After having a less-than-ideal experience with her first two literary agents, Belle Boggs, one of the five debut authors featured in our current issue's First Fiction 2010, finally found a great agent who is an active partner in her publishing career. We didn't have room in the print magazine to include the full story of her agent ups and downs, but she was kind enough to write about it for the blog. Below is her story, which she sent to us with hopes that others might learn from her experience:
After I graduated from Irvine’s MFA program, I moved to New York. I found an agent I really liked at a small, respected agency with a lot of good Southern writers. My agent was and is a great person and a talented and generous editor. He shopped a novel, which didn’t sell, and after a while he left the agency for other work. The agency kept me on, and I was assigned to the principal agent, who understandably had less time to spare. I think I revised and we tried a few more places—I am not the kind of writer who wallpapers her bathroom with rejection letters, so it’s a little hard to remember—but at some point I felt that it was time to move on.
I was teaching in Brooklyn at the time—I was a New York City Teaching Fellow—and I didn’t have the kind of sustained time I needed to start a new novel. So the summer after I finished my first year in the classroom, I began the stories that would become Mattaponi Queen. Right away, one story was selected for publication in Glimmer Train Stories and another one was a runner-up in their Very Short Fiction contest, which I thought was a good sign. I kept working and teaching.
After my second year of teaching my husband and I moved to North Carolina, where I taught GED classes, and I continued to work on the stories. My agent’s assistant sent a couple of them to a few very big magazines, and they didn’t sell, but I still felt that the collection was a book. I gave them to my agent, and I met him for lunch on a visit to New York.
I remember that he talked a lot and in very general terms about my novel, a ship I thought had sailed a while ago. He was not very direct, and I didn’t ask the right questions. I left the meeting confused because I was too shy and inexperienced to ask him why he was not interested in the collection of stories. Was it because they weren’t his thing? Was it because they wouldn’t sell for a big advance? Was there some other way to find a good home for them? He did say, “You can only be a debut author once.” I suppose he meant that this was my chance to make a big splash, and a collection of stories set in rural Virginia was wasting that chance. I did try to say, a few times during that meeting, how much I believed in the stories.
After a while he stopped writing back to me, but I still assumed he was my agent. In my mind, I moved on again and made plans for another novel. I was teaching fifth grade in Durham, and then in D.C. at a KIPP school. My husband, who has always believed in my work and is a talented poet, suggested sending the book to contests. I agreed, but mentally I had moved on, and my teaching schedule made me too tired to think about the book. I even named our cat Loretta, after one of my favorite characters in Mattaponi Queen, because I loved the name and didn’t want it to go to waste.
Then one night, after returning home from work in D.C., there was a blinking light on our answering machine: Mattaponi Queen was a finalist for the Bakeless Prize, and was it still available? Of course it was available! I didn’t even know it had been submitted. While I was teaching and lesson planning and grading papers, my husband had printed and submitted the collection for me. It is the best gift I’ve ever been given. People gasp when I tell them this story. I don’t know how I got so lucky.
I didn’t say anything to my agent about the contest—I didn’t expect to win—but when I did I e-mailed him right away. I never heard back from him.
After working with Graywolf Press and with the Bakeless Prize, I can’t imagine having a better debut experience. I’ve worked with phenomenal editors and talented, enthusiastic publicists who have gotten Mattaponi Queen noticed in some really great places. I get to go to Bread Loaf on a fellowship. I’m in the middle of a fantastic book tour. And I have a new and very wonderful and involved agent, Maria Massie, who found me after a short story from Mattaponi Queen was published in At Length. I was able to read her beliefs about the business and about working with authors in an Agents & Editors interview published in Poets & Writers Magazine.
But I do sometimes think about my other agency experience, which left me feeling confused and uncertain about my career for a while. I don’t blame him for that—I should have been more assertive, should have asked more questions—and I have no regrets, because everything has worked out so well. But not everyone is as lucky as I have been, and I am sure that there are other shy and self-doubting writers like me, who make a living outside the world of academia and don’t have a ton of contacts.
Here’s what I did right: I kept working, writing what I felt most compelled to write (and I should add that I married an incredibly generous and supportive man). What I did wrong was fail to advocate for myself, and allow one way of looking at the marketplace to control my career.
This past winter, there was a problem with the wells on our property in North Carolina. I called around for recommendations, and I talked to a well guy who wasn’t sure what to do to fix our water shortage. He could have easily thrown up his hands, and he could have done some work that may or may not have solved my problem and charged me a lot of money. Instead we stood outside in the cold and talked about it, and he recommended someone else. I called his recommendation and a few other people—a well fracker, a plumber, some well drillers—and after trial and error, we found a solution. I was really happy with the outcome, and I would recommend any of the people who helped me to someone else in the same situation.
Ideally, all business interactions should work this way—if one person can’t help you with the tools they have, they should recommend someone else or some other way to achieve your goal. Unfortunately, things don’t always work like this, so you have to want whatever it is as much as you want water flowing from your taps.
So my advice to someone looking for an agent would be to write down all of your questions, then talk to another writer to see if there are some relevant questions you haven’t considered. First on my list would be: Will you work with independent presses? Be prepared to ask your questions in a direct way. Don’t wait forever for someone to write back to you. Pick up the telephone if you need to. Don’t give up on something too quickly, but don’t stop writing new work, either.
And good luck to you!