Every time I meet up with Tom, it invariably becomes this dope riff session on writing, culture, and music. We end up talking about our favorite writers, our MFA days, our different views on craft, SoCal cultural mythology, East Coast/Midwest nostalgia, famous writers we've worked with who changed our life, a short bitch session on literary agents, random Rock'n'Roll references, followed by a short Q and A where I ask him questions about reading for the New Yorker Festival and going on tour in Europe and his revision process. Today, more than ever, I felt like we were two friends in two very different stages of our literary career, just kicking it for a half an hour. Some of the highlights of this convo included:
1. Tom gave me some love for "The Invisible Dress," a chapter from my debut novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs, that he read as part of the Writer-in-Residence deal at USC. He said it was one of the best things he's read of mine in a while, but then he stopped himself and said, "but you've written a lot of great stuff, so . . . " I laughed when he said that
2. After he said that sometimes he likes to "rewrite" classic short stories like The Overcoat, we began crooning about the Russian masters like Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, all of whom I read voraciously in college. Diary of a Madmen, The Nose, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Possessed, Notes from Underground, The Idiot, War and Peace, The Kreutzer Sonata, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, were some of my most treasured novels back then. And for Tom too, a connection I didn't even know we had
3. Tom told about his experience being an editor for the Best American Stories 2015, which honestly, sounds totally fucking exhausting. It was especially interesting to hear him talk about how he picked thetwenty stories for the collection
4. Tom talked about switching from Viking to Ecco, his sadness about leaving one editor and his happiness about working with another
5. Tom said he thought this was gonna be my year. I told him I hope he's right.
6. Tom asked me how things were going at UCI (very good). Then, he asked me if I was applying to tenure track jobs this year, which I am. I explained that I'm applying to every decent, great, and awesome, tenure track job out there located in or near a major metropolitan area, even jobs out of my league, because you've got to. Someone will get those jobs, why not me? He replied, "Now, you just need a book contract and everything else will fall in line for you with your PhD." In his own sweet but indirect way, Tom implied that he's waiting to write a blurb for me and honestly, I can't wait for that. In fact, sending him, Aimee, Percival, Valerie Sayers, Frances Sherwood, and Steve Tomasula emails for blurbs will be one of the sweetest parts of finally getting a contract because I'll get to thank them for all of their support, advice, and insight over the years
7. Tom talked about his days as the fiction editor at the Iowa Review where he basically picked the stories he liked the most, and then sent his recommendations to Robert Coover who picked from Tom's shortlist all the way from London
8. Tom talked about how fucking slow McSweeney's is, even with marquee writers like him. They bought one of his stories a million years ago and still hadn't published it yet, which eventually made his agent, Georges Borchardt, badger them a little bit. "I really don't care," Tom explained, "because they already bought the story." Must be nice to have such an illustrious publishing career that you actually don't give a shit when McSweeney's gets around to publishing your short story.
9. Tom and I agree that Tobias Wolf's Bullet in the Brain is one of the gold standards by which other short stories should be judged
10. I feel like now, more than ever, Tom is waiting for me to make it big. I feel like my time is coming. He feels like my time is coming. I know he believes in me as a writer with talent and stubborness to burn, which is an amazing source of confidence and support for me, but now I have to go out and slay this dragon myself. I'm the only one who can do it. I know he'll be cheering me from the sidelines, which I feel blessed about
At this point, it's just a request for a full manuscript. Nothing more, nothing less. Still, it's hard not being a tiny bit giddy when Frances Coady, one of the two stellar agents at Nicole Aragi's top-shelf agency, asks for an exclusive of your debut novel (which I couldn't give her exclusively since I already have three other agents reading full manuscripts). I know that Frances Coady is a widely respected, admired, even feared former publisher at Picador and Vintage. I know she is a hands-on editor who works with authors line by line if necessary to strengthen not dilute a book's force. I know she values and understands the importance of the graphic elements of a novel (e.g., the cover design, the format, possibly even the font). I know that in the publishing world she is an absolute giant, both equal to but also complementary with, Nicole Aragi. I know all of these things and honestly, it makes my head spin. But I don't know the most important thing, namely, whether she'll like my novel. That's the only thing that matters. The only thing I care about right now. I'll do my best not to freak out, but that's pretty much impossible . . .
Well, if there's one thing I'm completely sure of right now, it's my ability to write a decent query letter. I now have three (plus) agents reading full manuscripts of my debut novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs, which is pretty damn exciting. I'm not surprised that AMNESIA is getting lots of interest from agents considering it's a transnational, multicultural, multiracial, urban, character-based, literary novel. Right now, multicultural novels (and multicultural narratives in general) are in with America's changing demographic. Linked short stories are in again too and AMNESIA straddles the space between a novel and a collection of linked stories (that come together at the end). I'm cautiously optimistic (as I always am) because I think this novel is finally ready for prime time, but only time will tell. Stay tuned!
I may rage against the machine when a particular rejection stings, but I'm the kind of dude that gets back up (literally) the next day and tries another way to make it work. Writing, after all, is the one thing I'm great at. Resilience is another. And Ima figure out how to get my novels in the hands of my future readers because that's who I am.
In the next month, I'll be sending AMNESIA to several indie presses that I think might be receptive (among others, FC2 and Curbside Splendor) as well to a few laser-targeted literary agents who represent multicultural literary fiction. One of them will be Zadie Smith's agent, because of the obvious similarities between The Amnesia of Junebugs and White Teeth.
With a clean break from Kaya, I have the power to (re)consider all my options, not just the obvious ones. I have the possibility of finding an even larger audience and a much more supportive editorial department. I have the right to try again and find the right press for my manuscripts as a hapa writer of fiction.
I may be bruised, but I'm still standing. I'm still going to make this work.
After a concentrated two weeks where LB and I saw both our families back to back, I'm finally getting back in the groove with my writing, revising, and submissions. And today I've realized that I'm going all out.
Recently, a bunch of my friends have been getting agents, then two-book contracts, thereby fundamentally changing their literary careers in the span of literally one year. A boy can only dream . . . Of course, because I'm human, I've been waiting by the phone too for the same phone call, waiting for the same miracle to magically transform my writing career into a solid object, but so far, I've been mostly stood up by publishing industry (literary journals have been much kinder to me). Agents are happy to tell me how talented I am, but their rejections are always about the fit. Truthfully, it's hard not to feel bad about yourself, especially when you stroll through the local bookstore and you see straight up shit on the coop. But I'm an eternal optimist, obviously delusional, and also very stubborn, so I'm not giving up. Not when I'm so close.
This leads me to the whole point I was making before I digressed earlier. Now that I'm back in action, I'm going all out, man. I'm submitting queries for NINJAS to a bunch of new agents soon (I'm still waiting to hear from three agents who are reading full manuscripts, but the longer time passes, the less hopeful I get). If Kaya rejects AMNESIA (they're taking their sweetass time, by the way), I'll send a query for it to fifty agents the next week. I just sent out several novella manuscripts to Plougshares and the Massachusetts Review. I'm also sending one of my best (and fave) short stories to several literary journals. Lastly, I'm sending my memoir to a few indie presses that I think would be a good fit aesthetically, conceptually, and structurally. Instead of staggering my submissions as I was forced to do during the school year, I'm now going full force. And that's not even including a screenplay I'll start revising/continuing this weekend about two bike messengers in DTLA.
And it don't stop . . .
So last week, I finally submitted my completely reworked, revamped, and revised novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs, to the editorial board at Kaya Press. In case we just met, I sent Kaya a radically different iteration of this novel two years ago that had a different name (Blank) and also a different narrative framing device, among other wholesale changes. The board liked many things and disliked some other things, so I've spent the last two years working with Sunyoung Lee, Kaya's publisher, to address many of the big problems the board raised and also to rewrite this novel until it was a tiny bit awesome. I've been working on and off on this novel since 2007 when I finished it, which is oh, just 8 goddamn years!
But now this novel is something I love very deeply and am immensely proud of. I'm giving Kaya first dibs because Sunyoung has helped me so much making suggestions and also because I'm unbelievably grateful they're reading it again after 2 years. If you know me, you know I'm intensely loyal. Beyond that, Kaya is a great fucking press that publishes great writing about the APIA Diaspora with beautifully designed covers. But if for some--completely insane--reason they don't publish it, I feel confident that another press will. It is a very good novel. It is in fact, a great novel. It belongs with Kaya and the choice is now theirs.
I want to publish my first novel The Amnesia of Junebugs. I want to publish my second novel The Ninjas of My Greater Self. While I think both novels have flaws for sure (which novels don't?), I think they're great for different reasons + deserve to be in your local bookstore as much as any other original work of literary fiction. I have no doubt about that. I don't doubt it for an instant. Sure, I see momentum in my own emerging career. Yes, I have a much stronger backbone from years of workshop critiques + gratuitous attacks by opinionated haters who don't write half as hard as I do. Yes, I'm publishing stories in journals that I love + admire, that I grew up reading during my MFA years, journals that agents read. Yes, I believe in myself 100% + would have killed to have been published in some of the journals my stuff appears in now. But I'm sick of being in professional limbo where your entire life, your whole artistic career is put on hold while you scramble to get your novels published. This isn't the goddamn 1920's--you can't live off of short stories anymore, even if you publish them in the glossies with your agent's help.
What I want is the novel. I want my novels in bookshelves. I want to be able to delete from my inbox a bunch of snarly, hitman-type book reviews by half-actualized, curmudgeon literary fiction writers who write these self-indulgent, in-your-face masturbatory sentences written out of envy for my own ascension. I want to stop being a default critic of an industry I feel shut out of + start feeling like a player inside my own vocation.
Seven years ago, I would have been happy with this progress, but not now. Now I want more. I want bigger dreams, I want insanity, I want my writing to receive scrutiny, adulation, innuendo, indignation, joy + Eros, I want my books to be dog-eared + heavily creased at the public library, smelling of black tea + engine grease, I want to turn on complete strangers with my sex scenes + move a reader to tears with my characters, I want cum stains, lipstick marks + tear drops on the pages of my novels. I want my unique literary voice to be part of this world, not an aspiration of grandeur. I want to give public readings, do an interview while drunk + chat with people in bookstores about characters as if they were real. I want my words to have resonance beyond the voice inside my own head. I want cultural and artistic accountability, I want the consequences of affecting people, I want to share my creativity to the world, I want the unique privilege of participating, critiquing, embracing + affecting culture. In other words, in my own selfish, arrogant, egomaniacal, grandiloquent way, I want to be an artist. I want that. I want all of that shit.
The way I see it: My only hope is to either win a book contest, snag an agent or publish my novels in one of the indie presses. That's when my career will really take off, when I become competitive for creative writing jobs at universities, when I stop questioning my literariness, when I start connecting with readers, when I start standing tall + being what I can only aspire to right now, which is myself.
Dear Jackson Bliss:
I very much admired your story, “The Great Fall,” in Fiction and thought that you might enjoy hearing from a fan of your work who is also an established literary agent. I don’t know if you are even at that point in your writing to start exploring representation, but this story made me feel that you have the talent to write a publishable book
If you’re at work on a novel, one of my colleagues in the agency or I would be pleased to read the opening chapters. We can tell, with a brief synopsis (1-2 pages), and around fifty pages, if we are engaged by the material. If so, we’ll encourage you to keep going. If not, we’ll explain why. These days, many editors never read further than the opening chapter or two of most novels before rejecting them. That’s how overloaded we all are with reading material. You must grab our attention, early on, either with plot or characters.
If you are assembling a short story collection, or undertaking a non-fiction book, visit our agency website (www.sobelweber.com) for our submission guidelines and suggestions. In the current market, publishers are unlikely to take on a short story collection unless the author can provide a novel to follow. If you do not have at least 50 pages of a novel ready, it’s worth waiting to put both book projects together, believe me. You may find our submission guidelines helpful whether we ultimately represent you or not. Or you may write us an email describing the book you are working on. We can then let you know, quickly, our response. Please indicate that I have read some of your work in that letter.
If you already have an agent, please excuse this approach, as our agency does not take on previously agented writers. If you are unagented and would like to discuss your writing before sending me anything, give us a call. The author/agent “chemistry” is vital in a long-term relationship. If you don’t have anything to send us at this time, hold onto this letter. My invitation to read more of your work is open-ended. Recently, we sold a first novel to Knopf by a writer I originally contacted ten years ago after reading his story in The Georgia Review.
Because we offer editorial work on all the projects we take on, at no additional fee to the writer, we do ask for one month exclusivity of your submission, but generally respond sooner. We do not send out form rejection letters on work submitted, but try to provide a fair evaluation of the work, including any editorial suggestions we may have.
Looking forward to reading more of your work.
Sobel Weber Associates, Inc.
146 *** ********
New York, NY
212 ***-**** (phone)
212 ***-**** (fax)
A fan who is also a literary agent? How amazing is that shit? Now, the question is: Do I call him or do I send him an email or both?
Jackson - thanks for the sample. Please email the full ms of BLANK as a Word attachment - paste the full query to the start of the attachment again. Thanks.
But what I do know, what I know for sure, is that this moment, this perfect little moment is mine. And though it can never last, I know that in this tiny moment, I just published a chapter from my first novel in an awesome literary journal that you can buy pretty much in almost any Borders in America. And that makes me wanna cry for all the years no one could find me.
Fiction Magazine? What? Seriously? "The Great Fall," in case you're wondering, is actually a self-contained chapter from my first novel The Amnesia of Junebugs
The truth is, I never saw this one coming. I think Fiction is one of the top 10 literary journals in the US, and not just because Donald Barthelme helped found it. Okay, partially because of that. Even so, I'm stunned. Sure, after sending them 2 experimental stories in 2008 that the two editors seemed to like, I began to send them a new story every 6-8 months, addressing my submissions specifically to them at their request. But, I never actually knew if I'd publish a story with them or not. This is fucking rad. I guess persistence does pay off. Let this be a moment of inspiration for all of us writers: don't give up + keep submitting your stories! Someday, it will get accepted.
Thank you very much for your recent query regarding representation for BLANK. The novel sounds interesting, and Maria would be pleased to have a look at it. Please feel free to send it along at your convenience, preferably via e-mail. If you choose to send a hardcopy, you may direct it to my attention at the address below, marked 'requested materials.' We look forward to hearing from you.
New York, NY
1. Restructure The Amnesia of Junebugs. Virtually every writer and editor who has read my novel (or a portion of it), from editors at Harper Collins, the best literary agents in the whole world, to respected writers like Valerie Sayers, Frances Sherwood, Chuck Wachtel at NYU + Julianna Baggot at FSU, has loved the voice of Winnie Yu, the culture-jamming graffiti artist in the second section of my novel. But after MF stopped reading at page 45, I realized it's possible an agent may never actually get to the 2 couples with more substance, where the heart of the novel is (my first couple just fucks a lot and overintellectualizes everything, kinda like going to Oberlin College). So, to remedy this, I've switched sections one and two. Now, section two, the middle section, is chock full of sex, sandwiched by deeper, more complex, and more human characters.
2. My second response, which is just as healthy, and just as likely to break my heart someday, is to send out new novel queries to new agents. So I sent out a query letter to an agent at The Gernert Company in New York, and another one to David Foster Wallace's agent in SF.
Stay tuned. . .
1. Molly Friedrich (who represents 4 Pulitzer-Prize winners). That should intimidate me, but actually it inspires me.
2. Mary Evans (who represents Michael Chabon). I actually think this is something like the third query letter I've sent her in the past 2 years, but I could be wrong. What can I say? I'm persistent, because you have to be in this industry.
3. Doris S. Michaels (whose literary fiction clients are represented in every major publishing house in America)
So, what do I think my odds are? Oh fuck, slim to none. But I knew that going into this profession, and I'm not going to let that stop me from getting published. I'm a talented fiction writer. I'm just waiting for an agent to figure that out, and I know someday one will.
Thank you for contacting me regarding your manuscript BLANK, which I would be happy to consider. Can you please email me the first three chapters as an attachment?
I will read as soon as I'm able and will get back to you.
So I sent her a 3 chapter teaser + prologue, that happened to be full of sex, but I told her the rest of the novel wasn't so Henry Miller. I can't get too excited about this, but I feel like I can make a few conclusions:
1. My Novel Queries are improving
2. There are some agents out there that are willing to give young, talented, committed, but also unknown, emerging writers a chance. I just met one today.