Agent Advice: Peter McGuigan of Foundry Literary + Media

Agent Interview by
contributor Ricki Schultz.
“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Peter McGuigan of Foundry Literary + Media) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agents.
This installment features Peter McGuigan of Foundry Literary + Media. Peter has more than 15 years of publishing experience. He has worked as an active agent for more than ten of those years and served as Rights Director for two literary agencies. Peter studied creative writing, journalism, and literature at Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University and has a degree in English.
He is looking for: smart, offbeat nonfiction, particularly narrative nonfiction on pop culture, niche history, biography, music and science. He also represents novelists, both commercial and literary, across all genres, especially first-time writers.


: How did you become an agent?

PM: Mostly by chance. My first job in publishing was at a small agency, but I was just figuring out how everything worked. Then I spent four years working for publishing houses, and near the end of that period, I began to feel my entrepreneurial side coming out. I had been frequently suggesting book ideas to my colleagues and leaving magazine articles for them on their desks, and lo and behold, some of these ideas turned into real books.

So I thought maybe this was the right direction for me. I didn’t like the endless meetings and politics of corporate publishing, and I felt that I belonged on the other side, as an advocate for writers. I was a writer myself, but I lacked the necessary discipline. Being an agent works well with my short attention span: I can juggle a number of creative projects, protect my writers and help them navigate their way through the publication process, which is almost never smooth sailing.

GLA: Tell us about something you’ve sold recently.

PM: I sold a sweet and funny memoir by SNL alum Jim Breuer recently to Gotham. I also sold a follow-up book to my biggest success so far, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, to Dutton. Both of these books exemplify what I try to do most often: Put together projects that are both commercial and high quality.

Dewey may look like a silly cat book, but it’s actually very intelligent and extremely moving—and it sold in 30 foreign countries. Jim may be known as that stoner guy from Half Baked, but when you read about his family, his struggles, and his faith in mankind, you can’t help but be pleasantly surprised. That, to me, is the perfect combination.

GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting?

PM: I am looking for every kind of book. I do literary fiction and kids books, history, and rock-n-roll bios. Really, if I like the writing and the subject, I’m open to it. And if it’s good, but it’s not for me, it’s probably for one of my other Foundry colleagues.

GLA: Does that mean you give submissions to colleagues you feel the book is more appropriate for, or do you reject and refer the writer to a different agent at Foundry?

PM: We’re lucky at Foundry in that we all overlap in interest, yet each of us has a core competency that is obvious. So when any of us finds a project that is good, it will find its way to the right Foundry agent without delay.

I’ve actually sold books in the past, at other agencies, where one of my colleagues had rejected it rather than walk it 30 feet to my desk, yet the author found me, and we were a perfect fit. That’s exactly what we are not about here. I think we enjoy a great balance: entrepreneurial yet collegial.

GLA: Your bio says you are “happiest when representing controversial, out of the ordinary, or provocative subjects and authors.”  Can you give us a few examples of books you’ve repped that fit this bill so authors know what to send you?

PM: I have a book coming out next year called Chasing the White Dog by Max Watman (S&S). It’s about America’s secret history with whiskey, especially the illegal, homemade kind. Let’s just say that the author spends equal amounts of time with the folks fighting moonshine and the folks making moonshine, and it makes the war on drugs look quaint by comparison.

I have another excellent book that is hanging just below the bestsellers list right now called The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel. It’s the amazing story of the art that the Nazis stole during WWII and the little-known group of soldiers who risked life and limb to find these works and bring them back. Stolen art from the war is still a majorly touchy subject—Robert just blew the whistle on SMU’s possession of two paintings that were stolen by Nazis and never returned to their rightful owners. One of them even has a swastika burned on the back of the frame!

I also did Lisa Lampanelli’s hilarious, but admittedly un-PC, book Chocolate, Please. Extremely well written, off color, not for the faint of heart.

Patrick DeWitt’s breathtakingly gorgeous novel Ablutions, one of the darkest and smartest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, about alcoholism and decay, was also mine.

These are the kinds of projects that get me out of bed in the morning.

GLA: In addition, you work with a lot of first-time writers. In an industry that gets increasingly difficult to break into, what are a few things newbies can do in their query letters that might convince you to take a chance on them?

PM: 1) Watch those typos, folks! We do notice. 2) Don’t try to be cheeky, it never works. 3) Tailor your submission to the agent, no “dear agent” letters! 4) Don’t go to more than one agent at the same agency—that’ll get you the delete button quicker than anything. 5) If it’s fiction, a tight paragraph that includes a pitch and compares it to other books is helpful—”for readers who enjoyed X and Y.” 6) For nonfiction, make sure we understand what the author’s qualifications, or “platform,” are.  If you’re trying to write a book about a subject you’re not an expert on, it’s probably not going to work out.

GLA: Regarding your interest in pet-related projects, are you more of a dog or cat person? Tell us about what draws you to this category.

PM: Ha! I was raised with (some would say “by”) both dogs and cats, and I like both equally. I admit that cats are better city animals, since they don’t require as much attention, but I’m happiest with one or two of each.
Ironically, I don’t have either at the moment. I had two cats and a dog, but my ex took them both when we split up! (This is where the “aaaawwwwwww” goes…) I do have a pet snake, but he’s not very cuddly…
I hesitate to say I’m drawn to the pet category. I’m attracted to all types of popular culture. When I read about Dewey, I knew he was a superstar among cats. I soon found out that Vicki Myron is also a superstar among librarians. Then I brought in Bret Witter, who is a superstar writer. And it worked! We sold a million hardcovers in the US, foreign rights in 30 countries, and we have a film deal with Meryl Streep attached. So sure, it starts with one cat, but it’s much, much more multi-dimensional than that.


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GLA: You seek nonfiction in a whole host of subjects.  Any areas lacking in amount of submissions?

PM: I think we’re overdue for a revival of upmarket crime books. Not mafia books, but In Cold Blood-style, literary narrative nonfiction that happens to be about a particular crime. We get these every so often. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil leaps to mind. Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz, which I was lucky enough to work on at my former agency. But there’s room for more of these.

My client Robin Gaby Fisher is one of the best writers in this arena. Her book After the Fire hit the Times bestsellers list, and she’s got a Pulitzer.  This caliber of writer tackling upmarket crime is, I think, ripe for rediscovery. Her next book is a similarly upmarket crime story called The Boys of the Dark, about an insanely sadistic reform school in the South that did unspeakable things to the boys there, and the whole town was in on it! Robin knows how to make these kinds of stories get under our skin and stay with us for a long time after we’ve put the book down—that’s her gift.

GLA: How much does a writer’s platform impact whether or not you agree to represent his manuscript?

PM: Major. As I said above, platform is everything when it comes to nonfiction. What gives you the credentials to author a book on subject X? A great idea needs to be paired with the right author. There’s no way to get around it.

GLA: If you were teaching a class on nonfiction writing & submitting, what would be item number one on your syllabus?

PM: I like Stephen King’s comment: Adverbs are not your friends. That’s good writing advice. As far as submitting, if you can’t summarize your idea in two to three sentences, it’s not fully formed yet.

GLA: What is the one thing you’d like to tell authors pitching you in person at a conference?

PM: Good luck—I probably won’t be there! Ha ha. Honestly, I’ve done a few of these things, and I love writers, but it really is the worst way to encounter someone’s writing. So if I were there, I’d say, “Lovely. Send your materials to my office, and I’ll look at it.”

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?

PM: I think I’m paraphrasing Harry Crews: “Fix your ass to the seat and write.”

This agent interview by Ricki Schultz,
freelance writer and coordinator of
Shenandoah Writers in VA. Visit her blog
or follow her on Twitter.

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