Category Archives: mentors

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Stately, plump Buck Mulligan

Looking through the online catalogue of the very cool Litographs which, among other things, makes literary temporary tattoos, I came across this one, which recreates Molly Bloom’s iconic closing line of James Joyce’s Ulysses, “yes I said yes I will Yes,” purposely devoid of any punctuation save the closing full stop.

It seems appropriate with Bloomsday fast approaching that I should talk about why Ulysses is one of my favorite books. Not for any snooty, ‘looking down my superior and literary nose at the plebeians who have never read it’ reasons, but because of something nearly the opposite. Being shown how to read Ulysses actually taught me so much about how to read—close reading in between the lines—in general.

My senior year of college was spent completing my English degree and fitting in any other required courses my university required for graduation. I realized, also, that I was thisclose to adding on a minor in either French or Irish Studies (you know, those degrees that are super helpful in the real world). I chose Irish Studies, mainly because I hadn’t taken a French class in at least a year and frankly, Irish Studies just seemed more interesting.

That year, I had two classes where I was the only student. The first was a class about feminism in 20th Century Ireland and not only was I the only student to sign up for it, but the university totally forgot the cancel the class, like they’re supposed to do in a situation where there are fewer than I believe five students. The professor emailed me the day before, a letter which basically consisted of “um, well, this wasn’t supposed to happen, but I’m game if you are,” and so without any classroom assignment, we met in a pub once a week and talked about cool Irish ladies. Not terrible.

The other class was one of my own making—I’d always wanted to read Ulysses, but never trusted that I could venture in on my own. An overly confident seventeen-year-old Rachel once decided she would read it over the summer after covering Portrait of an Artist in her senior year English lit class and ostentatiously carried it around with her for about a month before quietly abandoning the book after making it through a chapter and a half with only the vaguest understanding of what was going on. After approaching my advisor with the idea, I found a professor willing to take me on an independent study course where we met once a week in her office to discuss the chapters one at a time.

I loved it. I have never, ever been someone who marks up her books, but boy is my copy of Ulysses littered with as many of my own scrawlings as Joyce’s (not entirely true). I learned how to be an active reader, how to consider in depth references and also to read in virtually any style known to man (up until 1922) since no two of Joyce’s chapters, or episodes as they are called, is written in the same manner. I read each on my own, marking to the best of my ability, genuinely laughing out loud at sentences and allusions that I would never have understood previously, and then marked them up some more in the hour-long sessions with my professor.

It was a truly enjoyable and enlightening experience and I believe it has forever changed the way I approach a novel, no matter how straightforward or complicated it may be. I’ve since reread the book and have found myself able to follow along unencumbered, and I’ll always be forever grateful for the opportunity that I had. There are countless ways to write, countless ways to read and countless ways to interpret a text, which is part of (all of?) the reason why books and literary pursuits in general are so important. There is always a new thing to discover and no two people will be affected by a piece of writing in the same way. All we can do is gather more and more tools with which to approach ever more books, while delighting in going back to old favorites with our newfound perspectives.

I’d love to know, too, if there are any particular books or moments of clarity that stand out to you as a turning point in your reading career!

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Mentoring – giving and receiving

Last week marked the end of our summer interns’ time with us and I spent a while with a couple of them answering their questions about our business and, actually, about life in general. Spending time doing this—mentoring—is something I really enjoy and even learn from.

When I think of the subject of mentoring I realize I come by it honestly.  My father was my biggest mentor.  He did this all of his life and though I wasn’t always open to his advice, I have never forgotten it.  Several of my bosses as I was moving forward in my career also advised and mentored me in ways that proved invaluable.  As I think about this I can remember their advice and how I have implemented it over the years.

I began to mentor with my children—first with my daughter who is now a successful financial reporter for Reuters and of whom I am very proud—and then for my son who, having just graduated college, is just starting out on his career.  Watching them grow gives me enormous pleasure.

The same is true for the people with whom I work.  I try to mentor each and every one of them, although it seems at times there are too few hours in the day.  Still I find this one of the most satisfying parts of my job—sharing the wisdom I have been given is enormously gratifying.

Then there are my clients.  Much of what I do as I help them develop their ideas and sell their books is a kind of mentoring.  That, of course, often results in a financial as well as an emotional  payoff.

Ultimately though, for me, advising young people about our business is what I like to do best—even when I am not aware that I am “mentoring.”  Their success reflects back on our efforts.

I’d love to hear about your mentoring experiences—both the giving and the receiving.  Please share them with me.

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Remembering Pete (the author)

As I’m sure you’ve seen by now, the great folksinger Pete Seeger passed away Monday night at the ripe old age of 94. Like a lot of kids with liberal-minded parents, I grew up with Pete’s music,  and I still vaguely remember him dancing across the stage at Symphony Space at one of his children’s concerts. Later on in college, I got to know more about his achievements, especially his work with the Clearwater Sloop and their annual festival in the Hudson Valley.

But then, I also had the privilege and pleasure of working with Pete as his editor on several of his picture books. And while the appreciations and obituaries today have rightly focused on his music and his activism, I just wanted to point out that Pete had quite a prolific career as a writer, too–his bibliography lists over 30 titles, from picture books to autobiographies to instruction manuals. And several of them, like Abiyoyo and How to Play the Five-String Banjo are classics in their own right.

And what was so fascinating about working with Pete was that Pete the Author was often at odds with Pete the Folksinger. In other words, while Pete clearly loved books and the written word, he struggled to reconcile the idea of a book as a finite project with the ever-evolving folk process. In other words, he couldn’t stop tinkering!

Thinking about it now, it’s a shame that the e-book revolution came just a little too late for Pete–I think he would have loved the idea that he could publish a piece of writing but continue to update it. Or better yet, to get other writers involved in a story through Wattpad or other crowd-sourcing websites. Ironic that the folk process could be furthered by this strain of technology…

Anyway, musings aside, I hope that if you’re thinking about Pete that in addition to listening to his music, you’ll look up some of his books as well–and if you don’t, Abiyoyo might come down from the hills and getcha!

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What happens after you win a Newbery or Caldecott?

The Newbery and Caldecott award nominees are being announced on Monday, January 28th. Each year I look forward to seeing who is chosen for these prestigious awards. Children’s literature has exploded over the last decade and the quality of material being published in this category is outstanding. When I create my reading lists for pleasure, there are always at least a few middle grade or young adult novels on there. Recent additions include  the much-hyped bestselling FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green and CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth E. Wein, which I recall receiving starred reviews when it was released from all of the major trade publications.

So I loved coming across this piece in Publisher’s Weekly recently which interviews previous recipients of this award to ask about how winning has impacted their lives and careers. The answers vary considerably, but it’s always interesting and can be insightful to learn about how writers respond to this type of rare positive attention to their work. Most seem to agree the media outreach and public speaking present a new and unexpected challenge. It’s like becoming a literary celebrity overnight!

I’d love to know if you find any helpful advice for your own work in these interviews, and also if there are books you think or hope will be nominated next week. Please let us know.

Support systems

We’ve lately had the good fortune to represent some lovely women, like Tracey Garvis Graves and Colleen Hoover, who started out self-publishing their fiction and for whom we’ve now been able to make some significant deals with “legacy” publishers (have I mentioned that I really dislike that term?).  These women are very smart and committed about their work, but they are also incredibly generous in their support of other writers who are embarking on the same kind of venture.  They belong to online support groups where they critique each other’s works, give each other tips on how to market their books, and serve as cheerleaders to each other on their public platforms.  As Jane mentioned in her blog post last week, authors mentoring and supporting other authors should not be a surprising phenomenon, but, in fact, it often is.  It’s also wonderful and important and we hope that other authors are taking note and emulating this kind of esprit de corps.

But, as I mull over this interesting development, it occurred to me that I don’t see this kind of “community” among male writers.  Sure, people like our own David Morrell are tireless in speaking at conferences, sharing  insights with up and coming writers, and offering priceless advice (in David’s case like the professor he once was).  And I know that  Joe Konrath, whom we’ve represented for many years, has a huge online following for his often controversial but always provocative views about the publishing process.  But, I have not seen the kind of small  influential online writing groups among male writers that seem to be flowering in the women’s fiction world.

Why is this, do you suppose?  Is it a XX/XY thing?  Is it because of category?  Is it because men are more naturally competitive and women more nurturing (to apply the most pervasive stereotypes)?  Or do these groups exist and thrive and I’m just not hip to them?

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Writers mentoring writers

Throughout the years that I have been an agent, I have represented writers who work in many different categories.  And, early on, it became obvious to me that some authors are not at all supportive of those coming up in their category.

This past week, though, I experienced a situation which was quite the opposite.  Brad Meltzer, a bestselling novelist, read the work of someone who approached him at a writer’s conference. He was so taken with this material that he spent time researching who might be the best agent for this new writer and he sought me out.  When we connected over the phone, we had a good talk about this new writer, his work,  and Meltzer’s reaction to it, and I now have two of his novels and am excited to read them.  I might add here that I had never spoken with Brad Meltzer before and so was really blown away by the fact that he went out of his way to help a newbie.

This episode also reminded me of years ago when my client Gus Lee’s first book, CHINA BOY was about to be published.  His editor introduced Gus to bestselling author Amy Tan over the phone.   Amy read the book, loved it, and provided a wonderful quote for it.  Subsequently, Gus and Amy became very good friends.

These two experiences underline how valuable mentoring others can be.  Not only does the mentee receive help and support, but the mentor, I think, also gets a great deal of satisfaction out of it.

I wish there was more of this support among established authors and new writers.  Our industry, I think could really benefit from this kind of thing.

Do you have stories of established authors who have mentored you or others you know that you want to share?