Literary Agent Interview: David Dunton of Harvey Klinger, Inc.

This installment features David Dunton of Harvey Klinger, Inc. Prior to being an agent, he was an editor in Simon & Schuster's trade paperback group. He is seeking: popular culture, narrative nonfiction, memoir, adventure/true story, food writing, nature, literary fiction, fiction stories with distinctly American voices, and young adult fiction.
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent David Dunton of Harvey Klinger) 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 David Dunton of Harvey Klinger, Inc. Prior to being an agent, he was an editor in Simon & Schuster's trade paperback group.

He is seeking: popular culture, narrative nonfiction, memoir, adventure/true story, food writing, nature, literary fiction, fiction stories with distinctly American voices, and young adult fiction.

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GLA: Briefly, how did you become an agent?

DD: I left my job as an associate editor at Simon & Schuster to tour with a band, and after a year on the road, I had a couple of months’ downtime before making a second album. An agent I knew at Harvey Klinger, Inc. took pity on me, had me do some part-time work for the agency, and I enjoyed the experience and the people so much that after the band’s second album got made, I quit and signed on to work full time, initially as Harvey’s assistant. I’ve been here ever since.

GLA: What’s something coming out now that you repped and are excited about?

DD: Journalist Dan Charnas’s The Big Payback (NAL, December 2010) is a comprehensive history of the business of hip-hop. Dan spent four years researching, interviewing 300+ people, and writing this book, and at 672 pages, I’d like to think that it will endure as the definitive examination of this fascinating end of the music business. Jeff Chang called it “a hip-hop version of David Halberstam’s The Reckoning.” The December 9th issue of Rolling Stone reviewed it and called it “A classic of music-business dirt-digging.” May it backlist forever.

(See a growing list of nonfiction agents.)

GLA: How does your background in editing influence your agenting style?

DD: One of the things that attracted to me this agency in 1996 was the level of editorial care and guidance given the writers. We’re as heavily involved, from proposal to finished manuscript, as is necessary. I became an editor because I loved the editorial process; now I find that I am editing more as an agent than I ever did as an editor. I believe in working a client’s proposal or manuscript through as many drafts as it takes to ensure that it has the best chance of success in this very difficult market.

GLA: What makes Harvey Klinger, Inc. stand out from other agencies?

DD: We have a great crew of people with distinct interests that cover most grounds, and a dedication to the editorial process. Harvey’s a generalist who believes that literary and commercial don’t need to be mutually exclusive, and nearly 15 years after I started here, he’s still teaching me things; Sara Crowe is one of the best children’s book agents out there, constantly finding exciting new voices; Andrea Somberg casts a reasonably wide net and works harder than almost anyone I know to sell her clients’ projects. It’s a joy to work with these people, there are no office politics, Harvey understands the importance of a well-balanced life, we don’t waste our time having pointless meetings, and we all give our clients a lot of attention.

GLA: Say you’ve just read a full manuscript you love, but there are definite flaws. What are the top three things you consider before deciding to reject the ms, request revisions and resubmission, or offer representation (with revisions coming later)?

DD: 1) If it’s fiction, whether there are any characters people will like or at least relate to; 2) Whether I can think—without any great effort—of at least five editors to whom I’d submit the project; 3) This isn’t exactly a third consideration, but I like to wait a week, read the proposal or manuscript a second or third time, and see whether I feel as strongly about the material. Sometimes what I thought was love turns out to have been just a minor crush.

GLA: What do you see for the future of young adult literature?

DD: A shift to enhanced e-book domination. My older kids are 9 and 13, and while they love stories and enjoy reading, they also like the computer and the iPad and the television more—in spite of having parents and stepparents that are all voracious readers. Young adult authors are going to have to abandon the urge to be old-school about their writing, in most cases, if they want to find a healthy audience among tomorrow’s kids. I’ve personally got little use for links to music and video and other material I consider extraneous, but the minds of kids today work completely differently than they did even just ten years ago, for better or for worse. It’s just a different, more fragmented requirement for all entertainment.

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GLA: In your bio, it says you seek “books with distinctly American voices.” Can you elaborate and perhaps give an example of a book that exemplifies this? How did your degree in American Studies pique your interest in this type of books?

DD: The American Studies major is such a catch-all, “e pluribus unum,” that you can make pretty much anything from it. In a way it best prepared me to do exactly what I am doing—knowing a little bit about many things, knowing a lot about a few. Taking a class devoted to Mark Twain didn’t hurt. (Thank you, Professor Richard Slotkin.)

Ron Carlson, Ian Frazier, Gretel Ehrlich, Thomas Pynchon, Jack Kerouac, Toni Morrison, Franklin Dixon, Nick Tosches, Dennis Lehane, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo, Larry McMurtry, Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, James Baldwin, Tony Earley, Annie Proulx, Richard Meltzer, Chuck Klosterman, Charles Portis, Hunter Thompson, Raymond Carver, S.E. Hinton, etc. There are so many possible examples of classic American writers. One of the first novels I ever sold, Jeremy Jackson’s Life at These Speeds, is the kind of book that fits perfectly—its recent sale to a publisher in Taiwan notwithstanding, it has about as American a voice as I can imagine.
This probably sounds a bit xenophobic, but I just really like reading books set in, or written about, America. It’s such a varied geographical and cultural landscape that there’s always something different to explore. Of course, I’m also one of those people who feel that Americans should see more of the country than they do. I’ve been to 46 of our 50 states, and I’d like to claim I’ll get to the other 4 (AK, AR, OK, ND), because you just never know what you might find, but I think only Alaska stands a shot. I’ve probably just alienated writers from those other three.

GLA: How long does it take you to size up a nonfiction proposal and judge whether you’re interested?

DD: This process takes me anywhere from a day to a week. There are times when I know the approximate size of the audience for a project, and other times when I’ll need to do my research.

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

DD: The Unicorn Writers’ Conference, Portland, CT; April 9, 2011.

GLA: Best way to contact you?


GLA: Something personal about you writers may be surprised to know?

DD: When I grow up, I’d like to be Paul Theroux – living part of the year in Hawaii and the other part on Cape Cod. That, to me, is the ideal. My wife’s from Hawaii, I grew up in New England going to the Cape many summers, and I like the idea of living on both the U.S.’s western-most and nearly eastern-most land, getting to see both parts of our family.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t discussed?

DD: Don’t take rejection personally. Agents are wired to say no, and have to do so 99% of the time. Editors are built the same way. The odds of a project’s finding not only an agent but then a publisher are almost absurdly long. But that’s no reason not to try, because it’s like playing the slot machines—you just might get lucky.

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Agent interview by Donna Gambale,
who works an office job by day, writes young
adult novels by night, and travels when possible.
She blogs at the First Novels Club and is the
author of a mini kit, Magnetic Kama Sutra.

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