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Kirby

I don't recall when or where I first met Kirby McCauley.  It was forty years ago at least, at some convention, probably on the east coast... a Lunacon or a Philcon, perhaps, or maybe at the Nebula Banquet.   I went to a lot of cons in those days, when I could afford it.  So did Kirby.  I was a young writer, still years away from tackling my first novel, but selling short stories, and losing Hugos and Nebulas.  Kirby was a young agent, fresh from Minnesota, newly come to New York City, still building up his client list.  All the established names in the field were signed with established agents, with Henry Morrison and Scott Meredith and Virginia Kidd and the like, so Kirby reached out to the kids (well, we were in our twenties, mostly, but we sure seem like kids when I look back) just starting out, recruiting promising young talent from the ranks of the unagented young dreamers who still did cartwheels when they sold a story to Ted White at AMAZING for a penny a word (on publication).

Writers like me.

Kirby was good-looking, fast-talking, charming... and he was there with us in the con suite  The established agents of the day never came to cons.  Kirby came to all of them.  You'd find him in room parties, laughing, joking, flirting with the pretty girls, staying up till dawn... and talking about books and stories and writers.  He was not your father's agent, not a beefsteak-and-martini lunch kind of agent, not a three-piece suit kind of agent.  He was jeans and a smile and a beer in his hand.   He was One of Us.  He was a fan.   He knew SF, fantasy, horror.  Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, he knew more about all of them than you did.  Mystery writers too.

It was maybe our third or fourth meeting when he asked me (at a party) if I had representation.  I did... but only in Germany.  (I had taken on another start-up, a small German agency called UTOPROP, the year before, to sell translation rights to my short stories in West Germany).  I didn't need representation, I told Kirby.  I had no plans to write a novel, and you didn't need an agent to sell short stories.  And I'd sold two books on my own, an anthology and a collection.  One of these years, I knew, I would write a novel, and that's when I would need an agent.... but when the time came, I figured I'd be well enough known to get one of those big established agencies, not some guy my own age whose list was made up mostly of writers even newer and greener than I was.  So I said, "thanks, but no thanks."

But Kirby did not give up.  He asked me again, at the next con.  He read my stories in ANALOG and AMAZING and F&SF, and wrote me about them, suggesting clever ways they could packaged into collections or expanded into novels.  When Lisa Tuttle and I published our novella "The Storms of Windhaven" in ANALOG, he was the first to see the novel in it, and wrote to say how much he'd like to sell it.  Persistance and enthusiasm will win a writer's heart every time.  He wore me down.  (And those big, well-established agents still had yet to notice my existance).  Finally... I don't recall just when... I agreed to let Kirby McCauley represent me, everywhere but in Germany.

That was the best decision I ever made.

Little did I know, but I'd just hitched my fledging career to a star.  I'd bought Apple at a penny a share.  I'd won the bloody lottery.  I might have had a career anyway, sure... I am nothing if not a writer, I would have written my stories and published (eventually) my novels, but the success that I enjoy today is built in large part on the foundations that Kirby laid for me back in the 70s and 80s.

The young, fast-talking guy from Minnesota became, for a good ten years or more, the Best Agent in the World.

kirby

His stable, in the beginning, was made up almost entirely of young punks like me, and the estates of dead writers, some of them on the verge of being forgotten.  But Kirby loved the classic stuff, and somehow, with his relentless hustling, got a lot of their books into print.  For the newcomers, he did even better.  Back in 1974 and 1975, the standard advance for a first novel  was $3,000.  A few of my contemporaries (not agented by Kirby) got half that.  If you had won an award, and had a good agent, maybe you'd get $4,000.  I won a Hugo Award for "A Song for Lya" in 1975, so I was dreaming big when I finally wrote my first novel, AFTER THE FESTIVAL (published as DYING OF THE LIGHT).  "See if you can get me $5,000," I said to Kirby when I gave him the manuscript, thinking I'd made an outrageous demand.  He laughed.  "I think we can do better than that," he said.  He got half a dozen publishers bidding on the book, and in the end I collected more than ten times the standard advance for a first novel.

He did even better when Lisa Tuttle and I finally wrote that WINDHAVEN novel.   And a few years later, when I wrote my historical horror novel FEVRE DREAM, he knew at once that it should not be published as a genre title, and deftly moved it to another imprint at the same publisher, while keeping both my old and new editors happy, and getting me my biggest advance to date.  With THE ARMAGEDDON RAG, a few years later, he raised the bar still higher and suddenly I was drawing down six figures.

I was by no means his biggest success story, either.  He did as well or better for a dozen other young writers on his list... and one of them, this guy from Maine named Stephen King, did better than all of us together.  It is probably an exaggeration to say that Kirby McCauley was entirely responsible for the huge SF boom of the late 1970s and the horror boom of the early 1980s... but he was sure as hell helped.  He was one of the first to see what was happening, and to take advantage of it for his clients.  Kirby revolutionized agenting in SF and fantasy and horror.   At a party there was no one more genial or friendly, more fun to share a beer with... but editors and publishers soon learned to fear his skill as a negotiator.  He would NOT take no for an answer.  And he would not take peanuts for a book, either.

The older, established, three-piece suit agents were soon scrambling to keep up with him.  Meanwhile, their clients were leaving them, moving over to Kirby in droves.  And who could blame them?  Snot-nosed punks like me were drawing down advances ten and twenty times as large as writers who had been publishing for decades, because we had the good fortune to be agented by Kirby McCauley.

Through all of this, Kirby remained a fan as well.  He had always loved horror and fantasy, and in 1975 he teamed with several other leading fans, editors, and booksellers to found the World Fantasy Convention, as an alternative to the long-running World Science Fiction Convention.  The first one, in Providence, Rhode Island, he chaired, and remained on the board for years to follow.  He helped to establish the World Fantasy Awards, the "Howards" or "Howies," given annually by a panel of judges to the year's best fantasy and horror.

He was also an editor and anthologist.  DARK FORCES, his landmark horror anthology, remains to this day perhaps the greatest single horror ever published, and was recently reissued in a 26th Anniversary Edition.

Things started to go wrong for Kirby around 1985 or so, though.  Too many clients had signed on, maybe.  Kirby was nothing if not loyal, and stayed with the clients he had started out with long after any other agent would have cut loose the ones who had not made it.  So his stable got bigger and bigger.  He hired assistants, brought in other agents to help, but he was never good at delegating... and besides, none of us wanted to be assigned to a sub-agent, we wanted Kirby.  There were other problems.  An excess of success, maybe.  I was off in Hollywood by that time, working in television in the aftermath of the commercial failure of THE ARMAGEDDON RAG (even Kirby had not been able to place my proposed fifth novel, BLACK AND WHITE AND RED ALL OVER, though he tried his damndest, with the same persistance that he had shown when he tried to sign me), so I wasn't privy to much of what went on... but all of a sudden clients were leaving the agency, instead of signing on.  BIG clients.  Some of the agents Kirby had brought in to help left as well, taking more clients with them.  And Kirby... well, there were personal problems, and they ought to remain personal.

The dark years did not last forever, though.  Things stablized with the arrival of Kirby's sister, Kay McCauley, who moved to New York and proved to be as splendid a representative as her brother was, as those of us who stayed the course soon realized.   And Kirby came back strong.  In 1994, when I sent him two hundred pages of a fantasy I had been working on for a few years, and asked him if he could maybe sell it for enough money to get me out of television, he chuckled and said he thought maybe he could.  Turned out, it was 1976 all over again.  Kirby sent the book all over New York, got six publishers to submit offers, and soon had two of them bidding each other up and up until... well, Bantam won, and I popped a bottle of champagne, bid farewell to television, and set to work on A GAME OF THRONES.

I don't believe Kirby ever fully retired.  In recent years, however, I heard from him less and less, as he left most of the day-to-day running of his agency to his sister Kay, who does it admirably.   He no longer attended cons or other fannish events, though he kept saying that one of these years he wanted to return to the World Fantasy Convention, the convention he helped to found.  Last year, when I was in New York, Kirby and Kay and Parris and I went out to City Island, to eat crabs and clams and fried shrimp in a seafood shack over the water.  He was the same old Kirby, bright, charming, laughing, full of stories.  We talked about Alfie Bester and H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.   It was a great dinner.

Kirby McCauley died last weekend, of renal failure associated with diabetes.

He was the best agent any writer could hope for.  He made amazing deals for me, helped launch my career in 1976, and relaunched me in 1994 when I came back from the dead.  Like Gatsby, he came out of the midwest to New York City, and made it his.  At his height, he owned the city.  He used to tell me tales of his trips to Paris with Stephen King on the Concorde, of his date with Mariel Hemingway.

But I will remember him best from the old days, the midnight room parties at Lunacon back when it was still at the old Commodore, eating greasy breakfasts with Howard Waldrop at MidAmericon in '76, sleeping on his couch in his old apartment on 26th Street because I could not afford a hotel room in Manhattan... a lot of writers slept on Kirby's couch in those days...

Hey, Kirbs.  I miss you.  Rest in peace.






Comments

( 49 comments )
smofbabe
Sep. 3rd, 2014 06:37 am (UTC)
Beautiful tribute. I know how fond you were of him - so sorry for your loss, and for Kay's.
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
inglevine
Sep. 3rd, 2014 08:02 am (UTC)
He sounds like a truly amazing person. I'm sorry for your loss.
positivedeviant
Sep. 3rd, 2014 08:31 am (UTC)
Condolences
I'm so sorry for your loss, yet glad to have these people in our lives who affect us effectively so. I think it points our compass to what we hope to be for the future.
vaultboybailey
Sep. 3rd, 2014 09:38 am (UTC)
Peace and love Mr Martin- The good this Kirby gentleman has put out into the world is going to last for as long as we keep opening and enjoying the stories he helped make happen, so forever :)!
gonzo21
Sep. 3rd, 2014 09:54 am (UTC)
Sounds like one hell of a guy.

Here's to him.

And sympathies for your loss.
xraytheenforcer
Sep. 3rd, 2014 10:24 am (UTC)
My deepest condolences, George. :(
ruggels
Sep. 3rd, 2014 01:15 pm (UTC)
Beautifully said.
ebudae5
Sep. 3rd, 2014 02:15 pm (UTC)
I'm very sorry for the loss of your friend.
(Deleted comment)
gracht
Sep. 3rd, 2014 03:39 pm (UTC)
Mr Kirby McCauley
I am very sorry for your pain at the loss of your friend and more. I, of course did not know Mr McCauley, but this might interest you, I hope. The surname 'McCauley' is an old, very unusual, Scots-Irish surname, which can be traced even further back in time from Scotland and Ireland to Scandinavia, having been brought by the Vikings to Scotland/Ireland. Etymologists argue over the exact history of course but the original meaning of McCauley can be traced back down one derivation line to literally translate as 'of the tall or big horses' or as we call such today, 'war-horses' or 'destriers.' To this day, the ancestral lands of the McCauleys in Argyll, Scotland, translate from the Gaelic to mean 'the land of the tall horses' i.e. the land of the destriers.' Of course to win the right to own and ride a destrier; 'a man of the tall horses', a 'McCauley', one had to be.. a knight.
insurrbution
Sep. 3rd, 2014 04:30 pm (UTC)
My deepest condolences. What a wonderful tribute.

Best Wishes.
rhaeyga
Sep. 3rd, 2014 04:55 pm (UTC)
Hope you feel better soon
Erika Schneider
Sep. 3rd, 2014 05:13 pm (UTC)
Reading your beautiful words I can feel that you lost a friend, not just an agent.

Thank you for sharing those lovely memories with us. My heartfelt condolences, Mr. Martin.

xo
saxster
Sep. 3rd, 2014 05:33 pm (UTC)
I only hope I am at least half as lucky when the time comes for me to adopt an agent of my own.

That was a tremendous tribute. A movie could be produced about Kirby and probably should. Who might write the script, I wonder...
mortefina
Sep. 3rd, 2014 05:43 pm (UTC)
That was beautiful and very enlightening. Thank you.

Edited at 2014-09-03 05:43 pm (UTC)
evamagick
Sep. 3rd, 2014 06:12 pm (UTC)
*hugs* What a wonderful man. I am grateful to him.
Joey Kalmin
Sep. 3rd, 2014 06:26 pm (UTC)
My condolences
George,

I am so sorry for your loss. My deepest condolences go out to you and all of Kirby's friends and family.

Best,
Joey Kalmin
gabrielbirkhann
Sep. 3rd, 2014 06:49 pm (UTC)
Gabriel dos Santos Birkhann
Pêsames! perder amigos é algo terrível!
Rest In Peace.
(DESCANSE EM PAZ-RIP)
indigofan
Sep. 3rd, 2014 06:52 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry for the loss of your friend, George. This was a beautiful tribute.
gabrielbirkhann
Sep. 3rd, 2014 06:52 pm (UTC)
Pêsames! perder amigos é algo terrível!
Rest In Peace.
(DESCANSE EM PAZ-RIP)
/Condolences. Losing a friend is a terrible fact! Rest in peace/
of a Brazilian friend
Kris Mallory
Sep. 3rd, 2014 08:06 pm (UTC)
Very moving tribute.
I'm sorry for your loss. Thank got for sharing, Mr. Martin.
pexordixor
Sep. 3rd, 2014 08:56 pm (UTC)
He seems an amazing person,
"What is Dead May Never Die"
Rest in Peace
thetechnomage
Sep. 3rd, 2014 11:04 pm (UTC)
Valar morghulis, valar dohaeris
A most moving eulogy. Age/disease bring harsh realities to our doorstep. No escaping them. Tis sad when friends are lost. Words are never enough. However, life goes on. The sun will rise, politicians will lie and the world continues to spin. All must dwell on the good things else fall into despair.
cyberalien
Sep. 4th, 2014 12:03 am (UTC)
Sorry to hear about the loss of your friend!
parsleigh
Sep. 4th, 2014 12:34 am (UTC)
Sorry to hear about Kirby. I don't think I ever met him but I know what a special person and friend he was to you.
Rie Sheridan Rose
Sep. 4th, 2014 01:24 am (UTC)
Sorry for your loss, George
A lovely tribute. A good agent is one of the best tools a writer can have after talent. I am sorry for your loss.
Dawn Schramm
Sep. 4th, 2014 01:33 am (UTC)
Sorry for your Loss Mr. Martin.
dragonborngurl
Sep. 4th, 2014 01:45 am (UTC)
so sorry for your loss Ser Martin. here's something I always share with people when they lose a person they care about....

The Book of Daddy

Daddy’s Book is where he put everything he found that is true, this is why we live by the book of Daddy, which says there is no death, there is only birth, and birth and birth and birth.
The Book of Daddy says, consider the trees that allow the birds to perch and fly away without calling them back, if your heart can be like a tree you will be close to the way.
The Book of Daddy says when the multitude laughs at you, you are blessed.
And this is what Daddy wants us to know: I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the run away sun, I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, if you want me again, look for me under your boot souls, you will hardly know who I am or what I mean but I shall be good health to you never the less; missing me one place, search another, I stop somewhere,… waiting for you…
sleigh
Sep. 4th, 2014 02:11 am (UTC)
Well said, George. That's a beautiful tribute.
dragonrider7
Sep. 4th, 2014 10:34 am (UTC)
This was beautifully written, and made me sad to read. I'm sorry you've lost your friend. Know that all your fans are thinking of you, not that that will make the burden any lighter.
Steven Townshend
Sep. 4th, 2014 03:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing his story. Your account resurrects him in our imaginations.
donovan_s_brain
Sep. 4th, 2014 04:45 pm (UTC)
RIP
Dammit, the Old Guard is passing and we aren't filling their shoes well enough; they chafe and pinch us. They live in our memories; I can still see Pohl's grin when we talked about Kornbluth and hear Harry Harrison go on about the old days and the Rat. Entropy is coming for us all, the dying of the light, and all we can do is rage and burn and string together words as you have done for Kirby. He'll live longer in our imaginations because you strung the burning words for him; thanks for that.
wouldyoueva
Sep. 4th, 2014 05:46 pm (UTC)
When Jack decided he needed an agent after his second book, he tried to get Kirby as an agent, but by 1977, he was too busy and referred Jack to another up-and-coming agent, Eleanor Wood, now the SFWA agent. For a time in the 80s, Lurton Blassingame, best known as Heinlein's agent, Eleanor, and Kirby had the Blassingame, McCauley, and Wood agency, and maybe that's what overwhelmed him.

I knew Kay a lot better than I knew Kirby and I am sorry for her, she's always been very nice to me.
angelodifuoco
Sep. 4th, 2014 08:17 pm (UTC)
A beautiful piece of writing worthy of a beautiful person. My sincere condolences.
rvsp66
Sep. 4th, 2014 10:43 pm (UTC)
The Quintessential Obit
I had never heard of Kirby before reading this, but by the time I had finished I felt like I, too, had just lost a close friend.

I found myself searching for memories of a man I had never met.

That you for allowing me to share in this incredible depth of feeling.
abqlady2
Sep. 4th, 2014 11:04 pm (UTC)
Sorry news
I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend, George. You wrote him a fine send off.
dreamhaven
Sep. 4th, 2014 11:13 pm (UTC)
Kirby
Thanks George. I'll miss Kirby. He started calling me again about a year ago looking for some really obscure books. I found a few but we always talked too long. Or maybe, not enough.

Greg Ketter
mojave_wolf
Sep. 5th, 2014 12:35 am (UTC)
As beautiful a tribute as anyone could wish for. My condolences.
Jason V Brock
Sep. 5th, 2014 12:47 am (UTC)
Moving piece...
Very nice tribute. I work a lot with William F. Nolan, and he was agented by Kirby. In fact, Kirby was working with Bill on a book about Hammett (a bio) until very recently. So sad. Bill is pretty upset, mostly at the loss of someone he felt was more than just an agent, but who was also a dear friend.
apostle_of_eris
Sep. 5th, 2014 03:42 am (UTC)
I'm not sure why I never met him . . .
Mark Onspaugh
Sep. 5th, 2014 04:04 am (UTC)
RIP and thank you
Thanks for this splendid tribute - I have my original pb of Dark Forces and the deluxe anniversary edition, but was unaware of just how much Kirby McCauley did for SF, fantasy and horror. I wish I had met him.
ashcomp
Sep. 5th, 2014 09:45 pm (UTC)
Kirby
Never met him,somehow. Wish I had, now.
RA_Whipple
Sep. 6th, 2014 05:52 pm (UTC)
Heartfelt Condolence
My heartfelt condolences on the loss of your friend. Those are special people along for our rides. They make the journey worthwhile and are missed when that journey together ends. They are what life is about.
animeotaku51
Sep. 7th, 2014 02:09 am (UTC)
I'm sorry for your loss, this was a beautiful tribute.
lilycissa
Sep. 7th, 2014 03:38 pm (UTC)
I'm truly sorry for your loss. All my thoughts goes to the family, relatives, and you of course. This article was a beautiful testimony of friendship and moved me.
Jeffrey Smith
Sep. 9th, 2014 04:45 pm (UTC)
Hi, George. Long time.
I was just thinking of Kirby, because I’m reading a book he (co)edited, a collection of mystery stories by Charlotte Armstrong. When I opened the package, I thought: oh well, Charlotte Armstrong, not one of my favorites. Then I saw Kirby’s name and had a rush of warm thoughts. A couple days later, this news. I’m sure those warm thoughts will continue as I finish the second half of the book. Even though I’m sad he’s gone, I can’t think of him without smiling.
Jeff
Ramsey Campbell
Sep. 11th, 2014 12:54 pm (UTC)
Kirby
Great piece, George, and how much it brings back! That couch at 220 East 26th - by gum, I slept on that, as much as I could while the radiator hissed like a snake. And then there was the one at 425 Park Avenue South, where if you couldn't sleep you had that wonderful view of New York. And I was another chap taken on by Kirby in advance of having written a novel, which he then gently insisted for years I should do until at last I did.
( 49 comments )

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