Thursday, December 4, 2014

Interview with an Agent: Madeleine Clark

I'm pleased to welcome Madeleine Clark of Sterling Lord Literistic to the blog to round out the year's additions to my "Interview with an Agent" series. Happy reading!

KV: How long have you been agenting, and how did you get into it?

MC: I’ve been at Sterling Lord Literistic for the last three and half years and before that I was working at a publishing house in North Carolina: Algonquin Books to be precise. Like a lot of people in publishing, I was an English major and avid reader who wanted my life to be about books in some form. A classmate pointed me in the direction of the editorial internship at Algonquin and I realized there was a whole world of enthusiastic, intelligent book nerds out there who were churning out the things I was rabidly reading. I was hooked.

KV: How would you summarize your personal agenting philosophy? What do you expect from an agent-author relationship?

MC: As an agent, I want to fulfill a lot of roles for my clients and I think different points in the relationship require me to tap into different strengths. From the outset, I’m an editor and collaborator while we get a project where it needs to be. During the submission process, an author needs both a spokesperson to editors and a cheerleader on the sidelines when nerves take hold. When negotiating contracts or establishing marketing/publicity plans, the author needs an advocate and someone that can take the brunt of any uncomfortable conversations so that they can maintain a good relationship with their editor. Basically I want to streamline things so that the author can do what they do best: write! I think mutual respect and trust is huge both during the creative process and for the life of the agent-author relationship.

KV: What do you love about Sterling Lord Literistic? Are there any soon-to-be-released agency titles that you want to give a shout-out to?

MC: There is something very special about working for an agency that has been around for over half a century. Our backlist is full of seminal titles I read or studied or fell in love with before ever knowing about the publishing world (On the Road, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Prayer for Owen Meany, etc) and because we are a fairly large boutique agency we have a really varied front list to look forward to every season. In particular, I’m so excited about the paperback release of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (a beautiful story about family, books, and small town charm) as well as Jami Attenberg’s next book, SAINT MAZIE, inspired by a real life woman in Depression-era New York who opened her heart and famed movie theater to neighbors in need. Both of the covers are absolutely gorgeous, by the way. 

KV: What genres do you represent? What genres do you definitely NOT represent?

MC: I’m looking for several different genres right now: realistic YA, literary thrillers, literary fiction with something geographically or culturally unique about it, fiction with a bit of magic, narrative nonfiction that tackles something new and specific, and humor or lifestyle especially in the blog to book space. I am definitely not looking for hardcore fantasy or sci-fi, commercial horror or crime, erotica, romance, diet books, or cookbooks. 

KV: What query pet peeves and/or pitfalls should writers avoid when querying you?

MC: I definitely understand the desire to stand out in an agency slush pile but sometimes I think people take that motive too far. Gifts, life-sized scrolls, bright font colors, etc are more distracting than enticing. I also think an author should do his or her best to just be concise, professional, and informative in the cover letter rather than jokey or aggressive or promising the moon in large sweeping statements. If the summary is interesting and clear then I am certainly going to read your pages so don’t feel like the quality of your writing will be judged on the letter alone; your manuscript is where your voice will shine. Also, if we have a genuine connection, please let me know (same university, mutual friend, common interest or hometown--I love it when the world feels small)! The most important thing? Make sure the agent you are querying is looking for the genre you have to offer! 

KV: What are you looking for in a manuscript right now? What are you tired of seeing at the moment?

MC: I really want a manuscript I can’t put down. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of submissions from talented writers who haven’t quite worked out a compelling plot. Over vacation I started the Dublin Murder Squad series from Tana French and I’m so obsessed with her ability to toe the line between deeply profound character study and your classic whodunit. Each installment of the series is this sprawling crowd pleaser of a book and I would love to find something that can straddle literary and plot-driven with such aplomb.

On the flip side of that, this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned my love of literary thrillers and sometimes people take that to mean the more commercial hardboiled detective novels, police procedurals, and CIA-centered conspiracy theory stories. I’m less inclined to be on board for those, dystopian worlds, or YA that sticks too close to familiar territory without a hook. 

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

MC: I’m happy to receive queries by e-mail (madeleine [at] sll [dot] com). For all submissions I prefer a cover letter with a synopsis in the body of the email. For fiction, attach three chapters of the material or for nonfiction attach the proposal. Word documents please!

Thank you, Ms. Clark, for these smart, thoughtful responses. I'm sure I'm not the only one who found these answers impressive.

That's it from me!

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