A Tale of Two Agents

Once upon a time, there was a writer (yours truly) with a critique partner (Ammi-Joan Paquette) who wrote stories with gorgeous prose and page-turning plots. This writer also had a savvy, supportive agent (Erin Murphy) who just so happened to love gorgeous prose and page-turning plots. So the writer thought, “Hey! Why don’t I introduce my critique partner to my agent?” So she did, and it was a match made in Publishers Weekly Heaven, for the critique partner became not only an EMLA author but an EMLA agent, as well!

Erin and Joan. Yes, they're always this cute together.

We here at EMU’s Debuts figured that the only way to follow a Monday interview with Joan is with a Wednesday interview with Erin Murphy. Erin has held a lot of debut authors’ hands over the past 12 years, and she graciously agreed to share her thoughts on Joan’s debut novel, NOWHERE GIRL, as well as tips for debut authors on traversing the path from Book Deal to Debut.

NLD: Welcome, Erin! What did you love most about Joan’s manuscript that you hope readers will take away when they read NOWHERE GIRL?

EM: The thing I loved most about it from the start was the beauty and poetry of the writing, the way it’s so incredibly visual, and the strangeness of that opening setting—Luchi is so far away from so many things that are familiar to American readers, and I felt right there with her. But what I hope they will take away is more about finding one’s sense of self, and how that has to do with what’s inside you, not anything you can find from people or places; you make your sense of self with how you respond to events.

NLD: What is it like to represent an author with whom you also work as a fellow agent in EMLA?

EM: I have no idea what it is like with any other person, but with Joan it is a total delight. I thought, going in, that I was going to have to be very careful to talk about her own writing separately from agency business, but she just sort of flows from topic to topic and project to project and I just follow her lead. As discussed in her EMU’s Debuts interview earlier this week, she moves effortlessly from genre to genre and age level to age level in her writing, so I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that she is as graceful with transitioning from agent-hat to writer-hat.

The only time it’s ever been at all awkward is about me, not her: when we’re at editor meetings, it’s hard for me to pitch her stuff right in front of her! It’s never a problem in our daily work, though, and in fact, it’s been really amazing to watch how being an agent has informed her process as a writer. She’s always got lots of writing projects going on, some back-burnered, some in a drawer, some more at the front of things, and she’s super responsive to ideas and feedback, and is always thinking about the kernel of an old project and how something new might be brought to it so it can see the light of day. She’s not a writer who’s mired down in doing this project first, or holding onto this approach to that project, and everything she reads in her downtime and everything she hears from editors is all grist for the mill.

And as for her as an agent: She’s dreamy, isn’t she? If I were a writer, I’d want her for an agent!

NLD: Something tells me that if you decided to write, Joan would agree to be your agent.  Or if not, I’m pretty sure Mike would.

What questions or concerns do you most often see from debut authors?

EM: Honestly, you’d be surprised how few questions people ask up front! I think most of the concerns come out of unrealistic expectations–outmoded ideas of how publishing works or expectations based on the highest profile projects (which are not representative). So many of the authors that I work with write books that will be championed by independent booksellers and teachers and librarians, and reaching those people is kind of an invisible process. It can look like the publisher is doing nothing at all, but they’re getting books into the right hands, waiting for reviews to come in, and building on what comes. 

I think the biggest point of confusion in the logistical process of seeing a book to publication is knowing how, and how often, to communicate with your editor and publicist. It’s hard to find a comfortable, conversational point that focuses mostly on the work and gives these people what they need without giving too much. It’s especially hard with publicists because they’re generally handling so many more books than editors are and there’s not as much interaction with them as with editors. With editors…well, they’re not people you’re pursuing anymore, you know? For years, for most writers, you’ve tried to make a good impression and the emphasis is on getting them to like you and your work. Once you’re working with an editor, it means that they DO like you and your work–but that’s hard to see and accept! They see you as one of their own, and if you’re too careful not to bug them, they don’t get as much connection as they need to see you as a full person with quirks and strengths. Not that you should inundate them with emails, but stop being afraid to ask questions and check in now and then. Go to New York or wherever they are and meet them in person! Some of the best books have come out of the conversations between authors and editors who have strong relationships. Editors can often see possibilities where authors do not.

 NLD: What do you find yourself repeating to all of your debut authors?

EM: ASK QUESTIONS! You’d be amazed how many questions clients have been afraid to ask that take me just 10 seconds to answer, and they feel so much better afterwards. If we can help ease this path for you, make you comfortable with the process, it will make future books so much easier, not to mention make it easier to interact with people about your book in general. It doesn’t have to be mysterious, this process! Being a debut author usually means a lot of painful waiting, even after the book comes out since publishers often like to have some solid numbers before making an offer on the next project. 

L.B. Schulman tells me I said this at an EMLA retreat, and even though I don’t remember saying it then, it’s well worth repeating: “For every success, there is a waiting period that feels like failure.” But it’s NOT! It’s just waiting! We can’t make the waiting go away, but we can demystify it.

NLD: What are some of the bumps along the debut path that agents can help their authors with? And what are the things that agents’ magic wands can’t change?

EM: I guess it all boils down to this: Everybody wants you to be happy with your book. Publishing is a process of compromise, certainly, but it does nobody any good if the author is stuffing down resentment about design elements like the cover or chapter opener treatments, or the way the positioning of the book is downplaying something that the author thinks is important. (Granted, there are times when publisher and author turn out to be a poor match, with very different visions, and that’s all but impossible to fix, but those are rare.)

Sometimes there are things that can definitely be changed to address your concerns; sometimes there are things that can’t be changed for various reasons, but if the reasons are explained to you, it’s easier to accept them and work with it, or find ways to incorporate the things that are important to you in your own marketing so that the full spectrum is covered by your efforts and the publisher’s efforts. But if you don’t tell your agent or your editor what is bothering you, things DEFINITELY will not change, and you won’t learn as much from the process, either.

 NLD:  What do you wish you could tell every debut author out there in the universe?

EM: Enjoy the process! Don’t question it and analyze it into oblivion–find ways to enjoy this time. You’ll never have another debut book! (But then, I don’t have to tell the EMU’s to have fun, do I? You’re clearly all having a great time, even with the down times that come in any creative process. It’s a joy to watch!)

 Thanks for the interview, Erin!

So, faithful Emu’s Debuts readers, see what I meant about savvy and supportive? It almost makes you view Erin through a different lense now, doesn’t it? Take a look for yourselves…

Joan's got a matching one...

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44 Comments

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44 responses to “A Tale of Two Agents

  1. Bravo! I think Erin should take full ownership of the “waiting that feels like failure” line and become famous for it, because it’s brilliant and spot on.

    Thanks for the great interview, Erin and Natalie!

    Like

    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      You’re so right, Audrey–I think we should get an Erin a t-shirt with those words of wisdom…something that goes with her tiara. :)

      Like

  2. HOORAY! I love the waiting that feels like failure line as well (*ahem* know that feeling well *ahem*), and I think this lovely interview by Natalie lets Erin’s personality, intelligence and warmth shine right off the page.

    Fantastic interview!

    Like

    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      Thanks, Sayantani. :)
      I, too, am all too familiar with the whole waiting = failure thing. It’s nice to know we’re not alone, isn’t it??

      Like

  3. Well, Natalie! I guess we all owe you a debt of thanks!! Joan (and you!) are fantastic , fun, warm assets to EMLA.

    I loved this post–so much fun to read. And some of it seemed so…erm…tailored to yours truly. Guess we debuters have some similarities. I did go through a stage when I had to just calm down–when nervousness for seemingly no reason got the better of me. It didn’t feel like failure, exactly, but I suppose I worried it would become that. So, yes. Ms. Murphy is correct. As usual.

    Like

    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      Thanks, Lynda. :)

      I think we do all share so many of the same highs and lows in a field where the highs can be sky-high and the lows can feel like rock bottom. I really have no idea how authors survived before online writing communities came about, but I’m so grateful for the ones that I’m a part of, including this one!

      Like

  4. Thanks for joining us, Erin! And thanks, Natalie for posing such good questions. And thanks Joan, for coming by earlier this week and being part of the fun. Can you tell how thankful I am to be part of this agency?

    Like

  5. I’m pretty sure Erin was speaking directly to me in this post. But even if she wasn’t, I take great comfort in knowing that we all travel through the same uncertainties and insecurities. I’m glad she and Joan are there to hold our hands, gently yet confidently, in this process.

    Like

    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      I tried to delete all the Jean Reidy’s in Erin’s answers…did I miss one? ;-)

      If she was talking directly to you, then “Jean Reidy” is definitely synonymous with “Natalie Lorenzi.” :)

      Like

  6. Cynthia Levinson

    Reading these two interviews, I would feel that, if I weren’t a part of the EMLA empire, I would want to be so badly, it would hurt. E&J are gems. I didn’t know, Natalie, that you were the matchmaker. Part of what they do so well is nurture us as writers and as people and nurture our relationships with each other and with our editors. And, Natalie, that’s what you did when you brought them together. I have no idea if other agents see their role this way. At the beginning, I didn’t know enough to appreciate it; now, it seems natural and essential.

    Like

  7. I also wrote down the “waiting feels like failure” quote at the retreat because it was SO true! Thanks for the great interview.

    Like

    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      If my writing area weren’t the dining room table, Anna, I’d write down that quote and put it above my workspace, too. I’d just worry that my kids would see it and wonder how much longer they had to wait for dinner…

      Like

  8. Thanks everybody! This feels almost like a virtual retreat! And thank you most especially, Ms. Natalie, not just for the interview, which was great fun, but for sending Joan my way, and for being your own fabulous self!

    Like

    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      Aw, thanks, Erin. :-)

      Speaking of virtual retreats….can we Skype bits of the next one?? I SO wish I could make it this summer!! I already can’t wait to hear all about it. :)

      Like

  9. Excellent interview. It’s wonderful to read how much you value communication and how you shepherd a debut author through the experience.

    Definitely keeping the thoughts on waiting handy too.

    Like

    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      Glad you enjoyed the interview, Jim! I especially appreciate it when Erin (or Joan, or another writer) can demystify the process for those of us going through all of this for the first time. My editor has been great with that, as well, and it’s made it so much easier to enjoy the process.

      Like

  10. Gwendolyn McIntyre

    Brava Erin!

    Wonderful interview.

    I’m going to put your quote about waiting on a plaque and hang it on the wall in you-know-who’s office.

    Oh heck. I’m going to put in mine too!

    Like

  11. Mike Jung

    Hooray for Erin! Hooray for Joan! Hooray for Natalie bringing together Erin and Joan in an epic convergence of superpowered agent mojo! Err, Erin does NOT want me as her agent. I’d just spend all day telling people “Check it out, dude, I’m Erin Murphy’s agent. E-R-I-N M-U-R-P-H-Y. I am soooo awesome…”
    Also, I just love this: “If we can help ease this path for you, make you comfortable with the process, it will make future books so much easier, not to mention make it easier to interact with people about your book in general.”

    Like

    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      I know–that second quote is a great one, too! In fact, I think we need to put both of this week’s interviews in their entirety on t-shirts for everyone. And maybe get “Epic convergence of superpowered agent mojo” written across one sleeve. Since you didn’t wear the plaid skirt for the release of Michelle’s FALLING FOR HAMLET, Mike, I’m assuming you’d shun the tiara? Maybe Jeannie can squeeze in some Photoshopping some time soon…

      Like

  12. Yep. That’s going on my wall — right where I can’t miss it every time I start staring off into space, feeling like a failure. Thanks for the fabulous interview, Natalie and Erin! And Cynthia, “if I weren’t a part of the EMLA empire, I would want to be so badly, it would hurt.” I used to want it that badly even BEFORE reading these two interviews (and the Gangos’ lovely comments). Thank goodness I’m an EMU now, or I’d be a blubbering mess. ;)

    Like

  13. Great interview! I, too, needed to hear the waiting is not failure line. You all are such an inspiration. Thank you!

    Like

    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      Glad you stopped by, Marjorie! We all need inspiration once in awhile (or even twice in awhile :)). How nice that we can get that from other writers.

      Like

  14. Love reading about these inspirational debut stories. Thank you!

    Like

  15. Wait! I thought the waiting is not failure line was directed at me! :-)

    See, this is exactly what Erin does so magically, gorgeously, organically well. She opens doors that we don’t even know are closed between us. Connects us. Makes us feel not so alone.

    Plus she’s an amazing agent and human being…

    Sheesh.

    Like

  16. Joan Paquette

    I am left slightly verklempt at all these kind and encouraging words. Suffice it to say that the pleasure here is all mine. I couldn’t imagine a better job, nor people to share it with. Hooray for Erin and the Gango!

    Like

  17. How wonderful to read this great interview Natalie, get some of the delightful backstory to Erin and Joan, and to be inspired and comforted in so many ways. And then to read all of the great comments following–what a hoot! Indeed, gratitude defines the day. Thanks for sharing this, Natalie, for your insightful and compassionate answers Erin, and for your beautiful book and remarkable agenting Joan!

    Like

  18. Glad you enjoyed the interview, Luke! They *are* an inspirational pair, our Erin and Joan. :-)

    Like

  19. Lovely. I <3 working with Erin. And Joan's awesome.
    Nice quote about waiting that feels like failure.
    Another Erin quote: "Panic is part of the process."
    When she said that to me I finally was able to see the bigger picture and relax (panic might not be part of YOUR process, but it's definitely part of mine). And I've repeated that to myself dozens of times since.

    Like

  20. Brilliant interview – really one worth printing and keeping forever. Erin, I loved your points about waiting incorrectly feeling like failure, that’s so profound. But your thoughts about communicating with your editor were really helpful! Thanks Natalie for posting this!

    And by the way, I am a writer, and Joan IS a dream agent!

    Like

  21. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    Glad you enjoye the interview, Jen! Still doing the happy dance over your cover and film op news! :)

    Like

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