Remembering Robert Lescher

Robert Lescher, of the Lescher & Lescher Literary Agency, recently passed away at the age of 83. his post is my heartfelt remembrance of a man I knew for almost three decades.

In 1985, I was an absolutely unknown author, trying to sell a true-crime manuscript called “Butcher, Baker,” the story of a serial killer in Alaska. Walter Gilmour (my co-author) and I knew we needed a literary agent to get there. That agent turned out to be Robert Lescher. He told us his was a small, boutique agency which carefully selected its authors. He was our man. We just weren’t sure whether we belonged there, given that he represented heavy hitters like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Alice B. Toklas. We needn’t have worried.

Bob immediately started working his magic. Soon we were getting rejections from   Norton, Grove Press, Harper & Row… all the majors. About 16 rejections in all — each from editors who could, on their own word alone, make publication a reality. Then came the letter from Bob, dated January 5, 1987. It read in part:

… I have only now been able to turn to the revision. It was read here by someone else as well, and I have to say that neither of us has the enthusiasm for the work that we had hoped to have…

I’m afraid now I’m going to have to return the material to you in the hope you can find an editor yourself, or another agent, who might give you the help you want. I’m sorry I can’t be the one, but I know that you wouldn’t want me to represent your work if my feelings are as ambivalent as they seem.

There is was. We’d been fired by our literary agent. He’d taken a chance on us, and we’d let him down.

My co-author and I were in a quandary. Walter wanted to go forward with the manuscript as-is. I felt we had about $1million worth of great advice (those pesky rejection letters). That advice said: “start over, start fresh, do a complete rewrite.” Walter balked. I got him to give me a year and a half to turn the whole thing around. Then came the next discussion. To whom do we send the new version?

Walter’s abiding frame of reference for all things business is real estate, which meant we needed to give Bob Lescher the right of first refusal. I didn’t expect much, because at the time I put little stock in second chances (hey, I’d just been through a divorce). We hadn’t really identified any alternatives, however, so… Back to Bob. His response came on May 24, 1990:

The manuscript just came in and I can see at once that a considerable amount of new work went into it. I’m going to share the manuscript with [editor], as I promised… and I’ll get back to you when his response reaches me.

Wow. Re-hired by our literary agent. And successfully published soon thereafter. Amazing.

There are several  lessons here, but I’ll always remember this one: Bob gave us a second chance when none seemed possible. It was at that moment I realized how deeply he cared about authors and how much he respected the writing process. Equally important, he had that essential but elusive ability to change his mind, based on additional evidence. I was blown away. I still am.

Postscript: A decade later, I wrote a book called “Huck Finn Is Dead.” Though a flawed work, Bob saw its potential — and encouraged me to take a second stab at it, even after a disappointing round of rejections. Only recently was I able to take him up on that proposition.

Here’s to you, Bob… After reworking the manuscript like crazy — and belatedly adding an entirely new beginning — I recently published “Huck Finn Is Dead.” And yes. I thoroughly believe in second chances…