Thursday, February 11, 2010

Knox Burger by Bob Byrne

A literary lion roars no more
The tough-guy image was misleading

Knox Burger, whose long career made him a legend in the literary world, died in New York City on January 4, 2010, at the age of 87. He was a colorful character who walked with a cane, a curmudgeon with a sharp sense of humor. Before the end, his worsening medical problems led him to remark: “My Golden Years are showing a bit of tarnish.”

He was my literary agent. With his help I was able to avoid getting a real job for thirty-five years. Among the writers he represented were novelists Martin Cruz Smith, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Donald McCaig, and William Caunitz. He was such a fan of fly fishing that one of his goals in life was to have dry feet. His ashes were buried in a creel.

It’s not easy to get an agent, as any aspiring author will tell you. I got lucky early in my career when Patrick O’Connor, editor of Pinnacle Books, decided to reprint my coming-of-age novel Memories of a Non-Jewish Childhood (which is set in Dubuque) in paperback under the title Once a Catholic. When he learned that I had no agent, he hooked me up with a good one.

Life changed immediately. Knox Burger persuaded publishers to give me cash advances for books yet unwritten, which meant that I could quit my day job as a trade-journal editor in San Francisco and write on somebody else’s money instead of my own. Seventeen books followed under that happy arrangement.

In his New York Times obituary, the veteran agent was described as “a lean, bald, craggy-faced man with a game leg and a gruff manner that can be downright brusque.” To work with him, you had to be able to accept criticism, and sometimes it was harsh. One of my book ideas made him wonder if it came from a man trapped for ten years in an Iowa coal mine. He also said that I would probably be more successful if I were meaner.

After he had guided several of my novels into print, I sent him a new business card. He replied on his letterhead with mock seriousness: “The boldness of your name on the card, and the ornamental flourishes on the capital letters that rise to almost topiary excess, convey a certain grossness if not actual vulgarity. Better would be a certain reticence and an air of modesty. Your card is more suitable to a salesman of rubber goods or previously-owned kitchen appliances than to a novelist. We return it herewith. Good luck with it.”

His directness, honesty and editorial skill earned him the trust of publishers. They knew that anything he sent them was worth reading. Before opening his agency in 1970, he spent three years as fiction editor of Collier’s magazine and twenty years as fiction editor for paperback pubishers Dell and Fawcett. While at Collier’s he published an early story by Dubuque’s Richard Bissell, of Pajama Game fame. They developed a joking relationship based on Burger playing the street-smart city slicker and Bissell the bumpkin from Iowa. Decades later I found myself in the Bissell role.

Once when he was visiting clients in California, I gave him a ride to the airport. Before boarding a plane back to New York, he confessed with some embarassment that he was short of cash, so I loaned him twenty dollars. A few days later I got a check from him for eighteen dollars! I was glad it happened before he raised his commission from ten to fifteen percent.

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