Apart from the authors you represent, who do you like to read?
I love everything Ross Thomas ever wrote, and just about everything Helen MacInnes ever wrote. I think William Shakespeare was a genius with words, Mark Twain the greatest American writer ever (the man could create clear and clever prose while half drunk and falling off a log), and that modern Americans should read both.
I love Barbara Tuchman, Mark Helprin, Tom Pynchon, and Lauren Winner. I think Haven Kimmel is a genius, Sebastian Junger the writer we all aspire to be. I believe people overlook the great writing style of P.G. Wodehouse, Russell Baker, and Dave Barry (yes, THAT Dave Barry), and that people are afraid of Dostoyevsky needlessly. Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, and Frederick Buechner have been the most influential spiritual writers in my life.
If you want me to name people who aren’t as famous, I also like many of the writings of Sue Monk Kidd, Davis Bunn, Tom Bodett (of Motel 6 fame), Garrison Keillor, and Robert Fulgham (yeah, it’s dopey, but I love it).
What are you most encouraged about when it comes to fiction? Least?
I’m most encouraged by new writers with great talent. New authors take us in new directions.
I’m least encouraged by . . . ack! I hate this question. It’ll make me sound negative. Um . . . okay, recently I was asked to help with a fiction writing contest. (There have been several, so nobody can trace this back to any one contest or group.) I read the finalists. I kept thinking, “These are the FINALISTS? There was a group of experienced writers who PICKED these as finalists?” They were awful. Every one of them. They were everything I speak out against—trite, stupid stories, stupid names, overwrought dialogue, everything pat. I would guess what was going to happen on the next page and invariably be correct. In the end I helped choose a winner based on the fact that “I hated this one the least.” With all the good fiction being produced, and the incredible opportunities for growing our writing, I couldn’t believe this was the best people could do. Very discouraging.
Then again, these people need a place to be bad. (They certainly qualified.) So I keep spreading the message to improve one’s craft and hope writers are listening.
What new trends do you see in publishing, both positive and negative?
The biggest change we’re facing is the delivery system to consumers. They’re shopping at Amazon.com instead of walking into Walmart or the locally-owned bookstore to purchase their books. More readers than ever before are downloading titles to their E-book reader. It’s an amazing change.
What accomplishment, writing, agenting, publishing, or industry-wise are you most proud of?
From an industry perspective, it’s easy to point to a couple of big winners; when Lisa Beamer’s Let’s Roll hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, I knew I’d hit the big time. That was a special moment. When I finally got publishers to buy Donald McCullough’s The Consolations of Imperfection and Mary Jenson’s Over Salsa and Hot Bread and Marcia Ford’s Memoir of a Misfit(three of the most well-written books I ever represented), that meant a lot, even though none of the books sold particularly well.
From a personal perspective, I think I’ve helped a lot of people. I think there are writers out there who have read my work and learned a bit from me. Maybe I’ve helped them move forward. I have set up a bunch of writing groups and mentor and protégé relationships, some of which I’ll never even know about. That’s been probably the most meaningful result of my work to me.
One of the things that is so striking about you (besides your good looks, amazing fashion sense, and obvious genius) is your blatant honesty. Does speaking your mind get you into as much trouble as it seems it would?
Yes and no. Some people seem to be fans, and send me nice notes on occasion, like when they’ve gone off their meds or had too much to drink. Others clearly aren’t comfortable when I say that a particular book or manuscript is awful. But we won’t get better as writers if we only say nice things. Besides, something those in the industry know is that I rarely get upset when someone disagrees with me. This is a business, and I treat it as such. If somebody wants to disagree, they’re entitled to do so. And they’ll find I can take it. So for all the noise and hoopla surrounding my thoughts, careful readers will see I’m always trying to do the same thing: help writers improve by pointing out the things I believe to be true and the lessons I’ve learned.
I’m a critic–and particularly a critic of books and writing. Don’t we need critics to offer some perspective and advice now and then? That said, I should add one thing: if I spent a lot of time complaining about all the criticism I get, I’d be crying wolf. I don’t get much. I certainly have my faults. I suffer fools badly. I can be too critical. I’m occasionally wrong. But I really do think I’m helping move us forward, even if it’s only in a small way.
“I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet gone ourselves.” —The Wisdom of E. M. Forster