“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. I find it fascinating to see the exact road people took that landed them with a rep. Seeing the things people did right vs. what they did wrong (highs and the lows) can help other scribes who are on the same journey. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. To see the previous installments of this column, click here. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll talk specifics.
Kapitoil (Harper Perennial, 2010). He is a graduate
of Harvard and Washington University in St.
Louis, where he taught fiction and creative
nonfiction writing. The recipient of a 2010
NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, his work
has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York
Times, Vanity Fair, Esquire, the Wall Street
Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in New
York. See his website here.
IGNORANCE = BLISS
In 2004, at the age of 25, I decided to write my first novel. The fact that I hadn’t really written much fiction before and took no writing classes in college didn’t deter me. My ignorance may have worked in my favor in some ways; I churned out a draft in eight months, an industriousness I now know to envy.
When I had a finished manuscript by the next summer, I cast a wide net for an agent. The Internet was suitable for all my research—even back in those dark ages, it was surprisingly easy to track down just about any agent’s e-mail. I also asked a friend who worked as a literary scout for a film company if she had any suggestions. When I sent her my synopsis, she recommended a few agents and mentioned that her mother, a literary agent, might like it. I’d had no idea her mother was an agent, but did as I was told. I was leaving New York soon to go to Washington University in St. Louis for an MFA in fiction writing. Just before I left, another agent contacted me. She wanted to represent me, and we met. I told her I still had the manuscript out to a few agents and would give them a couple of weeks to get back to me.
Within my first few days in St. Louis, my friend’s mother, Rosalie Siegel, e-mailed me to say she loved my novel—ebullience I wasn’t expecting after a number of “Thanks-but-not-for-us” rejections. She responded very personally to it and had a long history in publishing. I felt she would work hardest for me, and signed on with her.
SECOND NOVEL’S THE CHARM?
Bolstered by another injection of ignorance, I assumed the literary world would soon be my oyster. Not quite; despite Rosalie’s great enthusiasm, persistence, and insightful editorial guidance, all the publishers we submitted the manuscript to passed on it, though we came tantalizingly close at a few places. After three rounds, we had exhausted her roster of major and indie publishing houses.
I was devastated, but, in a rare display of overcoming adversity, decided to learn from the experience rather than wallow. The first novel was too small, too jejune—comments several declining editors had made and which Rosalie, tactfully, shared with me, with the belief that it’s better for writers to know why editors do or don’t respond to their work. I began a new novel, called Kapitoil, at the end of my first year in the MFA program. Two years later, after I had graduated from the program and was teaching undergrads in St. Louis, we submitted it.
And guess what? It met another thunderous round of rejections—and this time it didn’t even come all that close. This blow was much harder to take. I was 29, with two seemingly failed novels under my belt; not quite the end of the world, but not an auspicious way to close out my third decade on earth, either.
THE DEDICATION PAYS OFF
With Rosalie’s encouragement, I revised Kapitoil that spring and summer, especially the second half. In November 2009, the second draft was ready to go. Unfortunately, it coincided with the financial crash and a time of severe bloodletting in the publishing industry.
But Rosalie believed in the novel and sent it out. And, to my shock and relief, several houses wanted to publish it. We eventually went with the Harper Perennial imprint of HarperCollins, and Kapitoil came out this past April.
Throughout our five years together, Rosalie has been as attentive, loyal, and supportive as I could hope. According to my inbox, she has sent me, as of today, a total of 1,538 e-mails, many in response to some anxious or silly query of mine, sometimes just about what books or movies we’ve read or seen lately—an average of about 300 per year. I have friends who wait weeks for their agents to get back to them. It’s a harsh world out there, with failure around every turn. It’s reassuring to know someone has your back.