Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Interview with literary agent Dorian Karchmar of William Morris Endeavor

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles
represented by Dorian Karchmar

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Dorian Karchmar is a literary agent with William Morris Endeavor, the world’s longest running (and one of the world’s most important) talent and literary agencies. WME has represented everyone from Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe to Ben Affleck and Hugh Jackman. Its literary side is also hugely impressive, including Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Meg Wolitzer, Mohsin Hamid, and many leading voices in fiction and nonfiction.
Dorian has been a literary agent for two decades, with the last 13 years spent at WME, where she represents bestselling and award winning literary and quality mainstream fiction and narrative nonfiction. Prior to becoming an agent, she received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa.
Among others, Dorian represents
- Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow, which has spent more than a year on the NYT Hardcover bestseller list, and the breakout debut, Rules of Civility
- Cathy Marie Buchanan author of The Painted Girls
Daniel James Brownauthor of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Boys in the Boat
Helene Cooper, Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times White House correspondent and author of the memoir The House at Sugar Beachand Madame President, a biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
The late Paul Kalanithi, neurosurgeon and author of the worldwide bestseller When Breath Becomes Air

Dorian agreed to be interviewed by Quick Brown Fox…

Quick Brown Fox: Do you have suggestions about getting a manuscript in shape prior to submitting?
Dorian: This is actually the number one thing I tell aspiring authors: DO NOT RUSH.  The single biggest mistake one can make is to go out with work before it’s ready. Ignore the pressure that can come from watching what your fellow MFA students, workshop members, and/or friends are and aren’t doing, and reach out to agents only after you have taken your novel or book proposal absolutely as far as you can.  

This means drafting and redrafting; work-shopping with trusted readers (not your friends and relatives – they will not tell you the truth – but ideally another writer or two with whom you have developed a relationship based upon your ability to read and critique one another’s work honestly and constructively; and revising some more).  
One of the hardest parts of the entire process of becoming a published author is having the necessary patience and humbleness required to get the manuscript to where it needs to be before jumping into the agent-hunt.  In the end, almost nothing matters other than the quality of the manuscript.

QBF: What sort of books are you especially looking for?
Dorian: For fiction, I’d like to find a story I haven’t read before: a premise that’s deeply compelling and fresh; an unlikely setting or unexpected collision of characters; a mature, assured voice, and commitment to storytelling.  I’d love to find a literary suspense writer who is as interested in character and psychology as s/he is in plot – a a la Kate Atkinson or Tana French.  And/or someone who pushes genre boundaries with upmarket flair, like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
I also love historical fiction that fully immerses me and teaches me about another time and place: Paulette Jiles’ utterly beguiling News of the World has stayed with me for its emotionality – which is as deeply retrained as it is moving; Mary Swan’s masterful, haunting, kaleidoscopic Boys in the Trees; Cathy Marie Buchanan’s dark, unsentimental, immersive The Painted Girls.
In nonfiction, I’m always on the lookout for narratives – memoir, narrative history, narrative journalism – that spins a great yarn while teaching me something I didn’t even know I wanted to know: I loved David Grann’s recent Killer of the Flower Moon, which reads like a murder mystery while unfolding fascinating history of the Osage tribe, the early days of the FBI, and the waning days of the Wild West; neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor’s decade-old (at least) “brain memoir” My Stroke of Insight; and my own late client, Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a chronicle of his own untimely death that understands that all deaths feel untimely, and in which he excavates this universal experience using all of his own prodigious gifts—as a philosopher, neurosurgeon, historian, reader, husband, son, brother, father, and alchemist of language.  

QBF: Is there anything you see too much of or is overdone these days?
 Dorian: Specifically speaking, some agents and editors say domestic suspense is being over-published – the trend that started with Gone Girl, and currently continues with The Woman in the Window – but yet we can’t ignore that readers still have a massive appetite for it. 
More abstractly speaking, I see way too many books written by people who have not figured out their book’s narrative arc, how to use story to reveal deep-character, and/or how to keep narrative tension alive.  Doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction, if a book doesn’t have tension in its pages, it will not find its readers. 

QBF: What’s your process when considering a project?
Dorian: It’s often a bit visceral, my process.  Usually, I just jump in and start reading the pages; if I snap at my assistant for interrupting me, that’s a great sign (though a bummer for my assistant). 
After I’m “in,” so to speak—that is, the material has me in its thrall—I will step back a bit mentally as I read in order to think about how I’d position the project (what’s my pitch? with which other books/authors does this one share an audience?  Who are the ideal imprints/editors for it?).
If I fail to be able to step back mentally, because every time I start reading all I can do is fall headfirst back into the material, then I’m a goner.  In a good way.  And I know I will figure out all of the “agent-y” stuff later and will do whatever it takes to work with the author.  
I like to speak with the author – face-to-face if possible – and discuss editorial thoughts, what they see for themselves and in their professional and creative future, and generally make sure we are on the same page as far as our commitment to the work goes.  I want to know that the writer has as much gas left in his/her tank as I have in mine, since we almost always do a good deal of editorial and development work prior to putting the project out into the marketplace. 
 I also want to feel confident about our ability to communicate effectively to one another.  In the longer run, so much will depend on mutual trust and effective communication skills, so it’s important to make sure the chemistry is there.

QBF: What grabs attention in a query letter?
Dorian: I want to see that the author has specific reasons for reaching out to me, and that s/he understands where their project might fit on a shelf – with which authors and other trade books will their book be in conversation?  I’m looking to see that a given writer takes both themselves and me seriously as professionals.  I live at the intersection of art and commerce, and I want to see that a writer understands that and can navigate that space effectively.
It’s a plus if the writer has won awards and/or fellowships, graduated from a good MFA program, placed material in strong literary or mainstream magazines.  That said, I have pursued and/or worked with debut novelists who have come out of the blue with very little other than a great query letter and a manuscript whose description sounds irresistible. 

QBF: How do you decide if a manuscript is worth considering?
Dorian: A great query letter will get me to request the manuscript.  Sometimes my trusted assistant looks at the material first and lets me know if it’s something I should consider.  I start reading and hope that I won’t want to stop. 

QBF: What grabs you about a manuscript?
Dorian: Fantastic writing. 

QBF: What do you look for in a client besides a great book?
Dorian: Depends in part what kind of writer/project we’re talking about.  For any writer, it’s a plus to be articulate and charismatic – this doesn’t have to mean super-extroverted, just that the writer has a way of speaking that makes others want to listen. 
 It’s great if a fiction writer is social-media savvy, but especially helpful if they are already ensconced in a literary circle – they keep in touch with fellow MFA graduates and profs, contribute to lit mags, and cultivate relationships with other writers, booksellers, etc.  
I think it’s become more important than ever for writers – fiction and nonfiction – to seize the mantle of the public figure, and contribute her/his voice to community of writers with whom they want to be aligned, and to a larger cultural conversation.  This is true for journalists, memoirists, historians, literary fiction writers and commercial fiction writers.  I love to work with writers who are already engaging.

QBF: How do you work with authors?
Dorian: I am very hands-on.  The author and I ping-pong on revision for however long it takes to get the project bulletproof; some of this is via email and scans of the work in progress, and some of it is via phone calls where we talk about the book in both micro and macro ways. 
I want my clients to be as fully informed and knowledgeable about the business-side of the process as they wish to be, so I generally spend a good amount of time answering questions and explaining, educating writers so that they can be real partners in the decision-making. 
I remain hands-on after we sell the book.  Making the sale marks the end of one phase of the process and the beginning of the next: the process of publication.  
Then there is the bigger picture of envisioning how a particular career might ideally unfold and helping steer the career in a fruitful long-term direction.  Because things rarely go exactly as planned (or desired) it’s not uncommon over the course of a career to also advise/strategize on reinvention.

QBF: What writing advice do you give your clients?
Dorian: I believe in having a sense, however loose, of where a book is going to go (narratively and thematically) before diving in too deeply.  That said, most of my clients have their own methods and processes and I try only to offer my advice if it’s asked for. 
QBF: What would you like writers to know about the publishing industry and about agents?
Dorian: The industry is a business – a frequently creative and meaningful one, but a business nonetheless – and it is important for writers to understand that the process of becoming an author is a process of becoming a professional.  That means:
-         do your homework and don’t just scattershot queries to agents;
-       -        be humble before the work of writing an excellent novel/proposal and don’t try to get an agent until the material is absolutely as strong and fully itself as you can make it; agents get tons of flip or wacky query letters, and we toss them all;
-      -        be prepared to revise and revise and revise before your agent sends out your project (the fact that your agent is willing to put in their time editorially is a great sign: the agent should never care more than you about the quality of your material);
-       -        be prepared to revise and revise and revise after your book sells and before it gets published; be obsessively interested in your own book – you’ll be working on it for a long time;
-         enjoy every drop of the process that you can, and appreciate every single reader (who isn’t related to you) who comes to your book: this is an incredibly hard business, and most books don’t sell a lot of copies or get the number of reviews that we wish; it is so important to savor all the good and, of course, to love the process of writing itself (even if you kind of hate it at the same time). 
-         Don’t define success solely according to the size of your advance or the number of copies your book sells.  It takes a weirdly big village to publish a book: take the time to get to know your team – publicists, marketers, booksellers, etc. – and write them personal notes of thanks.  Everyone wants to be seen, and most of us will go to the ends of the earth for writers we admire who have gone out of their way to acknowledge our contribution to the process.
-         Cultivate gratitude.  

QBF: Any final advice?
Dorian: Keep writing.  Keep reading, and learn from writers whose work you love.  Work hard. Figure out where your works fits on a shelf filled with other contemporary writers.  Don’t try to get an agent just because your friend (frienemy?) got one.  Getting an agent is the last step in a long process, not the first.   Keep writing. 

Query Dorian at:
Query only (no manuscript pages or attachments unless requested). 

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