How I Got My Agent: David Vann

"How I Got My Agent" is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at literaryagent@fwmedia.com and we'll talk specifics. David Vann is the author of Caribou Island (Jan. 2011), a novel about a marriage going wrong in the wilderness of Alaska. His book, Legend of a Suicide, was an international bestseller translated into 13 languages, and was on 40 “Best Books of the Year” lists worldwide, such as the The New Yorker, Book Club and The Times Book Club. He also is the author of the bestselling memoir A Mile Down.
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"How I Got My Agent" is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. 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 literaryagent@fwmedia.com and we'll talk specifics.

David is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Zach won.)

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David Vann is the author of Caribou Island (Jan. 2011),
a novel about a marriage going wrong in the wilderness
of Alaska. His book, Legend of a Suicide, was an
international bestseller translated into 13 languages,
and was on 40 “Best Books of the Year” lists
worldwide, such as the The New Yorker Book
Club and The Times Book Club. He also is the
author of the bestselling memoir A Mile Down.
Vann lives in San Francisco. See his website here.

TURNING DOWN AN AGENT'S OFFER

When I had my first story published (Atlantic Monthly, June 1992), I was contacted by half a dozen agents, some of them famous (the Borchardts and Maxine Groffsky, for instance), but the most persistent was Kim Witherspoon. She was young and hungry then, a good agent with a solid reputation still building her list. I had only three short stories finished, no book, and the other agents wanted a full book, but Kim called me and offered representation based on the three stories. She would help me work toward that first book.

I said no. I had heard only good things about Kim, but I thought it was just too early. I didn’t have a book-length manuscript.

I would regret this decision for more than a dozen years, and I’m very good at regret. Various friends and girlfriends heard me moan on about it, and then my wife heard about it, over and over, as I watched Kim’s list and reputation grow. Several of my friends signed on with her. She was especially good at short story collections. She helped one of my former girlfriends, Julie Orringer, finish her collection and place it with Knopf and start a brilliant literary career. Meanwhile, I went to sea and became a captain because I couldn’t find an agent who would send out my story collection and therefore couldn’t get a tenure-track job to continue my teaching career. My life went into the crapper, and if I had signed in 1992 with Kim, I’m convinced she would have gotten my book published when it was finished, in the late nineties. The shape of my life would have been different.

MY MEMOIR IS PUBLISHED ... PRETTY MUCH

My first book published was the second book I wrote: a memoir titled A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career At Sea. It was the tale of how my life had become a train-wreck. My agent, Noah Lukeman, worked very hard to place that book. We finally found a small publisher who would kill the book several times (it was out of stock for its second six weeks, then in stock for 11 days, then out of stock for another six weeks) and then die (the entire publishing group, Avalon, not only the imprint).

It was a nightmare even though the book briefly hit some bestseller lists, but the nightmare was not Noah’s fault and not my editor’s fault; it was just the price of being a bottom-dweller—the price of not launching a literary career earlier with my first book at a bigger publisher. The price of saying no to Kim Witherspoon in 1992. My own fault.

Here was another problem: Agents wouldn't send out my first book, a collection of short stories called Legend of a Suicide, until I’d established myself with other books. My first editor wouldn’t even consider it (“Story collections don’t sell,” he said). So I finally sent it to a contest, and ended up winning the Grace Paley Prize.

FULL CIRCLE WITH KIM WITHERSPOON

After parting ways with Noah, and then briefly signing with another agent, I signed, finally, with Kim Witherspoon. The timing seemed right. Kim had rejected me several times during my desperate years, but now I had the prize-winning collection coming out in addition to A Mile Down and I was writing for big magazines. Having this “platform” really does help, because it makes commercial success seem possible.

They decided early on that with my screwy history they would just trust my judgment. So they’ll send out whatever I want to send out, but I of course listen carefully to their good advice and we’ve so far agreed on everything. They’ve placed the paperback of Legend of a Suicide along with my new novel, Caribou Island, with a brilliant editor. Legend of a Suicide has won 8 prizes, including the Prix Medicis Etranger, and appeared on 40 “best books of the year” lists in 8 countries and bestseller lists in 4 countries, selling 150,000 copies in France alone, translated into 13 languages and still counting.

So my advice is this: Go with the agent who seems committed, and sign early if you can. You can use the help. Find someone ideally who will send out all of your work, and someone you like and agree with. I laugh on the phone with Kim, and we’ve never had a bad moment. I’ll never be with another agent unless Inkwell Management goes out of business.

David is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Zach won.)

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