How I Got My Agent: Stacy Pershall

"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. Stacy Pershall, holds a MFA degree in electronic art from the University of Cincinnati. Her memoir, Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl (2011; Norton) was chosen for the Barnes and Noble spring 2011 Discover Great New Writers program. Booklist called the memoir an "electrifying account ... one whirlwind ride."
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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.

Stacy is excited to give away a free copy of her memoir to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Valerie N. won.)

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Stacy Pershall, born in Arkansas in 1971, is a lifelong
gypsy who's lived in nine cities and three countries. She
holds a MFA degree in electronic art from the University
of Cincinnati. Her memoir, Loud in the House of Myself:
Memoir of a Strange Girl (2011; Norton) was chosen
for the Barnes and Noble spring 2011 Discover Great
New Writers program. Booklist called the memoir an
"electrifying account ... one whirlwind ride."

WITHOUT A CHANCE IN THE WORLD

I first had the idea to write my book, Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl, in 2002, over tea with my best friend. I said to her, “I’m thinking of writing a memoir about mental illness,” and she said, “You mean like Elizabeth Wurtzel and Susanna Kaysen and Marya Hornbacher and Kay Redfield Jamison?” I said yeah, knowing what stiff competition I was facing. I didn’t really believe anything would come of it, but I knew I had to try. Shortly thereafter, I saw an article in the New York Times referring to memoirs as “The M-word” and stating that they were virtually impossible to sell in a glutted market. I felt certain I really didn’t have a chance in the world. Still, I started writing.

I worked on the book for a year and a half before I began querying agents. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I got a book about how to write a query letter, and I started sending them out. Thus began two years of rejections, with a glimmer of hope from Sydelle Kramer of the Susan Rabiner Literary Agency. She invited me for coffee and told me she wasn’t going to represent the book because it wasn’t ready yet. However, she assured me the writing was good enough that it would sell eventually if I just kept working at it. She gave me a few pointers, for which I am eternally grateful, and I took them all to heart.

AN AGENT'S FIRST CLIENT

In 2004 I read the book Sickened, by Julie Gregory, and looked up her agent’s name in the acknowledgments. I sent my query to Katherine Boyle at Veritas in San Francisco, and to my amazement, she signed me. Katie is a saint of infinite patience, and she worked with me on the proposal for two years. By this time I was going crazy to start sending it out, but she felt there was something not quite there. We knew we had to have a hook, something to really set my book apart from the incredibly saturated genre, but it eluded us. Then, in early 2006, Katie had to go on indefinite medical leave and gave me permission to find another agent. I was crushed.

So I went back to the beginning. I had queried the Ann Rittenberg Literary Agency before, and made a note before when Ann turned me down, but somehow I forgot about it. In searching for agents on the Internet, I found Penn Whaling’s name. Penn was a brand new agent working for Ann, and she was looking for odd memoirs. I sent a query, not making the connection to ARLA, and a few days later, she called.

It turned out that Penn was 25 years old and had never represented a book before. However, Ann had given her permission to choose her first one from among the queries she was reading. Mine had just come across her desk, and, because I am incredibly lucky, she chose it. She called me in to meet with her and Ann, who loved the sample chapters I sent. I knew as soon as I walked in that this small, quirky agency was perfect for me. Penn called me a few hours later and officially offered to represent me. This was approximately three months after Katie and I parted ways.

She saw right away, after meeting me and learning that I am covered in tattoos, that the tattoo stories were the anchor for the book. With that in mind, we worked on the proposal all summer, and Penn talked it up to editors she knew at several publishing houses. In September, we sent it to 12 editors who had asked to see it.

Between September and June, all of them turned me down. Marya Hornbacher had just proposed her book, Madness: A Bipolar Life, and we heard from several of the editors that it was the definitive book on the disorder and there was no room for mine. Having grown very discouraged, I found myself in St. Mark’s Bookshop one night looking at memoirs, trying to figure out what they had that I didn’t. I was looking at a book by Lauren Slater when Penn called. We’d been talking about Slater a few days before, and Penn was trying to figure out what publishers to send my manuscript to next. She said, “Hey, who’s Lauren Slater’s publisher?” In one of those rare moments of synchronicity, I said, “Norton.”

Penn said, “Oh, they’re tough. That’s a long shot, and I don’t know anyone there except the senior executive editor. I interviewed to be her assistant when I first moved to New York. But what the hell, we’ll try.” She sent it to Jill Bialosky by messenger the following day.

THE BOOK SELLS (FIVE YEARS AFTER I STARTED)

The day after that, Jill called and asked us to come meet with her and the marketing team. They had lots of questions about my tattoos, and the meeting ended with me drawing a tattoo machine for them and explaining how it worked. Jill said she’d call later that afternoon.For two tense hours, Penn and I waited. Then we got the call: Norton wanted the book, five years after I first started writing it.

In the meantime, I had happened to go back through books looking at publisher profiles and seen where I’d noted Ann Rittenberg’s rejection three years earlier. When I told her about it, her response was, “What was I thinking? I must have been having an off day.” I should also add that the afternoon I came home from Norton, there was an e-mail from another publisher in my mailbox, turning me down and citing Marya Hornbacher as the reason. In the process of writing the book, Marya and I became friends, and had a good laugh about all those letters.

If your writing is excellent and you work harder than you ever thought you could, your book will sell, no matter the genre. Rejections are nothing but a temporary road block. There will be a place for you eventually if you refuse to give up.

Stacy is excited to give away a free copy of her memoir to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Valerie N. won.)

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Writing a memoir or life story? A great
resource is Writing Life Stories.