Some people say life imitates art. Other people say art imitates life.
Here's a true story that clearly supports the "life imitates art" argument, and when it does, life can turn out stranger than the art it set out to imitate in the first place.
It goes like this: At the turn of the century I wrote the first draft of Hack, a novel which, after 12 years and several close calls has just been published by Harper Davis Publishers. In it, the protagonist fakes his own death and returns under a new identity to bilk fat sums of dough from greedy rich guys.
Hold that thought.
I signed on with my first literary agent, Melanie Mills of North Myrtle Beach, SC, on August 26 2002.
Dear Mr. Harrison:
I have reviewed your work titled "Hack" and have reached a positive evaluation of the property. I feel this property could have a great market appeal and if you choose I would like to market this book for you.
A "positive evaluation of the property"? Hallelujah!
I worked on the manuscript through the winter and in the spring we submitted and got four "good" rejections. Melanie was encouraged: all four editors agreed Hack was a riveting story with quirky characters, but the premise was too far fetched to be believable.
Then it was Spring Break, and by chance I found an almost-free timeshare in Myrtle Beach, which in April promised family fun and a face-to-face meeting with my agent.
And so I went to meet Melanie Mills. Beyond the paved roads and onto rutted single tracks snaking between shacks on stilts crammed together, I found her: a tiny elf-like being, hunched over the deck railing of her falling-down shack. She was scraping at some old paint, a cig dangling from her lips, and a blonde wig, teased and blown into a platinum rat's nest, resting atop her pointy little head.
We sat on her deck overlooking the slough. She talked while I noticed that it smelled more like the county dump than the salty seashore. She showed me the handful of rejection letters as she pounded back Dr. Peppers, puffed on pack after pack of Dorals, and drawled like John Wayne on Dilaudid.
She even explained that her great legs (she stood up to show me) were due to six-miles-a-day beach walks. She also mentioned that she was hosting a writers' conference during a Harley rally in Myrtle Beach the following month, and another in the fall in Banff Lake Louise.
At her suggestion, when I got back to Fairfield County I made some broad brush changes to the manuscript, such as making the female protagonist "less of a bitch" (Melanie's words) and sent it back to her. Her assistant, Kat Baker told me that Melanie was traveling in Germany. I waited three weeks, and when I didn't hear from her, I contacted her office again. I received this email in reply:
Last week, during her trip to Europe due to a death in the family, Melanie Mills had a fatal car accident. Therefore, all submission to publishers have been retracted, all events cancelled, and all existing publishing contracts have been reverted over to the individual authors. I'm very sorry. This has been, and still is, a very emotional time for her entire family and friends,
Good luck to all of you,
Assistant to Melanie Mills
Never mind that she looked like Dobby with a fright wig and sounded like The Duke, I had sipped 7Up at her table in Myrtle Beach. We shared laughs. And we had talked about Hack, my story of faked death and identity fraud.
So, when I heard this news, I felt as if someone had kicked me in the crotch. I couldn't breath; I lost the feeling in my hands. And I bemoaned my bad luck. Now what was I going to do? My literary agent was dead!
I began scouting for a new agent. I didn't think it would be too hard -- "Hey, my agent died, would you mind reading a few chapters of the novel she was representing?"
I was right. I had many tire kickers right away, and by the following spring a new agent with a whole notebook full of new ideas for Hack. But somewhere along the line, someone suggested I look at the website "Writer Beware". And it was here that I discovered what really happened to Melanie Mills.
She didn't die in a car wreck in Germany. Not only did I learn that my former agent was still quite alive, but that she had roughly 15 aliases and that she was wanted for real estate fraud across the southern part of the United States, including, of course, Myrtle Beach.
She was also wanted for the attempted murder of her own mother who she pinned to a cement table with her car, crushing her pelvis.
Oddly enough, she had also published "a mystery novel under the pseudonym L.R. Thomas. Her pitch letter to publishers began: "What would you do when your mother, who leads you to believe she had died, shows up months later and tries to kill you?"
Melanie Mills obviously had a thing for resurrection.
So how did she finally get caught? As it turns out, before she "died" she did organize that writers' conference in Banff Lake Louise, that she'd mentioned when I met with her. Ironically, she did not encourage me to register, supposedly because I already had an agent (her).
The conference advertised big name authors, publishers, and agents, all drooling to make a six-figure deal. She organized and published the schedule on a dedicated website, advertised on all the sites where unpublished writers troll for agents, deployed a reservation system and started collecting money.
After defrauding writers of the fees for the conference, she took off for Germany and was killed, unrecognizably mangled in a bloody wreck. Of course the planned conference attendees, upset though they were by her death, wanted their money back. But when the authorities went looking, they found not a trace -- no bank accounts, no real estate, nothing to indicate that she had ever existed.
And in Arkansas and Myrtle Beach, where she was wanted for real estate fraud and attempted murder, more authorities started to follow the her trail. With the help of Writer Beware, they made the connection between various aliases and found her. Last I heard, she has yet to be extradited to Arkansas to face attempted murder and fraud charges, and a judge had declared her unfit for trial: She'd shed her orange jumpsuit in the courtroom and was commando underneath, leading to a diagnosis of acute schizophrenia. I suppose she won't be doing any Martha Stewart-style hard time soon.
So we've got life imitating art all over the place here, and yet, Melanie Mills never charged me a nickel for her services. Usually literary agent con artists charge a reading fee, an editing fee, a submission fee and then they don't shop your book. I guess Melanie Mills was ever the anomaly, or perhaps playing legit with me was her way of thanking me for giving her the idea for her biggest con.
I will probably go to my grave wondering if Hack's fake death, and his return as a swingin', Harley-ridin', Mexican with a ponytail and pencil-thin mustache, along with his plan to rip off as many people as possible, got Melanie Mills thinking -- maybe such a plot isn't so far-fetched after all? I guess she found out.