Category Archives: Jessica


Books and Love

The Bookends section of the NYTBR features an entertaining discussion of whether book-based disagreements have the power to end a  romantic relationship.

Since I’m a reader married to another reader, it’s hard for me to imagine what it might be like to have a partner who didn’t love books (though it occurs to me that I’d have more room for my titles, and more room in my house, period.)  But while our tastes sometimes overlap,  our courtship did not include a favorite-author litmus test. At least I don’t think it did.

But I’ll turn the question over to you.  After all, few people are more passionate about books than writers, so what role do/did books play in your love life?  In the first days of a relationship, did/do you regard the contents of the beloved’s  bookshelf as a metonym for character?  Does it matter to you if your object of desire shares your tastes? Did you exchange favorite books?  If you now co-habitate, do you shelve your books together? I know couples who combine their finances but separate their fiction. Where do you fall? There are well-rehearsed hazards in judging a book by its cover, but what about choosing a lover by his books?


Talking ‘Bout My Generation (?)

Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review ran a review of Lena Dunham’s new memoir, NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL, under the headline  “A Voice of a Generation.”  I’m not a millennial and I’ve only seen one episode of GIRLS, so I can’t judge the validity of this claim, though I’ll note that it’s nice that this VoaG is female.  When I think about the novelists and writers variously hailed as the voices of my generation– Douglas Coupland, Brett Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Safran Foer, they are overwhelmingly male. And white. And named Jonathan. (Clearly VIDA has a point). In any event, I arrived in New York a decade or so too late to indulge in the cocaine-fueled excess that Jay McInerney (another VoaG) chronicled in BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY and at the moment when grunge-rocking, flannel-sporting, ‘zine-publishing youth culture was in full flower on the opposite coast, so I’ve always maintained a bemused interest in the writers and artists who are designated speakers for their peers.

So who would you nominate? I’d say Lorrie Moore for Self-Help (though I see she’s not actually a GenX-er), Claire Messud for The Emperor’s Children, even Melissa Banks for her wildly successful Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, a book that made the linked short story collection almost as commercially viable as the novel.  Joanna Rakoff’s novels capture in retrospect the nineties I knew, but she didn’t write about the zeitgeist as it was happening.

What writers capture–for you–the preoccupations, anxieties and animating spirit of your generation?


The Successful Query Letter: Exhibit A

Last week, Sharon cleverly used her post to invite reader feedback—the responses she received contained some good  suggestions and valuable constructive criticism.  Among other points, Lynn (who, it should be noted, has a fine editorial eye) suggested that instead of serving up generic advice about query letters, we post a letter that “blew us away… Write about it, post it as an example so we can see what a great query is!”

 I am more than happy to oblige.  I’ll  begin with nonfiction and follow up with a fiction example next week.

First, a brief disclaimer: I know that writers spend a lot of time working on and occasionally obsessing over query letters, but there is no single magic formula for how to put one together.  I generally suggest that writers craft a pitch that reads roughly like (good) back cover copy, gives a sense of the story arc, the characters and the voice in which the book is written, but leaves something to the imagination.  I’m not a fan of the exhaustive synopsis—too much detail can get unwieldy. Close with a few lines about who you are, where your book fits into the market and its actual or (for nonfiction) proposed length and that’s it, you’re done.  But enough with the general. Here is an example of a project that I ended up signing and selling, which came to me via a beautifully crafted query letter.  I’ve pasted the query here, and below I discuss why it so impressed me.

Dear Jessica,

 I appreciate your hands-on-approach and your interest in “history with a thesis.”  I am an academic with a background in character-driven narrative writing, and I’ve just finished a book about an extraordinary group of farmers who have given me hope for the future of American food. 

 Lentil Underground introduces readers of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation” to a little-known movement in central Montana.  My book is the first to chronicle farmers who are changing our food system in the belly of the beast: the American grain belt.  If we’re going to overhaul the way our food gets to our plate, we’ll have to do it here in the heartland, and people like these colorful lentil enthusiasts will need to lead the way.

I am a Montana native and have been working with this group of farmers for five years, initially as an agricultural policy staffer for United States Senator Jon Tester and more recently as an academic.  I first ran into the story when I was touring full time as a country singer, and try as I might to corral it into three-and-a-half minutes …I ended up with a book.

 Per the instructions on the Dystel and Goderich website, I am pasting a brief synopsis below and attaching my first chapter. 

 I would be very happy to send you my full proposal and/or the full manuscript – but only if you give me permission.  I know you have a lot to read, and I appreciate your attention.


Liz Carlisle

This query is brief, to the point and totally successful. I am not an agent who demands short pitch letters—I don’t stop reading after 250 words. But writing with this kind of clarity and economy of language is harder than it looks.  So what did Liz do right?

First, she showed that she’d read enough about me to know the kinds of projects I represent.  She then told me that she has academic credentials but also the ability to tell a story (two things that do not always go hand in hand) and she closed her first paragraph with an intriguing line.

Like you, I am familiar with the many critiques of the American food system—well deserved and bleak as they are—but here is a book that promises something hopeful, in the “belly of the beast” no less.   Carlisle also identified her audience via the books they read. I cannot overemphasize the degree to which it is crucial that nonfiction writers are able to accurately place their books in the context of the existing market. She showed me she has a handle on the competition and then—three cheers— promised something new. Acquisitions editors are forever in search of the new and fresh, so my ears perked up yet again. “Colorful lentil enthusiasts” is also not a phrase you hear every day. Her three lines of author bio, in which I learned she was a country western singer turned congressional staffer turned academic were so deftly and succinctly written—plus  fascinating—that I knew I’d request the proposal and the full mss.

Her book, The Lentil Underground, will be published by Gotham in 2015.


Bad Titles and Binge Reading

Nominees for the little-known but totally inspired Diagram Prize (an award dreamed up by some publishing professionals to forestall boredom at a Frankfurt Book Fair) have just been announced.   The Diagram honors the “oddest book titles of the year.”

“The first winner of the prize was Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. Other winners throughout the years have included How to Avoid Huge Ships, Cooking with Poo, and last year’s Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop.”

You can find the 2014 nominees here. I’m partial to Pie-ography: Where Pie Meets Biography, which combines two of my favorite things.

I looked around on my own bookshelves in search of overlooked competitors, and aside from some academic books (which seem unfair to single out, since awfulness in titles is a skill that scholars are required cultivate) the oddest I came up with Neil McFarquhar’s book, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday. 

I’m sure you can do me one better.

Another article I spotted—this piece by Julie Bosman— prompted some debate on whether binge watching TV has changed the way we engage with books.  I grant that publishers are keen to publish commercial fiction more quickly, but otherwise, I’m not yet convinced.  On the contrary, it seems to me that TV has finally caught up with books in allowing its viewers to do what any self-respecting bibliophile has long done—stay up impossibly late, shirk all other responsibilities and go on a bleary-eyed bender till the final bittersweet page. And beyond.  The truly intemperate can move on to an author’s entire oeuvre. Well before I was downing Downton Abbey in greedy gulps (I came to the show very late) I’d gone on an Evelyn Waugh tear.  Just reading his books can damage your liver.

In any case, what do you think? Is binge reading books a byproduct of Netflix-ation  and Amazon’s single click culture, or does it have a longer and more storied history?


Writing and Exercise

A few days ago, I caught Terry Gross interviewing evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman on his new book, the Story of the Human Body.  It was absolutely fascinating, one of the best interviews I’ve listened to, and I listen to a lot of interviews. Among the many points he raised is that humans are not made for sitting.  Sitting is bad for us; it weakens our back muscles, raises our blood pressure, our risk of diabetes and propels us to an early grave (albeit in a comfortable, seated position).  This is, of course, bad news for most of us, but for writers in particular. So I was glad when my client Beth Hahn sent along this article from Ploughshares, “Exercising Your Craft: 3 Writers Who Get Physical.” Beth is a novelist and a yoga instructor, and she speaks quite convincingly about the relationship between yoga and writing.

What do you do when your “position” is not “hunched over your desk”?

Do you find any particular form of exercise useful to your writing process?

I’m not a writer per se, but I do find physical activity helpful in my own work. I also practice yoga, chase my kids, bike, and vacuum*,  but my favorite form of exercise is probably kickboxing (not be confused with any legitimate martial art) but rather an activity in which participants throw punches and kicks at our own red-faced reflections, and pose little threat to anyone but ourselves.

 It is not all meditative, but instead cathartic.

*with vigor


Reading Fast and Slow

I am a person sensitive to time pressures. At the time of this writing, it is nearly 11 pm, my blog post is late, and I have two manuscripts to read this evening.  When I am feeling especially harried–flooring it en route to pick up my sons, scrolling through my inbox, willing the train to move more quickly–I try and remind myself (deep inhale) that time is a construct, and therefore I ought not  fret about something that is essentially made-up (slow exhale).  This rationalization is not particularly effective, because it leads to a mind-bogglingly long chain of other important things that are also constructs (money, manners, the idea that television is now “really good”) and I find I have fallen into a deconstructionist wormhole from which I must emerge post-haste if I want to get anything done.  Still, much as  I acknowledge the universality of busyness and the supremacy of schedules , I think the idea of posting reading times on books, as discussed here in this piece from Publishing Perspectives  is ludicrous. Maybe even flat-out wrong.

Perhaps reading speed is less variable than I believe, though I know that how quickly I read has everything to do what I’m reading, but even if most people read at more or less the same pace so that these estimates are accurate,  a time stamp seems awfully reductive.  It undermines what is one of the principle joys of a good book—that while immersed in one, we lose all sense of time.  So sure, a  book might take six hours to finish, and maybe someone will next figure out the actual per person cost of those book reading hours so we can figure out how to schedule our lives most efficiently, but I think it is impossible to quantify the experience of reading.

What do you think? Does knowing the reading time of an article affects your willingness to read it? What about a book?


How to be Human

Richard Rapport, a gifted writer who is also a neurosurgeon, recently sent me a reading list of books he’d compiled for the brain-surgeons-in-training whom he oversees.  Brilliant as his students are, few have the luxury of being well-read.  He writes “today’s undergraduates are educated narrowly to be competitive in the professions, and medical students and residents have little time to read anything other than what is directly applicable to their training.”  Nevertheless, he believes it’s critical that physicians be something more than highly skilled technicians, and so follows his list of books by writers who “have seen into human beings far more clearly and deeply than a CT scan or an MRI.”


Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather

The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams

Doctor Stories, William Carlos Williams

Madame Bovary, Flaubert

Open Secrets, Alice Munro

The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

The Collected Storied of Frank O’Conner

Catch 22, Joseph Heller

Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow

Ward # 6, Chekhov (a novella)

Fathers and Sons, Turgenev

Pnin, Nabokov

The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams

Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle

Civilization and its Discontents, Freud

Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky

War and Peace, Tolstoy

What would be on your list of books that you wish were on your physician’s bedside table? Books that inform bedside manner, books that remind us what it is to be human?


Finally, I’ll leave you with an illustration that made me laugh. Publishing may not be brain surgery, but folks in the book business do have time to read. True, it’s more e-mail than Aristotle, but still…

Photo: No comment.Photo: No comment.


50 Years in 10 Books?


I realize that this infographic is not new, but I found it a little staggering.  Granted, an infographic is only as accurate as the data from which it was created, but even taken with a generous grain of salt, the “top ten most-read books of the past 50 years,” are surprising. It’s interesting to note that a good number feature magical thinking; Hobbits, Harry Potter, teenage vampires, an Alchemist, and in a slightly different vein, Think and Grow Rich.  Funny to see Margaret Mitchell and Mao Tse Tsung occupying the same shelf, or Anne Frank and Napoleon Hill.  Trying to draw conclusions about the era in which we live based on the primacy of these ten books is probably an exercise in absurdity or despair, better left to philosophers, practitioners of literary mash-up, or the list-makers at Buzzfeed.  And yet.  

 A year or so ago the BBC and the British Museum did a fascinating book and accompanying radio series called A History of the World in One Hundred Objects  available here—I wonder if a similar project—the history of the past 50 years–could be undertaken in ten carefully selected books.  What’s omitted would be as important as what’s included, but I’d be curious to see the upshot!

Any nominations?

For another, slightly longer list, you can check


Better with Age?

Last week’s New York Times featured an article that I absolutely loved, a piece by musician and author Edward Kelsey Moore on making his fiction debut at age 52.   I’m always a little surprised at the way in which the media treats serious writers who produce their first works well past thirty (a literary debut at 52! Imagine that!) As if debut works should be written by actual debutantes.

I suspect that someone, somewhere has actually studied this, but by my unscientific reckoning, it seems to me that good writing gets better with age.  Sure there are plenty of literary wunderkind, from John Keats to Jonathan Safran Foer, but to steal a line from Wordsworth (who was himself obsessed with the dimming of his genius as he grew older)  I think it makes sense that folks who have an ear for “the still, sad music of humanity,” those who call upon decades of observation and experience in their work, who have perhaps been writing for years while pursuing other careers or raising families, should wish to write—and, amazingly enough–write well. Moore’s whole essay is worth reading, but at risk of ruining the punchline, I’ll include his final lines:


So, these days, the question “Aren’t you too old for this?” brings to mind a list of things that I’m definitely too old for. But I answer, “No, at 52, I’m not too old to be a debut novelist. But, luckily, I’m way too old to be the writer, musician or man I was at 30.”


How does your age inform your writing? Do you feel like you are coming into your own voice?


Do’s and Don’ts for Pitchers


In the past few weeks I’ve done several pitch sessions (pretty much the only sort of pitch I’m likely to entertain, since I’m not much of a baseball fan) and although my advice may well be familiar, my experiences would indicate that it bears repeating.

Do: Relax. Pitches are good practice, but your ability to pitch your project does not necessarily determine its fate.  What matters most is always on the page, so don’t treat the meeting as a summary judgment of your future in publishing.

Do: Identify a few contemporary writers to whom you feel your style/work compares. I am always surprised when an aspiring writer can’t come up with a few “like” books or authors.  This is a basic and almost inescapable question.  Having an answer at the ready shows that you know the market and are reading in the category into which you hope to be published.   Once you’ve pitched your book and made a couple comparisons, feel free to turn the question back on the agent/editor.  “Having heard my description, is there a project that you think sounds like an apt comp title?”

Do: Follow up via e-mail.  If an agent has invited you to send along your query or additional materials, you can feel free to issue a gentle nudge several weeks after your meeting.  Mention the conference in your subject line or in the first few lines of your letter.

Don’t:  Bog down in a play by play synopsis of the plot. Think about your summary as back cover copy and try to craft a description that is as more persuasive than exhaustive.

Don’t:  Arrive at your pitch session in search of an idea. It’s fine to field a concept in hopes of soliciting feedback, but know that agents and editors can seldom suggest a book idea upon meeting someone.

Don’t: Try and present more than one (or at most, two) ideas at a time. Fine to mention that you have other projects in the works, but concentrate on the single pitch that is strongest and most suited to your appointment.

Do you have any pitch related questions? I would be happy to field them. (It seems baseball metaphors are impossible to escape in the spring).