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Bill Clegg on Being Both an Agent and an Author

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Posted by Special Agent on 3.28.12

Bill Clegg of the William Morris Endeavor literary agency represents authors such as Mary Jo Bang, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Mark Doty, Rivka Galchen, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Salvatore Scibona, and Rebecca Wolff. But he's an author, too, having published last year the memoir Portrait of an Addict as Young Man and this April the follow-up Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery. Both published by Little, Brown, the memoirs delve into Clegg's drug addiction and recovery. We asked Clegg to talk about what led him to become a literary agent, and a writer.

POETS & WRITERS: Your entry into the publishing industry was via the Radcliffe Publishing Seminar, and soon after you landed your first job at an agency. You've remarked on feeling a cultural outsider when you first arrived in New York (and within the rarefied air of the publishing world). But to the casual observer, you were moving quickly and easily among industry giants. Did outsider status fuel your passions and ambition?

BILL CLEGG: It fueled a lot of things.  What looks like ambition from the outside is often just compensating to get by. I was just trying to keep my head above water and along the way found escape and relief in booze and drugs and also, thank god, in the great work of writers I was lucky enough to represent. There were consequences to both modes of coping, some good, some not so good.

P&W: As a young man, you stood at the foot of J. D. Salinger's driveway, hoping he would come out and say hello. Did you aspire to write at an early age? Could you tell us about the romantic notion of a writer's life versus the work of writing? Do the two ever meet?

BC: I was in Paris a few weeks ago having dinner with a friend and her new boyfriend, a political journalist, who made my fixation on Salinger look like a flimsy crush. When I told him about standing at the bottom of the driveway in Cornish he smiled and excused himself from the table. A minute or two later he returned with a large NO TRESPASSING sign from you-know-where. It had fallen, he insisted, but I wasn't so sure. He'd made the trek twice from Paris—as an adult! What is it about Salinger and those books, that book? Funny that this restless, doubting political writer born and raised in France would linger in the same place hoping to connect with—even just be seen by—the same guy. It must have something to do with how he transcribed perfectly something that feels/felt so private and so intense—that ajar teenage feeling, the hesitancy at adolescence's end. Lingering at the end of the driveway is, in a way, a return to that feeling, that innocence. Maybe for some of us who never felt innocent the draw was exaggerated.

Did I think about writing then? In college, yes, and I wrote this terrible little children's story that was in the end a rip-off (I see now) of Holling C. Holling's Paddle to the Sea. I even sent it to an agent—the daughter of a older couple I did gardening work for in the summers in college. I had a fantasy she'd publish it and it'd go on to be a classic or something and I'd somehow be able to avoid the working world, the regular nine-to-five office-scape that I couldn't fathom finding a place in. Seven or eight months after sending her the manuscript she mailed it back without a cover note but scattered with Post-its with notes on them like "Sweet," "Cut," "No." I was crushed and probably as a result I now spend way too much time writing what I hope are thoughtful rejection letters to writers who submit their work to me for representation. Anyway, Salinger provided a fantasy of what that life could be like—away, shielded by woods, supported by the income of a book that would always sell, a few perfect pieces of literature to represent what I meant without messy human interaction to expose the flaws. We never met.

P&W: Your agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, hired you as an agent at William Morris Endeavor when you returned to the publishing world, after a year-long recovery from addiction. Is there an analog to an agent having an agent? Is it akin to a surgeon having his appendix out? Is it tempting to be a backseat driver? Is your relationship with Jennifer that of a typical author and agent, or more as peers? Has the experience altered your own client relationships?

BC: There are examples of writers I admire who are also in book publishing and who also have agents—David Ebershoff, Jill Bialosky, Robin Robertson—so I'd seen over the years that it was not only possible but essential. I think all agent-author relationships are pretty subjective. Having Jennifer as my boss as well as my agent has been lucky in that she knows better than anyone what's going on in all areas of my work life. And she has an uncanny ability to metabolize writing—almost instantly—into the most useful, insightful responses. We don't tend to have big discussions about the publishing stuff—we have a kind of short hand of nods and hand signals, "yups" and "nopes" that acknowledge what we both sense is right/better/wrong. There's not a lot of hand-wringing or second-guessing. I trust her completely and so, yes, with her driving I'm happy to be in the backseat. When it's time to go there, I settle in comfortably, do my job as an agent, call my clients.

P&W: Please tell us about working with your editor, Pat Strachan. Did this process provide any insight into your life as an agent? 

BC: Working with Pat has been a great privilege. She is the most sensitive and respectful reader and has an architect's eye with writing. She'll see a chapter or a paragraph or even a chubby sentence and with a few quick strokes suggest a shape that is not only more attractive but one that transmits more effectively—usually with greater economy—whatever it was you were initially and not so elegantly trying to say. 

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