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!
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…