Hooray! After a whirlwind of writing and getting my latest proposal ready to launch, finishing up the kids' homeschool portfolios for the state evaluator and adding Sampson to our family, I can return to my regular blog postings. I haven't forgotten about Monday Musing--I have been tossing one around in my head about how caffeine is to those of us approaching forty, what beer was in our twenties, and of course I have bene compiling photos and musings for my weekly dog blog. As far as Favorites on Friday, right now my favorite thing is Mrs. Meyer's geranium scented all purpose cleaner--I'm housebreaking a rather clueless puppy.
But what's really exciting is to return to the Writers on Wednesday series. This week Christina Shideler, a literary agent with LMQ who has been representing me for three years, agreed to answer a few questions from the other side of the industry, a peek inside agency doors. I have enjoyed getting to know her this year and appreciate her keen editorial skills and finding out more about what makes her tick. She calls it soapboxing--I call it passion, and it's refreshing to see someone caring so much about what they do. Enjoy!
1. What was the first book you ever loved?
There were two books I was obsessed with as a child, and both in distinctly different ways. The Secret Garden was absoluely the book that most sparked my imagination as a child. I would walk through the lightly wooded area near my grandmother's house and endlessly hope and imagine that I would stumble upon a beautiful hidden world like that. It immersed me completely.
There was also a book that I adored as an objet. It's called Marguerite Go Wash Your Feet illustrated by Wallace Tripp. It's a fun little book full of old limericks, poems and one liners with fantastic illustrations. The wit of it all really captured me as a child. I could really get lost in all of the intricacies of his drawings. It's the one book from my childhood that I still have.
2) Here it is--the question you're probably sick of: What do you see as the future of the hands-on, paper and ink book in the new world of e-readers?
Well, it's an important question, and one we are on the cusp of figuring out. Of course I, like any literary nerd, desperately want to dig my heels into the sand and hold onto a tangible book until it crumbles into dust but it's just not possible! I think trends are telling us that, at least in the short term, more commercial works will be read largely as e-books, while more literary works will continue to be consumed in book form. Those that love aesthetics enough to obsess about literary fiction are not going to let that attention to art fall when it comes to the package containing the work.
Still, I think it's probably inevitable that eventually most works will be digital, but I do think that's further off than some doomsdayers would have you believe. And, I think we're likely to see a “slow readers” movement (think slow food, etc.) who champion books as beautiful objects. McSweeney's has done this with great success, and I've been heartedned by the success of something like Anne Carson's Nox, which is this beautifully packaged book art work. So it'll be interesting to see one trend pushing for books to become more artful even as the majority become just words on a screen. Still, there are certainly exciting things about e-books, of course! I think Electric Literature is doing a really great job of getting viral attention for top notch fiction in making their one sentence animation videos, and while I fear enchanced e-books because I feel like reading should be a solitary, reflective activity, it can be used effectively to enrich the work by providing context. So we'll see! I'm optimistic, though, that the art of the physical book won't die, it will just be somewhat marginalized and exaggerated.
3) What has been the most surprising thing you have learned while working in a literary agency?
How much of a good faith industry publishing is! I think some writers (understandably, given the heaps of rejection they face) think of agents and publishing as a bunch of grumpy, arms-crossed critics who are arrogantly trying to keep people out of their literary theme park. But, no! The most surprising thing to me was how desperately we all want to fall in love with new work. Believe me, we read query letters and manuscripts hoping to connect with your work and dying to love it. There are a lot of heavy sighs around the office when something just doesn't quite come together for us. We have to be tough, because there's so much work out there, and it's impossible to sell something and support it through publication and beyond unless you love it. But we want so desperately to love it and are trying every day to find something amazing.
4) What is your best advice for a new writer trying to get his query noticed?
A few things! Most importantly, I'd say do your research and try and target your query appropriately. Check the acknowledgments of a few books you love and see the agent's name. Referencing other work the agent has done and ensuring that it's up their alley wins you a lot of points. It shows you're serious.
The other big, more nebulous thing, is to communicate what your work is really about. I was just talking to an intern of mine the other day about how a lot of writers at the querying phase aren't good at articulating the deeper themes their work addresses. It's such a huge draw when an author is able to summarize the plot expertly and then give a sentence or two about what's at the heart of the novel. Is it, at its heart, a story about isolation in the digital age? Is it the anti-Americna dream story? Is it about what generations of secrets can do to a family? Remember, you've got to sell this book over and over again—from the querying stage, to editors, and finally to readers. Spend the time thinking and writing carefully about what it's really about before querying agents!
5) What author would you most like to have lunch with? Why?
Oh dear, probably Miranda July because she does everything and I feel like she reached into my brain with her short story collection and put it through some machine that turns brains into words. She is fabulous.
6. Top 5 books of all time?
This is tough!
No One Belongs Here More Than You- Miranda July (see above about brain to paper machine)
Love is a Dog From Hell (poems) by Charles Bukwoski (he may have been a terrible mysogynist but he was the king of one liners)
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Bluets by Maggie Nelson (a recent addition and amazing!)
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
7) What's on your nightstand now?
So, so many things! I just finished Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which was excellent. I've been in the middle of The Means of Reproduction by Michelle Goldberg for a while (feminism!) and am at last reading George Bush, Dark Prince of Love by Lydia Millet. To read: The End by Salvatore Scibona, Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett and many, many others!
8. What great question didn't I ask that I should have?
How do you feel about the state of women writers?
I really hope and think that we're at a turning point for women writers in this country. As a young feminist and a lover of women writers, it is incredibly frustrating to me that an industry that is majority women continues with the same male-centric biases from generations past. There has been a lot of deserved hub bub this year about the lack of recognition of some really excellent women writers, including VIDA's excellent report on the percentage of women's contributions to top literary magazines. And I am often disheartened at how publishers attempt to push women writers into commercial women's fiction territory, often trivializing a lot of the strength of their prose. We, as an industry, definitely need to move to elevate more women writers and package their books in a way appropriate to their content.
It's a particular mission of mine to find and get published “quirky” women writers; those whose voice falls welll outside of the expectations of a woman writer. Writers like Lynne Tillman, Yiyun Li and Lydia Millet who write female characters that are not classically sympathetic, and certainly are not the intuitive, emotive martyrs women characters one so often finds in fiction. And I think we're on the cusp of this. My meetings with young editors certainly leads me to believe that a new generation is fed up with the male-centric aesthetic that's led writing in this country for so long and we're eager to change it.
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