Okay, I admit it. I took to Twitter (@JimMcCarthy528) for help coming up with something to blog about today. What? You’ve never had writer’s block?
Mm-hmm. I thought so.
Two questions that popped up close together: Anne Marie wanted to know what I look for in signing new writers. And Caroline asked for books I’ve read recently that I would recommend. I got some other good questions that I’ll save for later (including a rather controversial one, so keep an eye out), but these two fit together nicely.
Yesterday, I finished reading Barbara Demick’s narrative nonfiction title Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. It’s a stunning book that peeks behind the heavily protected North Korean border by way of extensive interviews with defectors who made it to South Korea. As I read it, I kept thinking that I desperately needed to do look out for more investigative journalism which, for anyone unfamiliar with my list, is not at all what I usually do. Now, the most exciting thing about being an agent is that you’re free to try anything. I represent a lot of young adult, paranormal, and pop culture titles because I love them, and that’s where I’ve had the most success. But for the right book, I’d be willing to try any genre.
So what would make something the right book? Let’s go back to the Demick title: what she does so brilliantly is convey the history of this nation since the Korean War primarily through the stories of six individuals—an eclectic group that is nonetheless each relatable. If there’s one thing I most look for in new material, it’s people I can relate to or understand. I look for human stories above all else. The ways in which people act or react fascinate me—how individuals are fallible, where people’s goodness comes from, what makes people do terrible things… The psychology of it all is a point of endless fascination whether in worlds real or imagined.
Similarly, Demick takes a look into a world that so few people outside of it know anything about, and that’s what drew me to that book to begin with. I love a great look into a culture I don’t know about. It’s why I adored Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist. Or Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls. They’re both novels about communities extraordinarily different from anything I’ve experienced, but there’s a sense of kinship that comes from becoming able to understand these characters–what their backgrounds are, how they came to be the people they are. Something about that collapses down the human experience in a way that feels almost magical to me.
I read to be entertained, of course, but I also read to understand the world. Whether it’s from a thriller like Gone Girl where Gillian Flynn expertly captures the sociopathic eye or a fantasy novel like DGLM’s own Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart which uses an alternate universe and a realm of magic to explore issues that are very real, characters and how they interact with the world around them are key. Nothing will draw me in faster than well-drawn, complicated, fascinating people at the core of your work, fiction or nonfiction.