What is the lesson there, beyond never saying "No"?
When you're an agent, you must be open to every single person. There is no one who doesn't have an opportunity to see me. I really mean that. There is no little person who will be turned away by me. I mean, why not? What on earth does it cost me? The business of being an agent is the business of forming relationships, and everything is a seedling. If you go to a writers conference, as faculty, you will probably not take on anybody at that writers conference. But within five years, if you have done your job and been open to the universe—not to sound too California—you will eventually have a terrific client approach you who knew somebody who was the brother of someone who was at the conference five years ago and scribbled down your name. This has happened over and over and over again.
I'll give you another example. Many years ago, an editor at the Atlantic suggested to me that there was a writer named Elisabeth Hyde who was working on a novel. He thought I should check it out. So I wrote to her immediately. You know, "I hear from so-and-so that you're working on a novel." It turned out that she had just signed on with an agent. The letter I wrote back was something like, "Oh, drat. I have a two-year-old so I'm not allowed to swear. Well, best of luck to you, be well, blah blah blah, and I'll look forward to reading your book between hard covers." Well, she held on to that letter. A couple of years ago—when my daughter who was then two was now twenty-five—Elisabeth Hyde wrote back to me. She sent me the letter I had written to her more than twenty years ago. She said her agent retired, and she inherited another agent who didn't much like her work, and then she went with another agent who didn't like her novel at all. She asked the agent if it was all right for her to try to sell the book on her own. This agent, apparently, said, "Yeah, sure. Fine." She said, "If I find a publisher, will you help me with the contract?" He said, "Yes." So she finds a publisher on her own, MacAdam/Cage, and the agent negotiated the contract for zero advance, a fifty-fifty world rights split, and took 15 percent. I mean, honestly! At that point it occurred to Elisabeth that maybe she should find an agent who really liked her stuff. So she went back to her file and that's when she found my letter.
See how important it is to be remembered in this business? When you interact with someone, you want to make the molecules in the air change a little. You want somebody to say, "God, she's good!" You want to be remembered. You want to make an imprint. As an agent, you have to be able to do that.
I just read this great novel you sold by James Collins called Beginner's Greek. He came to writing late, and I'm curious how he came to you.
He came to me recommended by a magazine editor. I'm not going to tell you who it was because if I do, then all the hard-working agents, if they're really doing their jobs, will call this editor up and ask to buy him or her a meal. I have to keep some of my fabulous contacts to myself. But I was totally in love with this book and really, really wanted to get Jim Collins. I knew that he was seeing three or four other people, and I knew that he was well connected. I knew that my competition was going to be horrible. Hateful. You always want the competition to be someone who is really different from you, not just someone who is another version of you. So I didn't know what to do to distinguish myself. Jim decided to come to New York to meet with people. Of course I had read the book really carefully. I thought, "I'm going to take this guy to lunch. I've got to get this guy."
So I blow-dried my hair and put on a suit and put on Erase under my eyes. I'm taking him to Patroon—this very manly place, a guy place—and of course I get there early because I'm nervous, which is so typical of me. I don't know what he looks like. I'm waiting in these seats against the wall. There's a guy next to me who is also clearly waiting for somebody. We're both waiting. So I decide to balance my checkbook in order to stay calm while I wait. A guy walks in and I ask him if he's Jim, and he says no. He goes off and sits with this other guy. About five minutes later, another guy sits down. And I say, "Oh, I love your book." He says, "You do?" And I start to go on and on and on about how amazing his book is. He looks at me and says, "I can't tell you how sorry I am not to be the person you are expecting." I say, "You're not Jim Collins?" He says, "No. I'm the owner of the restaurant. You ate here once before, so you're in the computer, and I was coming to introduce myself and say hello." I couldn't believe it. I was like, "Now I've lost all my mojo! Get out of here!"
So finally Jim came in and I said, "Are you Jim? You had better be Jim Collins." I was so exhausted by then that it was just ridiculous. But it was him. He looked kind of formal, in a double-breasted suit, and very tall, and slightly nervous, but in a way that was deeply appealing. I was just as nervous as he was. And we just talked. I asked if I was his last meeting—I wanted to be his last meeting—and then I told him that I thought he should not be allowed to leave the table without saying yes to me. "Just say yes!"
You said that?
What did I have to lose? I think he was charmed, and he could see that I was serious. What does a writer want? A writer wants your passion. They want you to see the book in the same way that they've written it, and they want you to go to your death trying to sell it. They want to see that you are able to speak coherently and articulately about why you love the book. And I told him it was too long. I told him he needed to do this, that, and the other thing. I told him there were places where it was overly precious, where there was too much throat-clearing. I was very open with him. But he didn't disagree. So I did the best I could to win him over. He was one of those very intimidating people because he really listened. I hate it when people listen too well because then I tend to fill in the blanks and start talking too quickly and get really Latinate and formal and nervous. Anyway, it was a great meeting. I said, "You have to let me know. I really don't wait well. Please." And I told him something else. I told him there were other agents who could sell this book as well as I could, but nobody could sell it better. And then he called me up. Now it's in its fourth printing. It's doing very well, and it's gotten very widely reviewed, and we've sold it around the world. It's just been great.
You also represent Melissa Bank, who has gotten all tangled up in this issue of chick lit. Tell me what you think about that.
I don't consider her chick lit. I don't know what chick lit is. First of all, is there anybody out there who doesn't know that the easiest thing to sell is plot? But the thing that everybody wants is an original voice. And the thing that's kind of stuck in the middle is character. So here we have a collection of short stories—The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing—that doesn't have a single plot because it's made up of loosely connected short stories with one story that isn't even part of the rest of it. But what everybody loved about that book is what is absolutely not genre. I mean, chick lit has become a category, right? But I didn't sell that book as part of chick lit. First of all I wasn't even sure that I knew what chick lit was. And the thing that everybody, to a person, loved about Melissa's book is that it had an original voice.
Now, what is an original voice? Well, think of it like this: Go to Bonfire of the Vanities and close your eyes and pick a page and have someone read you two paragraphs. If you can't identify those paragraphs as the rhythms and cadences that belong to Tom Wolfe, you're finished. I'm convinced that eight times out of ten, with Melissa Bank, you could do the same thing. Now that is saying something. So I don't know. What is chick lit? Does it mean fiction that primarily attracts the interest of women readers? Well, that would include Jane Austen. Is Jane Austen chick lit? Absolutely not. Has Jane Austen ever written about anything other than marriage proposals, linens, china, and who has a good dowry? No. I adore her. I read her every year. But that is what her books are about. So is she the queen of chick lit? I don't know. It seems kind of silly to me, to be honest. If I read a short story by Melissa Bank, I can always identify it as Melissa because of the voice, and my view of the world is altered for having read her work. That's a lot for a short story to have succeeded in doing, and that's what her stories do. So I don't know, and I don't care, whether Melissa Bank is considered part of the chick-lit world. What I do know is: One, that I love her; and two, that I respect her. And there are many writers who I love and many writers who I respect. But there are very few whom I both love and respect, and Melissa is in that small group.
Tell me how Terry McMillan came to your attention.
Terry was recommended to me by a young editor at Houghton Mifflin named Larry Kessenich. She had sold her first book to Houghton Mifflin, and she didn't like the contract and she didn't like the agent. Right in the middle of the deal, she decided that she didn't want anything to do with the agent, and it just fell apart. She wasn't under contract yet, and it just fell apart. Larry put my name out there as an agent she should talk to. I always tell editors, "You don't have to recommend me exclusively. I know that's a terrible burdensome thing for you if things don't work out. But just put me on a short list. Or put me on a long list. Just put me on a list. I promise you I will read this quickly. I will not embarrass you. I will read this well. And if it's really wonderful, I won't necessarily send it to you exclusively, but I won't fuck you over, either." I was always good to my word, so it was easy for me to be recommended.
With Terry, I was on a short list of maybe six agents. I loved the pages, and she came to meet me. I said, "Oh, you're great. You're going to be a star. I don't know how effective I can be, but I will fight very hard on your behalf." She had already seen four people and she said, "I want to go with you. I like your energy." But I said, "No. Wrong. You've already made an appointment with this last person, who comes very highly recommended, and I want you to see that last person." She said, "Why?" I said, "Because if you and I ever have a fight, or a temper tantrum, I don't ever want you to wonder what that other agent would have been like. I want you to come to me with a full education of having met five other people who were highly recommended to you. Besides, you made an appointment and it's wrong to cancel your appointment. Go ahead and continue your education of finding an agent." So she did, and in the end she came back and told me that she still wanted me, which was great.
What was it about her writing that you responded to?
I fell in love with Terry's writing because she had an original voice. Go back and read the first page of Mama, when Mildred, the mother, is wielding an ax. It's like, "Whoa!" It springs off the page. That's why it happened. But Terry built a career by believing in herself more than anybody else did. She really worked hard. She had a two-year-old son, and she was living in a sixth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn. She was doing programming or something in a law office. Things were not easy for her. But she just got on the phone with all these bookstores and said, "I want to set up a reading" and "You're going to want me" and "You must want me."
I remember that Houghton Mifflin got an offer of ten thousand dollars for paperback rights. This was before we knew how Mama would perform. I called them up and said, "No, no, no, no, no. You have to understand who you are dealing with. You are dealing with a force of nature, and it's a force of nature has not been felt yet. You will make a terrible mistake if you sell reprint rights for ten thousand dollars. Believe me, if you hang on a little bit longer, you'll be rewarded." And they did, and they were.
So to go back to your question about how you build up a list, the answer is that you just keep fighting on your authors' behalf. Sometimes the fighting is not effective—it doesn't work, it doesn't matter, it doesn't make a difference. But sometimes it is effective, and when it is, and your efforts have been proven right, people start to remember. They start to think, "Maybe she knows what she's doing." Then it gets to the point where it gets out of control with editors who want to see your submissions and become really upset if they don't.
Tell me about that.
I remember one editor who started to cry at lunch. This was one of the people to whom I did not say "No." She's crying and she says, "I just really want to know what I can do to get on your submission list." I thought, "This is really appalling. I am now in an official tight spot." Sometimes you have lunch with people and you know by the time the breadbasket is empty that you will not be submitting to them anytime soon. It's usually when somebody says, "So! Tell me about your list!" I think, "You jerk. You moron. How dare you have lunch with anybody and not know that stuff." When I have a first lunch with anybody, I know what they've published. I know how to spell their name. I take the time to learn who my audience is.
But when this person started sobbing and saying, "What can I do?" I was very gentle with her. I said, "The thing is, it's not easy." I'm not a mean person, and there is a part of me that's deeply maternal. But I knew she was a disaster. I said, "You have to find your own people in the beginning. You can't expect agents to just submit their most beloved thing to you. If they haven't done business with you, that is a huge risk for them." I said, "Tell me about some books you have published that you have found on your own and won and done well by. Books that you've really published well. And this is not a test. I don't mean to put you on the spot. But if you don't have an answer—and I suspect you don't because you are, after all, very young—then two things have to happen. One is that you have to build a list a little bit, and the other is that you have to be right about a book at least two times in the next five to seven years. If you do that, people will start to send you things, because you will have stepped out on an editorial limb and proven yourself right. That's the way to get attention. You have to be right."
I think that's how it works. You hang around long enough, and you insist, like Scarlett O'Hara just before the intermission, "As God as my witness...this book will sell!" And if it does sell, and you were right, and everyone else was wrong, then you build up credibility. But it takes time. Here I am, thirty years later. I'm old! I'm fifty-five years old! But seriously, it is a business of staying with it long enough to really build up credibility and respect and a reputation for honesty. Always for honesty. God, this is a small business. I can tell you exactly which agents exaggerate the interest they have. I can tell you who lies. They're out there. I know who these people are. It's my job to know.