Agents & Editors: Susan Golomb

Michael Szczerban
From the May/June 2014 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

To a beginning writer, the business of publishing can seem driven more by who knows whom than the quality of work that makes it into print. Part of the problem may be the way agents and editors sometimes talk about the slush pile—that never-ending supply of query letters and unsolicited manuscripts from aspiring authors—as if they were addressing a patch of stubborn basement mold. The fact is, slush is essential, which is why those same agents and editors keep reading it in the hope of discovering new voices and fresh ideas.

The slush pile affords unknown authors the opportunity to grab the attention of publishing professionals with their writing alone. While most authors I know think of slush as something to be avoided at all costs—a nightmarish wasteland policed by twenty-year-old interns—it’s also where some of today’s most interesting and successful writers got their start.

Take agent Susan Golomb’s slush pile, for instance. That’s where she discovered Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City (FSG, 1988), and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking, 2006), and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (Dial Press, 2010). In addition to referrals, she still takes on new clients from among the twenty to thirty unsolicited submissions that she receives daily.

Golomb graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a theatrical production coordinator and story editor before starting her literary agency in 1988. Franzen was her first client, along with Gwyn Hyman Rubio, author of Icy Sparks (Viking, 1998); she also represents Yvon Chouinard, Harry Dent, Joshua Max Feldman, Glen David Gold, Rachel Kushner, Krys Lee, and William T. Vollmann, among many others.

This past February I waded through the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in a different kind of slush—the weather condition called “wintry mix”—to meet with Golomb at her office in the Brooklyn Creative League, a community work space on the edge of Park Slope. She moved there from her previous office, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Thirty-First Street, in 2010.

Why did you move to Brooklyn a few years ago?
I had moved to Park Slope, and I had a young child. The commute was just awful. I’d get home late, and that interfered with my son’s schedule—he would want to stay up much later because he hadn’t seen me all day. And then somebody told me about this space and I thought, “It doesn’t really matter where my office is.” Plenty of agents work in Long Island or California. And the agent David Black moved to Brooklyn around the same time I did. Now I live a fifteen-minute walk from here. My apartment is at the top of the slope. I drop my son off at his school partway down and then I come here. It’s easy.  

Is being an agent a more family-friendly job than being an editor? I occasionally daydream about one day becoming a work-at-home dad, which seems easier to manage as an agent.
When I first started my agency I did start it in my apartment, and it was just me. But it’s demanding work. You need to be accessible. Our iPhones are very freeing, but it’s not like I can hang out poolside.

Why stay in the New York City area?
When I bought my house upstate, which I’m selling, it was with the intention of possibly working from up there. But in the end I didn’t think I would be able to find an adequate staff up in the country, and it remains so important to have lunches and meetings with people in the city. I would have been three hours away—not an easy commute.

Who are the people you look to hire and what do they do?
You want somebody who is very intelligent, who’s a very good writer and reader, who is also well read. Then it gets personal, because of my particular taste. I need someone who gets the books that I do. I’ve only had one assistant who read exactly as I did. He commented on the same issues and loved the same parts. It was amazing; he was like my double, and I miss that.

Some of my books are kind of out there. They are ambitious in ways that are not the nicely crafted domestic novel. It’s hard to find assistants or interns who can pick up on the same potential that I see. I call some of the books that I represent my shaggy dogs. They’re exuberant and they try to do all kinds of things, but they may also have whole parts that need to be deleted or characters that need to disappear. They need a lot of grooming before they go out. I enjoy that process, and when I go out with those manuscripts, they’re so fresh and inventive and exciting that I do well with them.

How did you develop your taste?
I was the kind of kid who would read the cereal box. I couldn’t sit still without reading. And then when I got to college, I was an English major with a theater concentration. I found expository reports very boring, so I would write instead in Shakespearean English—for instance, a piece imagining the Dark Lady in his sonnets, working the necessary facts into a creative frame. They were really fun to write. I was always kind of out of the box.

How was that received? You were at the University of Pennsylvania.
My teachers liked it. I graduated summa cum laude and won the thesis prize.

What did you want to do after graduation?
I wanted to work in the theater. My first job out of college in the early eighties was with Arthur Cantor, one of a dying breed of independent theater producers in New York. He was like Max Bialystock, Zero Mostel’s character in The Producers. It was a miserable experience. I worked on his switchboard and I dropped calls all the time.

But you gained exposure to the world of theater.
I also worked for WNET’s Great Performances series. I was the production coordinator for a version of Alice in Wonderland they did with Richard Burton and Nathan Lane before he was Nathan Lane. Kate Burton, Richard’s daughter, played Alice. It was an all-star cast. One day when Kate was sick I got to read her lines in a scene with Colleen Dewhurst and Maureen Stapleton. That will be one of the five best memories I will take to my grave.

I loved the three-dimensionality of theater and television and films. But I ended up agenting because I found that you needed to be an actor or director to have creative satisfaction in that arena. Producing wasn’t creative; it was about logistics and getting things done yesterday for half the price. I wasn’t interested in that.

When did you start agenting?
My early career was a little bit checkered. I would work on a production, then at an agency, and then I’d leave to work on another production. I was in my twenties, feeling it all out. Then I landed at Rosenstone/Wender, an agency that handled film and television writers as well as authors.

Howard Rosenstone was the preeminent theatrical agent. He represented David Mamet and Peter Parnell and all these great playwrights. And Phyllis Wender represented some British playwrights and some television writers and also sold books. It’s there that I found Jonathan Franzen’s The Twenty-Seventh City.

Tell me more about that.
The novel came in unsolicited, and I read it and worked on it with Jonathan for a while. When I sold the book, it got a lot of attention because Jonathan Galassi, on the heels of the huge success of Presumed Innocent, said that it was the best book he had ever acquired. The scouts and the foreign publishers descended upon the agency.

It was exciting, but I was in a no-growth job situation. I looked around at other agencies to see if there were positions where I could do contracts or subsidiary rights while developing my own list, but there weren’t any opportunities at the time. So I started my agency in my apartment while I waited for Jonathan’s second novel.

That story reminds me of what Michael Crichton told Lynn Nesbit when he chose her as his agent. He said, “Let’s grow up in the business together.”
Yes! Jonathan and I are very close in age—he’s exactly six months older than I. We really did grow up together. I remember sitting with him and Jonathan Galassi at our table at the National Book Awards the year The Corrections had been nominated. Before the prize was announced, someone had let it be known that Jonathan had won, and we just sat and looked at each other, beaming. It felt beautiful. Jonathan Galassi had been quite new at Farrar, Straus, after he had been fired from Random House, so Jonathan Franzen was an early success of his as well.

Was Franzen the first author you represented on your own?
There were two. Gwyn Rubio and Jonathan Franzen. Both of those authors became Oprah picks many years later. That was really fun.

What made you want to represent Franzen?
It was the ambition and brilliance on the page. I was quite intimidated by the editing process with him. He was stunningly articulate, but he also had a breadth of knowledge of local government and civil planning and engineering and tax reform and corporate finance. I was just in such awe. But I also knew that the book really should start in chapter four, and that’s what I said: “Let’s make chapter four the beginning, and weave in the rest of it.”

As a reader, you have an instinct for the story that’s going to carry you along. Sometimes the writer takes you by the hand from the very start and sometimes that happens down the road of the book. Jonathan was a shaggy dog at the very beginning. [Laughs.] He needed some grooming.

How does it feel for you to know that a thing isn’t right the way it is, but would be right a different way? Do you get a particular sensation?
I think it’s a spark. Certain things jump out because they’re fascinating and fresh and compelling. It’s about pulling more of that material out of the mass of pages. It’s very energizing. Many of my authors don’t need any work at all, but the ones who do need work often require a lot of creativity.

Would you give me an example?
Rachel Kushner was a student of Jonathan Franzen’s when she first came to me. She wanted to write a memoir of her mother and aunt, who had spent some time as teenagers in Cuba before the revolution. They lived in an expat community near the United Fruit Company, and their parents worked for the government in nickel mining. And up in the hills, Raúl Castro was organizing for the revolution. Nothing really happened to them, but I thought: “What an incredible premise for a novel! What if we could actually have the revolution come down and descend on this expat community?”

I suggested to Rachel that she write her story as a novel. She asked, “Do you think I could do that?” I said, “Sure, why not?” I could see that she had talent. And then she disappeared for four years. She went to Cuba and did research and had started these different story lines, and we worked together to make them all fit. There was a lot about narrative momentum that she needed to learn, which was the challenge with that material: The book, Telex From Cuba, is from three different points of view. Of course, it was all her work. I don’t do any writing. I guide and suggest.

An editor’s job is often to help a writer see and evaluate the decisions the writer is making, sometimes unconsciously.
Exactly. When I take on a writer, if the book needs work, I ask, “What do you want your book to be?” I am here to make the book the writer wants, and not the book that I think is most marketable. I can say, “If you do this, I think it’ll sell more copies.” But it’s up to the writer. My role is to be a midwife to the birth of the book.

Did you pose that specific question to Rachel?
I probably did.