Every writer ought to have someone in her life like Jack Scovil. For many more years than cats have lives, Jack was my literary agent. He was gracious and kind; passionate about the books he agreed to represent and equally committed to the writers who wrote them. Once a month I’d call him in New York and we’d check out my latest manuscript — who was reading it, who wasn’t interested, but never mind, he’d say. I love this book. We are going to find a publisher. Usually we did.
This Thursday morning I called to learn that my long-time agent had passed away. Jack had congestive heart failure a few years back, and when I spoke to him in January, he’d just left the hospital and didn’t sound well. Yet he was keen to get back to work, dogged in his intention to sell yet another manuscript. I have no idea how old he was. Nor do I know how he died.
In fact, I know very little about Jack. Ours was a professional relationship; for the most part over the phone, sometimes in person when I came to New York or he visited Toronto. It was my late brother Phil who connected me with him through a writer friend who thought I should have an agent. Jack loved my work, and his enthusiasm kept me writing. Other facts are scant: Jack hailed from Utah, moved to Manhattan in the late Sixties and eventually founded a small but successful agency with two partners. He loved classical music. He lived alone somewhere on the Upper East Side. He was a kindly, good-humoured man who seemed to hold much in reserve — everything, in fact, except the matter at hand: writers and writing, and the twists and turns of the publishing world.
He began his career at a time when writing and publishing were serene occupations. He ended it at a moment when many young writers have to earn their keep to stay in an agent’s stable; quick sales or they’re out the door in the high-pressure world of blockbusters and celebrity publishing. Jack didn’t treat us that way. He was honest and direct about the quality of writing, but also kind and faithful to the talent he respected. What he loved, he cared for and nurtured as best he could. There was no rush. He attended to the late bloomers, the voices speaking in odd registers, the pots of talent that sit on the back burner and come to a slow boil.
So now he’s gone.
Yet I think that when someone dies, all that’s unessential goes with them, so that what remains is the bright gleam (or dark shadow) of who that person was and what that life has given us. As for Jack, he plowed a narrow furrow, but he plowed it deep. Writers were his life, and he treated us well. With great modesty and without any self-disclosure, he showed by example that if disappointments mount, we disgruntled writers may choose bitterness and resentment — or the good grace to give of ourselves out of the richness of what we love most. That kind of richness is inexhaustible. That was how he treated me.
Good-bye, Jack, and safe home.
I will miss your generous spirit.