Literary Agent Interview: Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc.) 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 Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc. Bridget Smith began her career at Dunham Literary, Inc. in June 2011. Previously, she was an intern at Don Congdon Associates, worked at a secondhand book store in Connecticut, and evaluated short story submissions for Tor.com under Liz Gorinsky and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. She graduated from Brown University in 2010. While there, she studied anthropology and archaeology. You can find her on Twitter.

She is seeking: Bridget is looking for middle grade and young adult novels in a range of genres, including fantasy and science fiction, historical fiction, romance, and contemporary. However, she’s also keeping an eye out for any book that bends the rules of genre or any books with underrepresented or minority characters. When it comes to adult fiction, Bridget especially wants fantasy and science fiction, historical fiction, and literary women’s fiction, as well as informational, literary nonfiction, especially science or history written by experts for a general audience.

 

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

BS: As is the case with many of us, I sort of fell into it. When I realized in my senior year of college that I wasn’t actually planning on going for a Ph.D. in archaeology, I was left casting around for other things I liked and was good at. My lifelong love of books came to mind pretty quickly, and I started applying to internships in publishing. One year – and one agency internship, one freelance job, and one bookselling job – later, I was hired as the assistant at Dunham Literary, Inc.

GLA: Besides “good writing and voice,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

BS: I always want something with a fresh twist: a cool setting, an unusual point-of-view, a thoughtful inversion of the tropes. A clever premise spun into a heartfelt story will get me every time, as will characters that I’d enjoy reading even if there were no plot. However, you still need a plot, though. What I’m really looking for is something that I’ve never thought of! But for personal specifics: I’d love to see a “fantasy of manners” in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or Shades of Milk and Honey, a heroine with a big voice from 1940s England à la Code Name Verity or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, or something that makes the very earth feel magical, like The Raven Boys or Chime.

(Find out why agents stop reading your first chapter.)

GLA: What kind of character type is underrepresented?

BS: “Underrepresented” here refers to character types that we see less of in fiction than we do in real life: non-white, LGBTQ, disabled, and more. The world of books needs to more accurately reflect the world we live in, and I aim to represent books that will help the balance.

GLA: What is one thing you are sick of seeing in queries?

BS: I’m sick of seeing people criticize a genre—any genre, whether it’s the one they’re writing or not. It happens that I too am sick of vampires, but even if you’re joking, saying “Don’t worry, there aren’t any vampires in my novel” will put me on the side of the vampires. I like a wide variety of genres, so odds are good that the one you’re criticizing is one I represent.

I’m also sick of vagueness. I get so many queries every day that don’t tell me enough about the novel: if there’s no reason for me to say yes, then it’s going to be no. I simply don’t have the time to read them all!

 

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GLA: Opinions on the definition of “women’s fiction” seem somewhat divided. What constitutes this category in your mind?

BS: For me, this comes down to novels about women by women. The tag “women’s fiction” is often used to marginalize books that should really be called literary fiction, but I’m using it as shorthand to describe the kind of literary fiction I like. I want thoughtful, well-written, compelling novels about women’s lives.

GLA: When it comes to nonfiction, a lot of agents are looking for “experts” in their fields. What defines a person as capable of writing on a certain subject?

BS: I’m a bit of a snob here, thanks to a few years spent contemplating a career in academia. Advanced degrees or practical experience in the field are always a good sign, though not the only criterion I use. There are some brilliant, fascinating, funny academics who write terribly dry books. Skilled journalists with a background in research and writing can often start from a place of curiosity and emerge with an expert text. Mary Roach, for example, has no background in most of the subjects she writes about, but by talking extensively with people who do, she’s able to write accessibly, intelligently, and expertly.

GLA: How does your background in anthropology and archaeology influence your tastes as an agent?

BS: I think it’s closely tied to my loves for both fantasy and historical fiction. I’ve always had this fascination with other worlds. If you look, you’ll actually find lots of fantasy writers who were anthropology students! It also means that I want fully developed settings, whether they’re realistic or completely imagined. I want to believe this world has cultures and history and peoples who influence each other, even if we don’t see any of that in the text.

GLA: In regards to the previous question, what’s your opinion of anthropology based fiction such as the popular TV series “Bones”?

BS: I’m very fond of “Bones”! It was one of my favorite shows for years, and it coincided with my first-ever archaeology class to influence my choice of major. But one of the reasons the show works so well is because it uses actual bizarre facts and real science (Kathy Reichs was respected in the field, though she’s done less work there lately) to flavor the story, and because it’s carried by very compelling characters. I’m in favor of anthropology in books, as long as it’s done with a knowledgeable eye and a deft hand.

GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?

BS: This is not really a surprise if you look at my Twitter bio, but: I was a radio DJ (and more) for three years. I was a swimmer from ages 4 to 17 and a fencer from 13 to 21. I did theater in high school. I’ve been in simulated microgravity at NASA, and I promptly got so nauseated I had to be strapped in. And I love books that capture any of those experiences. Well, maybe not the nausea, unless you’re very, very good.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?

BS: My next conference will be Backspace Writers Conference in New York at the end of May [2013].

(See a list of writers conferences here.)

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

BS: It’s such a cliché, but that doesn’t make it less true: read. Read everything. Read fiction and nonfiction, your genre and everything else. Without reading extensively, you’re not going to know the difference between good books and bad. If you’re only reading what you want to write, you’re not going to bring anything new to the genre. And perhaps the most important aspect of this: read thoughtfully. You need to read some books like a reader – diving in headlong, purely for enjoyment – but sometimes you need to analyze books to figure out exactly what worked and what didn’t in order to make yourself better.

And besides, there’s nothing that rejuvenates you quite like reading a truly wonderful book!

 

This agent interview is by Brittany Roshelle Davis, a
freelance writer and aspiring author. You can visit her
blog, The Write Stuff, or follow her on Facebook.


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