Wednesday, September 1, 2010

MY LIFE IN AGENTS by Kerry Madden

When my daughter, Norah, was four or five, she went to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles with our family late one Sunday afternoon. When she learned about the animals (mammoths, wolves, bears, sloths, saber-toothed cats) drowning in the tar she got very upset and didn’t ever want to go back. And when nighttime would come around she’d sometimes say, “I got the tar feeling, Mama.” We’d cuddle up together and read and eventually it would be okay, but I knew exactly what she meant. And the "tar feeling" for me became a combination of dread, Sunday nights, the sun slipping down in the sky, and doom.

But I think any writing career is both the tar feeling and the impossible flashes of joy and hope with a whole lot of in-between. Since I haven’t written about agents before, I thought I would do so now. But first, a big thanks to Kathy Patrick, Pulpwood Queen extraordinaire and champion of authors at all stages and stories, who has taken the helm here at A GOOD BLOG IS HARD TO FIND, and to Karin Gillespie, who started this blog in the first place and made so many dear friendships possible. Thank you, thank you.

I got my first agent when my play, BLOOD & MARRIAGE, was produced at the Met Theatre in Hollywood in 1993. My kids, Flannery and Lucy, were tiny and they used to go to the theatre with me and jump on the actors and break the props and race around back stage, hiding in the curtain, scaling the catwalk. I used Lucy's baby-doll, Inge, in the play, a life-size infant doll, and when she saw baby Inge on stage in the actress's arms, she howled, "DON'T TAKE MY BABY TO DA THEATRE NO MORE, MAMA!"

The play was about marriage and being a new mother with scenes like: “I Am A Futon and Other Umbilical Tales.” I was teaching ESL four hours a day at Garfield Adult School and rehearsing the play at night. I wasn’t in it, but I was running lines, gathering props, raising money to produce it, sending out fliers and postcards – this was LONG before email or websites. I started writing fiction shortly after this production with my husband's enthusiastic blessing.

BLOOD & MARRIAGE received mostly good reviews, and what started as a Tuesday-Wednesday workshop production got extended to Fridays and Saturdays for an eight week run. But some people thought it was too dark – especially when the swaggering brother-in-law choked on the Thanksgiving wishbone at the end and not one family member moved to assist him.

Still, I got my first agent out of the play - a film and television agent - even though I didn’t write for film and television. She was a go-getter. She talked a million miles a minute and gushed buckets of enthusiasm. She eventually got my novel to Diane Keaton and Bill Robinson at Blue Relief, who attached themselves to the book, which in turn made Jim Henson Productions option it for a series. OFFSIDES went through the Hollywood mill for years.


But meetings and hope can kill you after a while, and at the beginning of each phone call, my agent would warn me, “Are you sitting down? You won’t believe it!” And it was always breathtaking news that quickly went nowhere. I am sure it was her way of staying pumped in the chorus of “No thank you” and “Where’s the emotional arc?” and “We’re passing, but hey-thanks-for-thinking-of-us” from ABC, CBS, NBC, Working Title, Lifetime, ABC Family…and on and on and on…

This literary agent in Los Angeles had liked an early draft of my novel, OFFSIDES, but felt it needed an editor. I quit my job teaching ESL and spent another year revising and writing it, chopping, cutting, honing and making it a book. Agent 1 ½ hated the revision and said it wasn’t going to work out between us after all. I didn’t teepee her house, but I thought about it. I fixed a cocktail instead. I fixed two. Actually, I don’t remember how many I fixed, but I don’t touch Jack Daniels anymore.

I got my second agent, who was a literary agent in New York, and she was wonderful. She took OFFSIDES one month after Agent 1 ½ had rejected it. She sold the book a month later to William Morrow, who published it in 1996. That was when the Hollywood option happened, and Diane Keaton even sent me a solid chocolate NFL football to celebrate, and Jim Henson sent along a bottle of red wine too. But the wine bottle broke, red wine soaking package with shards of glass. I refused to see it as a sign. OFFSIDES was out of print within two years. No movie, no half-hour sit-com, no one-hour dramady, no mini-series, all of which had been tossed around like a confetti of possibility.

In hindsight, I should have stayed with Agent 2, but I went to a Writers Conference, and those are heady-dreamy places in pastoral settings among the literati, and I was encouraged by a famous novelist to speak to her agent about my new novel-in-progress. The famous novelist loved it and the agents were enthusiastic too. So stupidly, I wrote to Agent 2 to tell her I’d spoken to new agents at the Writers Conference, and Agent 2 wrote me a letter (and quite rightly so!) that said, “I don’t play the field.” She dumped me, and I don’t blame her a bit. I would have dumped me too. Then Agent 2 ½, after two years of revisions decided that she didn’t like my new book after all. It was several years of “Come hither, come hither, maybe…” until it just wasn’t. Then I didn’t have an agent at all.

A friend helped me find Agent 3, who loved the new novel and tried her very best to sell it, but the literary fiction people said it was “too YA” and the YA people said it was “too adult.” This was around 2000? I wrote another novel that she hated (and she was far from alone in that sentiment), and then I asked her about writing YA or books for kids, and she said, “If you want to write for kids then I am definitely not the agent for you.” We parted ways wishing each other the best.

I love her. Marianne Merola at Brandt & Hochman. I’ve had her since 2003, and I’m not going anywhere. She turned down the first three books I sent to her – HOP THE POND, THE GALLERY, and MANGOES ON THE SABBATH (a short story collection) but I kept trying. She liked an early draft of GENTLE’S HOLLER but warned me, “One child is blind, the dad is dead, and the whole family is broke – the poor kids who read this! Come on now, how about a little hope.” I rewrote it with hope and sent it back to her and waited. Then I went to an SCBWI Conference ( to figure out how to navigate this world of children's publishing. An editor, Melanie Cecka, agreed to read our manuscripts as long as we didn’t ambush her in the bathroom with them. I sent her GENTLE’S HOLLER to Viking Children’s Books in New York as directed, and a few months later, she emailed to find out the status.

I told Marianne, who hadn’t quite made up her mind about me, but I think that she liked that I was already working to make my career happen without expecting her to perform magic. Within a few weeks, I had both an agent and an editor and publishing date of March 2005, which was also nearly a decade after OFFSIDES was published but I was thrilled. Since that time, Marianne has been my agent through four more books and taken a great interest in my family, my essays, and career as a writer. She’s also no-nonsense, candid and doesn’t gush or mince words but is plenty enthusiastic when it’s called for. Most of all, she’s genuine and real.

My first editor, Melanie, left for Bloomsbury, but I inherited Catherine Frank, a wonderful editor, who believed in GENTLE’S HOLLER and asked me to write companion novels, LOUISIANA’S SONG and JESSIE’S MOUNTAIN, and all three books became a kind of Maggie Valley/Smoky Mountain trilogy. Then I wrote my first biography, UP CLOSE HARPER LEE, for a series also developed by Catherine, who has been a fantastic editor and demanded more every step of the way.

And now my fifth book with Marianne, THE FIFTH GRADE LIFE OF JACK GETTLEFINGER, is a children’s novel that I’ve just finished. I wrote this novel as a valentine to my children who are now 21, 18, and 11, and we live spread out from Los Angeles to New York to Birmingham, and it was a way of hanging onto their voices as kids just a little bit longer. And since I began this essay writing about “the tar feeling,” I’ll close with section in the new novel from the point of view of a fifth grade boy who also experiences “the tar feeling.” And as a writer when the tar feeling looms for me as it often does, I try to do the one thing that makes sense - I write.

* * *
An excerpt from my new novel for kids:

Thinking about fifth grade gave Jack the “tar feeling.” In fact, lots of things gave Jack the tar feeling like he was swimming and sinking with saber-toothed tigers in the LA Brea Tar Pits thousands of years ago. Here is what he wrote in his forced school journal:


1. My teacher, Mrs. Loudermilk’s blue icicle eyes, and that she is forcing us to keep a journal and makes me stay inside at recess to finish my work and lets everybody else out to be free free free free.

2. My brother, Liam, when he lies and doesn’t come home, and then he forgets all about why you’re mad at him and why you have EVERY RIGHT to be mad at him but he just tells you “to chill-lax” and then plays David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” on the piano and sings at the top of his lungs. (I don’t want Liam to be a hoodlum, which means “very bad guy” in movies from the olden days.)

3. Thinking about the people who sunk on the great Titanic.

4. Parks with no people, and people without arms. Why are the parks empty? What happened to their arms?

5. Too many of my mom’s Lady Barrister volleyball games right in a row. (My mom is a coach. Her team is the Lady Barristers, which means “lady lawyers.” Maybe her team would win more games if they were the Lady Tigers instead of Lady Lawyers.)

6. Book reports the night before they are due.

7. Playing squeeky trumpet, and parents who want you to find a sport.

8. Folding laundry – especially socks. They never match, so I hide them deep under couch pillows in a secret hiding place.

9. Headgear, braces, and evil orthodontists.

10. People who hate HAMLET and who think werewolves are stupid. (NOT MENTIONING NAMES, MICHAEL LEE!)

11. People from the bank called “Four-closers” who want to take your house away because they say your parents owe money.

12. Not being able to wear capes in fifth grade.

PS The following diagram is me as Nosteratu for Halloween. I didn't have the TAR FEELING for Halloween! I felt GREAT!!!!!!
By Flannery Lunsford

The author of six books, Kerry Madden is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. She is also the editor of PMS – PoemMemoirStory – also at UAB.


Leigh Purtill said...

Kerry I LOVED this! It's a great reminder to all of us that success rarely follows a straight line. Thank you for sharing~

Irene Latham said...

Another brilliant piece by the brilliant Kerry Madden! SO excited about the new book. Thanks for this!!

Karin Gillespie said...

This was amazing, Kerry. I also read the essay you included as a link and I love the excerpt. You're such an imaginative writer. And I agree with Leigh. Success is almost always preceded by lots of jags and detours and it's useful to remember that.

Karen Harrington said...

Your journey is inspirational. It clearly shows how resilient you are. Thanks for sharing this and I'm looking forward to your new book!

Robyn Hood Black said...

Thanks so much for sharing, Kerry! Tell your daughter thank you for putting "the tar feeling" into words. Glad you persisted out of the muck.

Jeni said...

I'll bet your creative writing classes are FUN. Makes me wish I could go back to school, except I'd only want to take the creative writing classes. :) Thank you for sharing your agent story, for sharing the opening to your new book (which I loved), and for reminding me that ideas for stories are everywhere if you look at the world with eyes wide open.

River Jordan said...

I love all of this Kerry, and find the agent business much like a courtship, marriage and sometimes a divorce. And my son at four pointed to a one-armed man in the po and said - Where'd your arm go? What happened to it. YA is my new favorite fiction. I think I"m still a misfit 5th graders.


Peggy Webb said...

Everything about this post is wonderful, Kerry, from the story of your meandering writer's journey to the delightful voice you use in portraying a fifth grader. Makes me want to write YA!

Anna Michaels said...

Your post reminds me that, although each writer's journey is unique, our obstacles are very much the same.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Thanks for making me laugh. For being so candid. For sharing your journey.

Up up and away!

Anonymous said...

Oh i know the tar feeling way better than I want to, and i wouldn't wish it on nobody.
Thanks, Kerry
Amy g Koss

Robin L said...

What a great post, Kerry. Thank you for sharing your agent travails with us so honestly. So important for us to all hear about.

And congratulations on your fifth novel! It sounds wonderful and I absolutely adore the idea of the tar feeling. So evocative!

Kerry Madden said...

Thank you for these comments. I deeply appreciate them. What a crazy ride, but I am so very grateful for our community of writers and friendships that have helped me through days of the tar feeling. May everybody always be held in story, possibility, and love in this writing life.


Augusta Scattergood said...

Oh, wow. Can't wait for that new book. Great post, Kerry.

Barbara O'Connor said...

Love this, Kerry! I could read your writing forever. Can't wait for the new book. Peace and love, friend.

Melanie Simpson said...

Thanks for sharing this! As one who is on the hunt for Agent #1, it serves as a nice reminder that in this business, resilience is a virtue!

JD said...