Agent Interview by
contributor Ricki Schultz.
“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Joe Monti of Barry Goldblatt Literary) 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.
He seeks: children’s and young adult and takes a special interest in multicultural and boy-centric books. As well, he represents graphic novels, picture books, and some adult genre fiction, with particular regard to fantasy and science fiction.
GLA: How did you become an agent?
JM: I wanted to marry the unique retail experiences I acquired as a children’s fiction buyer at Barnes and Noble along with my publishing experiences in sales and editorial in a creative way that would also let me utilize my skills in advocacy for my clients.
GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?
JM: Eisner and World Fantasy award winner Charles Vess’s next picture book, written by Neil Gaiman, titled Instructions, coming late Spring 2010 from HarperCollins Children’s Books. Bits on the creation of the book can be seen here.
GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?
JM: Non-genre middle grade fiction, because as much as I love genre fiction, with a fierce passion, there is nothing finer to me than reading a middle grade novel that can accomplish so much, so elegantly, and with minimal word choice. I like to cite Jerry Spinelli’s Loser as my example of this. At the end of the novel, there’s a snowstorm, and the not-as-whimsical-as-he-was protagonist dives outside into it to help a friend. His parents follow suit. On one level, it reads like a desperate search through a blizzard; on another, deeper level, that perhaps only a sophisticated or adult reader can appreciate, Spinelli is plotting out a discourse on the meaning of loss. What is lost? What does it mean to be lost? And how do you know you truly are? And what then signifies you as a loser? Brilliant.
Another deep interest is YA science fiction aimed at a male readership. I’m a big believer that the going wisdom that boys of a certain age do not read is utterly wrong. I do believe that we lose a lot of boy readers after a certain age because there isn’t a lot for them to read, nor to easily designate as potential reads, after the ages of 11-13. When I was at B&N, I was fortunate enough to be in the position as a children’s fiction buyer when everything was changing, and thus be a part of it. In YA, while I think Burgess’s Smack, followed by Anderson’s Speak were the two biggest initial, critical successes, Von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series deserves equal time as a herald, as it proved to publishers that there was a large female readership here and that they should publish towards it.
In other words, GG was the gateway fiction the YA category needed to jumpstart it. I feel that smart, high-action science fiction (and action thrillers) will help to do the same for male readers. YA had Paolini, while the books became a phenomenon; oddly not many have tried to write more action-driven fantasy for boys. Give me some smart military science fiction for teen boys and you’ll see that readership start to pick up writers like John Green and Barry Lyga. Then, the category will get even more interesting. So I’m also talking to adult science fiction writers who have shown an interest or a particular appropriate voice in their works to write a YA novel. Whether I represent them or not, I think it’ll be good for the industry as a whole. Doctorow’s Little Brother, which I loved with an intense passion, is a great example.
Then, there’s another old flame: Steampunk. So, a lot of what I’ve seen is pseudo-steampunk: Quasi Victorian or Edwardian era fiction with some absurdist machinery. What Steampunk really was, and can be, is a rebellion against the mores of society, largely through the utilization of science and education. The rebellion, hence the punk aesthetic, is largely lost in the brass bolt tech or Victorian-ish era setting. I’m looking to put the punk back in steampunk and I hope I get such a manuscript across my desk because the era is such a wonderful mirror to our modern times in many ways. Except for the equality of race. But a good modern steampunk novel should address that as well as have some kick-butt action and tech. A lot is riding on Scott Westerfeld’s forthcoming Leviathan series to help break this subgenre out. But Scott’s got the talent to make it happen, so we may see more of it.
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GLA: Why did you choose juvenile literature as your primary area of interest? What is it that draws you to this category?
JM: Honestly, I was lucky. Like many in our field, I fell into it, and within three months of reading it intensely, I was in love and never looked back. In large part, I believe it’s because I can relate to the literature at a deep level. Take my love of middle grade: I had a traumatic experience at the age of nine when I had open-heart surgery. Back then, it was a life or death thing, and they waited to perform the surgery until I was just old enough to survive it. I quickly became the introspective, chubby nine-year-old that enjoyed talking to adults cliché and had a sense of mortality and a level of empathy beyond my years. So when I read books like Because of Winn-Dixie, I not only know that girl, Opal, I also wish I had her story to help me understand what I was going through at that age. Thus, getting behind a book like that is not just a personal advocacy, but also a need to share it in a social sense to pay it forward. Children’s and YA fiction has the ability to transform a reader, and a bookseller, far more than any other category.
GLA: Cultural diversity also interests you. What subjects are you tired of seeing in this area? As well, are there any subjects you feel are untapped and would, therefore, be a refreshing change from the typical multicultural story?
JM: As our president famously said, I’m a mutt. My parents both immigrated here, my mother from Argentina (and her mother a full-blooded Quichua), and my dad from Italy. My wife, also a child of immigrants, is Chinese-American, and our son is all these things and more. So there’s our family history that colors so much of how I perceive the world, as a lens, not a filter.
When I was a buyer, I was tired of certain subject matters only because those subjects have been explored so well, so often, that you really needed to bring something special to the page to make anyone take notice. The Book Thief is a recent example of a Holocaust story done so well that it transcends and sits alongside some of the other great WWII works. Send me a story about some modern immigrant stories, some multi-generational stuff, like the forthcoming (in the US) YA novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafon. There are deeply rich stories about being an outsider, and yet how assimilation means a compromise and loss. I’d also love to see more issues of race discussed in modern terms, where there is the melting pot happening across the US, yet the tensions are still there, like the fear of the other. I think these stories, when done well, are universal stories, as we all feel that way at some point. Look at Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as exhibit A.
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Other writing/publishing articles and links for you:
- How to Write Your First Novel: 6 Pieces of Advice.
- The Importance of Setting in Your Fiction.
- NEW Literary Agent Seeking Writers: Claire Dunnington of Vicky Bijur Literary.
- Don’t Let an Agent Reject Your Query Letter Because of These Mistakes.
- How to Write a Plan a Book Series.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Author Platform.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
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