This is a snippet of a rejection letter from a New York agent I had queried:
The writing in the first pages you sent of “Silk for the Feed Dogs” was fresh and vivid, despite the rather tired trope of an Irish rural childhood, so I must say I am curious as to how the story unfolds. Unfortunately the story as you briefly synopsize it in your letter sounds rather trite and conventional. It’s difficult to imagine stories of rivalry in the fashion business being crafted as well as your opening, but miracles can happen, so I’ll give it a try.
This is only one of dozens of rejections I received but it stands out in my memory.
She went on: You don’t say anything about a writing background, but there must have been some, since your style shows some sophistication. What, if anything, have you written and published?
Well, I didn’t quite know how to react to her earlier words but the answer to this was easy. I’d written nothing before, nothing. Least of all a synopsis, which I still don’t know how to do well. The word ‘synopsis’ strikes the same fear in me as the words ‘taxman’, ‘bedbugs’ and ‘blackout’. I live in New York; all three are a daily threat.
But never mind that, back to this “tired trope” business. Please, elaborate, I wanted to write back. Was rural Ireland a trend and now it’s over? Was I jumping on a literary bandwagon by tapping into my own County Tyrone childhood?
The thing was she was flattering me and insulting me at the same time. Toying with me in that begrudging tone, warning me to keep my expectations in check. Of course, I was intrigued. Most probably vestiges of a Catholic upbringing–oops, I might be entering tired trope territory again!––having to do with making penance for something that gives me such pleasure but which I’ve no business being at: writing.
If I wanted it, I’d have to suffer. I’d read New Grub Street. Writing was a mug’s game. With that reasoning, I decided she was the one: my future agent. Bring it on, lady, I can handle whatever you throw at me. I imagined her as a hardened, slitty-lipped, platinum-haired doyenne drawling into the receiver of an old rotary phone behind a desk caving in with the weight of unread manuscripts and ashtrays overflowing with scarlet-tipped butts. Perfect.
Not so fast. Then along came an agent who didn’t tease me with her sweet and sour words but was as straightforward as you could get: Just finished reading your novel. I loved it. It’s fun, sharp and witty. I would be very happy to represent you.
Oh. Okay then.
Probably I had felt undeserving of success in this new uncharted field. I was a fashion designer, not a writer. While I had adored English Lit at school, when my teacher, Mrs Mc Garvey, urged me to pursue academia at Queens University, I, a tatty-haired rebel in a short skirt and eyeliner, plumped for art college. Off I flounced, the contrary creative. An eventful career in Italian fashion followed, then a spontaneous move to NYC to tap into the electricity of that city. No matter that the fashion industry there disappointed me, the city’s pervading sense of possibility had me reenergized. I felt plugged in, but three weeks into a new highly paid job, I flounced off course again. I took a sabbatical from fashion and installed myself in the downtown cafe scene with all the other budding writers pounding the keys of their MacBook Pros until the sound was deafening––but exhilarating!
Now with the clarity of hindsight, the whole process seems like a grand plan I had set in motion unbeknownst to myself. My first novel takes place in the international fashion industry. All those plays and novels that Mrs Mc Garvey had introduced me to, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens, had one standout common denominator: a crackling cast of characters. Friars, squires, merchants, orphans, old ladies in wedding dresses that go up in flames, and they were all printed indelibly in my imagination. It just so happened my fashion career had introduced me to my own motley colourful cast. I drew from them, weaving their patterns, backgrounds, quirks and foibles into a crazy patchwork and then embroidering it with Mrs McGarvey’s teaching.
Only yesterday, I sent a note to thank her, twenty years later, for the part she played in the creation of Silk for the Feed Dogs. She’s retired now and still lives locally. It feels like I have come full circle and she was there at the start. I wanted to reassure her that I hadn’t entirely veered off course, only took the scenic route.
People ask me about the title. Some think it is a farming term, others an Irish proverb. Is it like making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? When I tell them its meaning, I see the same broad smile spread across their faces, the approving nod. The title’s meaning always goes over well. That was the easiest part to write. Feed dogs, those vicious-sounding creatures, are actually two metal bars with diagonal teeth that move back and forth under the needle plate of the sewing machine, pulling the fabric through. But if they become jammed, if the tension is wrong or they need repair, they will chew your fine fabric to within an inch of its life, gripping fast until you tug loose nothing but a fistful of threads.
Interesting characters, those feed dogs. Turns out there are literary ones too, slavering to sink their gnashers into your ‘tired tropes’, particularly if they think they might be flavoured with ‘trite’ or ‘conventional’. They’ll grind your synopsis to pulp and shred your writing, if you let them. I’d cross the road to avoid them. Beware agent feed dogs! They might just be more dangerous than the fashion ones.
(c) Jackie Mallon
About Silk for the Feed Dogs
Some will do anything to see her fall… Kat Connelly, innovative designer and introspective daughter of an Irish farmer, is disappointed with her first job in fashion. She copies catwalk looks for the enigmatic Lynda Wynter, who runs a small label in London and relies on two things to survive: self-medication and cheap Chinese production. Kat feels the lure of a higher aesthetic beckoning and escapes to Milan. As Italy’s imminent smoking ban looms darkly over the land, Kat’s personal world lights up: design and beauty are all around, dazzling and seducing, not to mention the overwhelming Italian male libido. She has claimed her slice of the bella vita and with it a sense of belonging she has yearned for since childhood. Of course, the bella vita comes at a price. When Kat is invited into the impenetrable House of Adriani to design their high-profile collection, she throws a cast-iron hierarchy into turmoil…
Jackie Mallon is an Irish writer and fashion designer currently living and teaching fashion in New York. After studying at London’s St Martins School, she worked in the world of high fashion in Milan for eight years, stockpiling stories for the novel she didn’t know she was gearing up to write. Jackie is a trained Irish dancer, a secret calligraphist, and needlework enthusiast. She enjoys sketching trees and rainy weather – not necessarily at the same time – and running marathons. She learnt Italian from reading Harry Potter with a dictionary on her daily tram commutes in Milan. She was once a dreadlocked petrol pump attendant and lived above a South London pub frequented by Cockney gangsters. She revels in the serenity of airports.
Jackie’s blog contains posts on her writing; sketched scenes from her novel; fashion illustrations: www.jackiemallon.com
Visit her Pinterest page for photos and sketches from her portfolio:
Silk for the Feed Dogs is available to buy on Amazon.