Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Conversation With Literary Agent Lauren Ruth

by Tess Almendarez Lojacono

I was pleased to have an opportunity to pose interview questions to Lauren Ruth, literary agent for BookEnds, LLC. Just as I suspected, her answers were full of energy and enthusiasm, as here is an agent who truly loves books and people and the awesome job of representing both to major publishing houses.

Tess Almendarez Lojacono: Tell me the facts about your life. The basic stuff, but also the three things you feel are most important for readers to know.

Lauren Ruth: I love to blog and can be found at www.slushpiletales.wordpress.com. I started this blog when I was interning, and it's aim has changed as I have. Now, it's a resource for writers, but is read also by agents and editors. Aside from that, I'd like to mention that I'm just itching to find big commercial fiction that has something extra, a bit of pop that makes it really, really unique. Lastly, I think it's worth saying that I never really get sick of romance. I'll always read romance, and specifically I love paranormals and historicals (or both at the same time).

TAL: For me, the idea of the agent encompasses many things beyond what we tend to see as an "agent." You are not only a salesman, but a purveyor of words as well. Tell me how these two things come together. How do they benefit one another, or even work together for you?

LR: I wouldn't say that I am a purveyor of words. I don't feel like I provide them to anyone, but rather they're provided to me. I like to think of my process, and that of all agents, as a specific vehicle that is designed to navigate a terrain no other can. That being said, I am emotionally incapable of being objective about the works I choose to represent. I cannot have my client's work get rejected (even once, by that imprint I didn't care about anyway) without sharing their hurt. I can't get an author published and then not whoop and not holler and not crack open the champagne that night. I think this inability serves me well. The higher any agent's passion is about a book, the better he or she will champion for it--and I always have high enthusiasm and passion or I wouldn't have taken it on.

TAL: You are educated in English Lit. and Language and will soon have a degree in book publishing as well. How do these fields inform eachother?  Does one effort make you better at the other?

LR: My English degree has not served me very well in publishing. I think going to college is important for almost any career, but learning about literary greats like Hemingway and Faulkner does not help in today's world of commercial book publishing. There should be a degree in commercial fiction--that would have served me. As for my graduate work in book publishing, it has given me perspective, if nothing else. A master's degree in book publishing is like an MBA, but specific to book publishing. I was able to learn about a publisher's business model, what works and what doesn't, why books are priced the way they are and why some things sell and some don't. In addition to actually interning at Simon and Schuster, I was able to see behind the smoke-screen and understand how the editorial, marketing, sales and business processes work hand-in-hand and independently of each other at a big publisher and I was able to see all of this as it applies to different areas of publishing, from children's to textbook.

TAL: What kind of characters/fiction are you drawn to?  So much of the fiction today is dark and disturbing.  Do you think this is a trend that will change? How do you pick projects that you work on—strictly choosing what appeals to you as a reader or looking for that product that will ‘sell’?

LR: I love anything that takes me somewhere new, whether that "somewhere" exists in a character or in world or in a situation. I love fiction that is dark and disturbing. The reason for this is that  in my reading, I want to be forced to feel something. I want the author to paint his ideas on my mind and I want that experience to leave something behind, not just be washed away by the paint of all the other authors. I can always tell when something really moved me, because I remember it months later after reading pages and pages of other people's work. Romance, done well, does this for me as does upmarket commercial fiction. also, literary and upmarket women's fiction.

As for the way in which I choose projects to represent, I don't ever go looking for something that will sell and I'll tell you this probably hurts my bank account. The fact is, if I don't think something is worthy, and I didn't enjoy it, it's really hard to sing its praises to an editor. I've done it before and I don't like it: I feel like a clown, performing. If I truly have passion for and have enjoyed something supremely, the praise-singing comes naturally and I find that it's more infectious if its genuine. So, yes, generally it needs to appeal to my tastes as a reader.

TAL: If you could, how would you change the publishing world? 

LR: Honestly? I wouldn't change publishing...I would change society. In my wildest fantasy, everybody on Earth reads...as much as they watch TV. And authors are huge celebrities and people have challenging conversations about published ideas and stories. And I'm sitting right in the middle of it and people think I'm so lucky to work in this industry. Well, I did say it was a fantasy...

TAL: What are today’s biggest challenges to the agent?  To the writer?

LR: The biggest challenge to an author is to establish and maintain an audience, especially online. As an agent, I think my biggest challenge right now is to intuit not only what I will like, but what editors will, and what readers will.

TAL: What would you say is the most common mistake writers make when they query?  When they submit a manuscript?

LR: The most common mistake in a query is what I call The Synopsis Splatter. The author has spent years writing something like 90,000 words and has entirely lost perspective. She can't fit all of that into 250 words, so her ideas come out like a messy splatter: too much here, too little there, a glop of the unintelligible over here, a string of unnecessary at the bottom...in other words, there's substance there, I just know it, but it's not very coherent.

TAL: Who are your own favorite writers? Books?LR: My all-time favorite books are To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre, which I suppose illuminates my varied tastes. My favorite current authors are Jodi Picoult, Neil Gaiman, Wally Lamb, Jonathan Tropper, Jeffrey Eugenides, Barbara Kingsolver, Loretta Chase, Charles Bock, Lauren Weisberger, Chuck Palahniuk, and probably a whole bunch more who escape my memory.My tastes, as you can see vary very, very widely. I'm not sure what all of these authors have in common, so I'll call it je ne sais quoi, if you don't mind.

TAL: What is your own definition of what makes a good writer?

LR: Technically, I think a writer needs to have a natural, inborn talent and a way with words. Beyond that, they need to be able to plot their novel out with surprise and pop and uniqueness. They really do need to have a voice all their own. Also, writers today need to be able to take revision suggestions and really work with that. There have been times when I've told an author that Character A would benefit from being a little more brooding, a little more angry. Then when I get the revisions back, the author has simply typed in several areas "...he was angry and brooding..." That is not what I mean about taking a revision and working with it. Tell me how angry and brooding he was without using the words or anything close to their synonyms and do it throughout, is really what I mean.

Lastly, authors need to be marketeers these days. They need to be on Twitter and Facebook and blog in order to really knock their work out of the park.

TAL: For this last question, I want to ask you eight more questions. But they are pretty much possible to answer with very short answers:

1) What inspired you to go into the field of literary agent?
LR: When I was a kid, I asked my dad if, when I grew up, I could read for a living because that would be totally awesome, wouldn't it? He said something like "Maybe. Pass the potatoes." All I really needed was a maybe.

2) What book has most influenced your life?
LR: I think Stephen King's Bag of Bones. I was only 13, I think, and should not have been reading that, but I loved it so much, that I read it several times. It was also the first mention of editors and agents, even though that was ancillary to the plot in Bag of Bones.

3) What is your biggest time waster?
LR: You want me to admit I waste time? Honestly, though, my time is very strapped and I don't waste it. Even reading for pleasure adds to my knowledge base, even blogging adds to my public image, even perusing Twitter helps me learn and connect.

4) What is the hardest part about being an agent?
LR: I think the hardest part of being an agent is that my work is largely based on instinct and experience. There's no definite bestseller, no sure thing.

5) Name three things you are most proud of.
LR: I'm proud to work with books. I think most people don't live out their childhood dreams, and even though mine is so tame, I actually did it. So, in my mind, I'm like a ballerina or an astronaut. I'm especially proud of my intelligence and my ability to think quickly, whether in a concrete way or an abstract one. And I'm proud that even though I'm a single mom, I still find the time to cultivate my two-and-half-year old's interest in reading.

6) Think back to when you were about 13. What was your very favorite book?
LR: At that time, it was probably Stephen King's entire body of work.

7) Which of your favorite literary characters is most like you?
LR: I'd like to say Jane Eyre, but that seems more like an aspiration. Probably Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice.

8) What is one of the craziest things you've ever done?
LR: I once told the preeminent Virginia Woolf scholar that I did not find the subject of his life's work very appealing, commercially or otherwise. I shared this opinion while sitting in his college seminar on her body of work. He handled it very gracefully and then shunned me for the rest of the semester. 

Lauren will be at the WriteStuff Writers Conference in March. I’m sure you’ll be as eager as I am to meet her in person! And in the meantime, don’t forget to go to her blog at: www.slushpiletales.wordpress.com. You’ll find query letter critiques and other valuable advice to writers!

1 comment :

  1. Lauren, you sound like so much fun! Love the story about your father. I look forward to working with you at our agent panel discussion!