives to see if they had enough for a long-distance journey. They didn’t—or at least I didn’t have the experience to see how they could work in the long form. I ended up with some decent short stories, but no novels. Kirby wasn’t fazed and hooked me up with a publisher who was planning to launch a new line of science fiction paperback originals, and they were looking for new (young’n’hungry) writers to help churn out 4 new titles each month—and I agreed to be one of them. The details of the entire adventure appear in my omnibus collection of MAFIA columns, and you can seek them out there. For this space, you only need to know that Kirby engineered a contract for my first novel and I got the biggest check I’d ever received as a professional writer. When I finished typing the last page of that book, I knew I had the chops to not only do it again, but over and over for an entire career.

Then things started happening for Kirby—things he made happen. Picking up major clients such as Stephen King, Ted Sturgeon, Piers Anthony, Robert Heinlein, and even the Robert E. Howard estate, he was soon brokering deals for films and million-dollar advances. The little cheesy 26th Street apartment where his earliest clients, such as Charlie and me, used to crash on his second-hand couch was long gone, and I was going to parties at his new digs in a high-rise Turtle Bay penthouse condo that afforded a spectacular nighttime view of the East River. During this time of his mega-deals, he never got too big for his less successful work-a-day writers who were garnering him commissions that would barely cover his monthly restaurant tab. If you rang him up with a question or an idea, he always took your call, always had time for you. He also had made excellent connections in Hollywood and a lot of us in his stable were getting film options on our work that padded our income coffers several exponents. It was a great and heady time to be in publishing.

But something changed in Kirby. All his success became  . . . all his excess. He allowed his great wealth and influence to spiral him down into a maelstrom from which few re-emerge. I spent a year or so watching it happen and I knew there was nothing I could do to change things—other than move on. Charlie and some of his other mid-list clients shared similar sentiments and we all started drifting away from our dear friend, and finding other agents in town who would be able to hawk our wares.

As the years passed, I saw less and less of Kirby, who had removed himself from the mainstream after he enlisted a cadre of agents led by his sister, Kaye, to form the prestigious Pimlico Agency. I heard rumors of his persistent indulgences, but I saw little evidence of them. More than 15 years ago, when I was in New York hanging out with Gahan Wilson (while we were trying to pitch a series of children’s books), Gahan suggested we go visit Kirby, adding he didn’t get out much and never had many visitors. After calling ahead, we took a cab to a modest, non-descript high-rise apartment building on the West Side. When Kirby opened the door to his small one-bedroom digs, I’m not sure I hid my shock. Standing before me was a morbidly obese man wearing a black mu-mu that did not disguise his great bulk. Staring out at me from a round fleshy face were Kirby’s bright blue eyes—the only thing I recognized about my old friend. He had become this huge Orson Wellesian recluse and it stunned me. He invited us in for snacks and drinks and he was cheery and up and friendly as ever. But he was not the same skinny Midwestern dynamo I’d known so many years before. After an hour or two, I gave him a departing hug and followed Gahan out the door.

It was the last time I ever saw him.

Three days ago, I received news he had died of renal failure from diabetic complications.

And now I sit here trying to re-capture and record the fascinating person who called himself Kirby McCauley and I suspect I’m doing a not-so-great job of it. He was an agent, sure; but he was also a huge lover of dark fantasy, sf, and horror; he was an astute editor who created one of the seminal anthologies of modern horror—Dark Forces; and he was a guy who knew how to enjoy the fruits of his mighty labors. Ultimately a bit too much. It sounds hollow to say I will miss him because he’s been among the missing for more than 20 years; and it does no good to say he could have been so much more of a beacon and a force in publishing if he had been able to harness those demons we all carry within us.

So I will only end with this. Kirby McCauley was one-of-a-kind—a guy who left his mark on everything and everyone he touched—and I’m so very glad to have had him be a part of my life.

 

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