Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Lynn Nesbit

Jofie Ferrari-Adler
From the January/February 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Tell me about some more of the big characters.
We just don't have them anymore. Morgan [Entrekin] is as close as we have. And Sonny [Mehta]. There were so many: Henry Robbins, Ted Solotaroff, Joe Fox, Sam Lawrence, David Segal. Even Dick Synder is a lot more colorful than Jack Romanos, who is now gone. I mean, they had passion, they cared about literature. Even Dick, who's not an intellectual. He cared. He was a madman. I mean, we need a little bit more…. Who is a madman now in publishing? Peter Olson, but of a very strange type. I mean, Morgan's eccentric, Sonny's eccentric. Morgan's less eccentric than he used to be. He's getting very conventional now with the wife and the child. It was just different then.

So you miss the personalities
Yes. I miss the fun. I tell Tina [Bennett] and Eric [Simonoff], "You missed the good days." When I worked for Sterling Lord, I had a loft, a sort of duplex loft apartment on Barrow Street. And Michael Sissons, who's now the head of Fraser & Dunlop, and Peter Matson, who's also an agent, used to give these parties at my house. They would make these drinks of half brandy and half champagne, and people got so drunk. One night Rosalyn Drexler, the lady wrestler and the novelist, picked up Walter Minton and just threw him against the wall. I'll never forget that. There was just more of a sense of fun.

So why was that lost?
It's the corporate thing. People are too scared. It doesn't attract eccentrics anymore.

Where are the eccentrics going?
The movie business. [Laughs.]

When did you start to represent Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne?
My daughter is thirty-seven and John told this story—it's still difficult for me to talk about John—he told this story himself. He said, "Remember what I said to you when we were talking about you representing me?" I said, "No, I have no memory." He said, "Don't you remember when I said, 'What if you were to have a child?' Nobody would dare ask that question of a woman today! You would be stigmatized!" So I've represented him since before my first child, and she's thirty-seven.

At that point were you already representing Joan?
No. I didn't represent Joan until the book After Henry, when I came here. It's been a long time now, about eighteen years. They were very good friends of mine. I knew Joan very well. She was represented by Lois Wallace. Well, first Helen Strauss at the William Morris Agency, and then she was inherited by Lois, and then she came to me. It's been a long time now, but not back into the dark ages like it was with John.

Were you surprised by the phenomenal commercial success of The Year of Magical Thinking?
Yes. So was the publisher. The first printing was supposedly thirty-five thousand copies, then the Times magazine piece came out and they upped it to fifty thousand, then if you look at later editions and the number of printings.… It obviously touched a chord in so many people—young, old, people who hadn't even had anyone die. I think the honesty of her voice, the way she directly addressed the reader, without any sentimentality, was so moving.

How did you meet Hunter S. Thompson?
I don't know how Hunter came to me. I can't remember the sequence. I don't know who would have suggested it. Hunter was such a larger-than-life character. I always said that he was the one writer who always tried to say, "Oh, that didn't really happen"—talking about his escapades—but unlike most writers, they probably did happen. With most writers it's the opposite. He liked to go to these very chic restaurants in New York. I can remember taking him to the Carlyle and he'd be snorting cocaine right off his watch. He'd order six bottles of beer, two margaritas, and some salad. But the funny thing is, often he wouldn't even touch the stuff. Lunch would go on for hour after hour and he really wouldn't be drinking all that much during that time.

I read somewhere that you represented Fred Exley—and you sold A Fan's Notes?
That was when I was a kid too. That was very early. I don't remember the date, but that was when I was still at Sterling Lord, I think.

Do you remember how you met him? Were you close?
Oh, yes. I had an incredible correspondence with him. Fred was a terrible alcoholic and a tortured soul. Even more with Fred than with Hunter, there was a very, very tender part of him. Very sweet. Fred showed it more than Hunter did. I think that they couldn't deal with their vulnerability, therefore they drank. Or in Hunter's case, he drank and did drugs and everything else. They just couldn't cope with it. A Fan's Notes got tons of rejections and finally I sold it to David Segal, who was great. David was an eccentric. We need more people like him. He started his career at New American Library, which was a rather commercial imprint. But David had such a passion for literature and good writing. For instance, he picked up Cynthia Ozick when no one else did. And Fred. And Bill Gass.

You represent so many of the original New Journalists. What was it like to be at the center of a movement like that?
When I first represented Tom Wolfe, I was younger than Tom. I was a kid. And when I went to sell Tom's first book, his editor, Clay Felker, was the most important magazine editor in New York. I sent Tom's book out for auction. Viking, with whom Clay had an arrangement as sort of editor at large, brought Tom in for a meeting with Tom Guinzburg. But on the auction day, Viking didn't bid. So I thought that was curious. But they didn't, and the book went to FSG.

A few days later I went to this big literary party at Rust Hills's. I will never forget walking in. It was jammed with every writer and editor in New York. Clay was then dating Gloria Steinem, and Clay walked right over to me—this is like two days after the Tom thing—and he said, "You fucking cunt." I thought, "Oh my God!" I saw Tim Seldes coming up, so I said, "Tim, do you know Clay Felker?" And I walked away.

So what happened—the reason Clay was so furious—was that he thought he could deliver Tom Wolfe to Tom Guinzburg without anyone else looking at it. So of course he got mad at me instead of Tom. He was furious! Tom Guinzburg was furious too.

Now I'm going to skip forward many, many years. It's the publication party for Barbara Goldsmith's book Little Gloria…Happy at Last. It's a dinner at Phyllis Wagner's house. There are fourteen people invited. When she tells me the names, one of them is Clay Felker. And I said, "You know, he and I haven't spoken in years." And she said, "I think he thinks it's time to make up." So I go to the party and he comes over to me for the first time and says, "I'm really sorry about that. It wasn't your fault. It was that fucking Tom Guinzburg!"

But Clay's hatred of me got me a lot of good clients. Because around New York magazine he would scream that I was the toughest, bitchiest agent in town.

And it helps to have a little edge to your reputation?
Of course it does.