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Poise, Tenacity, and Clancy
     by Michael Neff

An Interview with Deborah Grosvenor

Deborah Grosvenor has worked in the book publishing industry for over twenty years, both as an agent and editor. As an editor, she acquired and edited several hundred nonfiction books, although her best-known acquisition was a first work of fiction, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER by Tom Clancy, when she was director of book acquisitions and subsidiary rights at the Naval Institute Press. Deborah also signed up best-selling author Homer Hickham's first work, TORPEDO JUNCTION, and helped launch best-selling author Stephen Coonts's first novel, FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER. The Grosvenor Literary Agency handles commercial and literary fiction, and nonfiction. Deborah is a graduate of the University of Virginia, with a BA, cum laude, in English literature.

NEFF: Please tell us about your discovery of Tom Clancy.

DEBORAH: Tom Clancy was selling insurance when I received his unsolicited manuscript for The Hunt for Red October at the Naval Institute Press, where I was working as an acquisitions editor. NIP had recently made the decision to publish fiction, as long as the subject was "wet," that is, it had a maritime or naval setting or theme. I took the manuscript with me on vacation, read it at the beach, and loved it, with a few reservations. While Clancy was waiting for an answer from me, he would call and send funny letters. One of them had little boxes to check signifying my level of interest in his work, ranging from something like "This is the most stupendous manuscript ever" to "It's good enough to wrap dead fish in."

NEFF: What role did you play in editing his manuscript?

DEBORAH: I knew immediately that Clancy was a storyteller, and had a strong, assured voice, a sense of humor, and a fast-moving, intricate plot. His mastery of technology was amazing. But the story was bogged down by too much technological description and explanation, and the multiple, intertwined fast-moving time lines and scenes were occasionally confusing. I raised these issues with Clancy, and made suggestions where to cut, and suggested that he put in sub-heads indicating the time and date of the scenes. He agreed to revise and a few months later sent in a greatly improved, much tighter manuscript at least 100 pages shorter.

NEFF: Did you have to struggle to put it over the top at Naval Institute Press?

DEBORAH: Yes. The next hurdle was getting it read by our editorial director, Tom Epley, and two outside expert readers, both submariners. One of the readers loved the manuscript, but returned it with pages and pages of technical corrections. The other reader, however, came in with a strong recommendation not to publish, because he said there was "classified information" in the book. I asked why we couldn't simply delete this "classified information," but he said he was not willing to indicate where it was in the book because it was classified!

I was ultimately able to get around this by setting up a meeting with him and Clancy, during which Clancy convinced him that he'd had no access to classified information.

It took me some time to convince my boss to read it, and I wrote him a memo saying that we had a potential bestseller on our hands that we could lose any day to a big house in NY unless we acted quickly. It took a while, but once Tom read it, he was fully on board. and we were able to persuade our editorial board to make Hunt for Red October our first novel.

We were a small press and we'd taken on a first novel by an unknown author, but we put everything we had in terms of staff, time, and advertising dollars behind that book, even hiring an outside NY publicity outfit to help in its promotion. The book dominated all of our planning. We even decided to hold an auction before publication of the hardcover to try to get some early buzz. Only two publishers came to the auction (I also handled sub rights) and most of the other dozen or so didn't even bother to return my phone calls. But two did bid, and Berkeley ultimately bought paperback rights for $35,000.

We got the book out, and as I recall it did well the first few months, but it wasn't until our marketing staff got the book in the hands of a friend of Nancy Reagan, who then gave it to the Reagans, that everything took off. President Reagan read the book, said that it was "unputdownable," and we got this story out to all the news media. The story was picked up by Time magazine, then others, and before you knew it the snowball effect was in motion. We had a bestseller on our hands. I was ultimately able to sell the book into 21 different foreign languages, worked with a great Hollywood agent, Gary Salt, who helped make it into a major motion picture, and saw Hunt for Red October become one of the all time bestsellers of the 20th century. It was an experience of a lifetime for me.

NEFF: I'd say so! But I'm curious about a trivial matter. How did the term "techno-thriller" come about?

DEBORAH: As I recall, it was during one of our planning meetings that someone came up with the term "techno-thriller." I could be wrong about this, and perhaps the term existed before. But we were trying to come up with a term to classify it for booksellers, and it didn't seem to fit into any of the classifications currently in use. So this was the term we came up with and Clancy definitively defined it with this book.

NEFF: How do you account for the fact that other editors missed out on the qualities you recognized so readily?

DEBORAH: There are stories galore in this business of editors who have missed seeing the potential in books that later became huge successes. This is a very subjective business. My advantage was that I knew something of the audience for this kind of book having worked at NIP for several years, had access to knowledgeable readers who could advise on technical accuracy issues, and the submission timing was just right.

NEFF: Please tell us about a few other authors that you've discovered. Anyone recently?

DEBORAH: Since many of the books I handle, including my bestsellers, are written by established journalists, it is harder to claim discovery. But when I was at NIP, I signed up Homer Hickham's first book, Torpedo Junction. He went on to write several bestsellers after this. Stephen Coonts was another bestselling author discovered while I was at NIP. My boss was pretty much the acquiring editor for Flight of the Intruder, but because we operated very much as a team, several of us played some sort of editorial role with the book. I later sold movie rights and foreign language rights to 21 different countries, and auctioned paperback rights for around $300,000 and British rights for 100,000 pounds. These latter were bought by Sonny Mehta when he was still at Pan in the UK. All of this was extraordinary for a first novel.

Right now, I have high hopes for a novel coming out next spring, a very funny, dark book about Viet Nam called Nam-a-rama, written by a former Viet Nam vet. Diane Freund and Jon Lowy are other first-time fiction writers I represent with a fresh, original voices who have gotten good critical recognition.

NEFF: What genres are you comfortable representing?

DEBORAH: Commercial and literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, history, politics, current affairs, science, memoir, biography, humor, science, and anything Southern. I'd love to find some good genre fiction, particularly romance and mysteries.

NEFF: Narrative nonfiction seems to be hot right now. Can you define it for us? Any pragmatic advice for aspiring writers seeking to establish themselves in that genre? What kind of credentials are we talking about?

DEBORAH: Narrative nonfiction is the telling of an actual event in a compelling, dramatic, and character-driven narrative, using scenes, and literary devices to bring the subject alive in much the way fiction does, although it is not fiction. In terms of credentials, one needs to have both the practical, thorough research and reportorial skills and a great story-telling ability. This combination is rare in any individual. My advice is to read the great works of narrative nonfiction currently defining that genre, and find an event about which you really feel passionate.

NEFF: Your nonfiction clients are heavy into Washington politics. How did you become involved with the Susan McDougal book, for example?

DEBORAH: I had represented her former husband, Jim McDougal. I had put him together with a wonderful writer, Curtis Wilkie, and together they wrote Arkansas Mischief, published by Henry Holt. Through Jim, I became good friends with a mutual friend of Susan's, and she is how we connected. As you may recall, Susan was the woman who refused to give into Kenneth's Starr's pressure in his quest to impeach Clinton, and rather than lie, served time in prison. Her book is The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk, published by Avalon Publishing, and it hit the NY Times bestseller list.

NEFF: Elvis and Nixon, A Novel, was a hot first novel property, a blend of pop culture and history. Was this an over-the-transom ms. Or was Lowey recommended to you? Were you involved in the editing of the ms.?

DEBORAH: Lowy is a local author who came to me unsolicited. He wrote a great query letter and submitted 3 chapters that I loved. I worked quite a bit with him in editing the book, ultimately getting it down from over 600 pages to just over 400 pages. He was a first-time novelist, but I got him a two-book contract with Crown. His second novel, The Temple of Music, based on the assassination of President McKinley, is coming out this fall. Although it was never planned this way, as Jon began this second book before President Bush was elected, the book shows the remarkable parallels between the Republican McKinley administration and the current George Bush administration.

NEFF: Is it tougher than ever to get a first novel published in today's climate? Is it still possible for another Steinbeck or Salinger to emerge from the slush and become successful? Would Deborah Grosvenor represent this writer? Would ICM or William Morris?

DEBORAH: It is tougher to get first novels read these days, because the number of submissions, both to agents and editors, is way up. But yes, I believe that the equivalent of a Steinbeck or Salinger would emerge from the slush pile, and get critical attention, if not commercial success. Of course, I would represent this caliber of writer! It is one of the main reasons I am in this business, to discover new, fresh voices. I really can't speak for ICM or William Morris, but I believe most of us got into this business because we love good writing.

NEFF: Who are some of your favorite fiction writers at the moment?

DEBORAH: Jonathan Franzen for The Corrections, Larry McMurtry for Lonesome Dove, Arthur Golden for Memoirs of a Geisha, Jeffrey Eugenides for Middlesex, Sebastian Faulks for Birdsong, Scott Turow for Presumed Innocent, Ann Patchett for Bel Canto, and Michel Faber for The Crimson Petal and the White, to name just a few. In times of stress, for pure escape and entertainment, I love Joanna Trollope, P.G. Wodehouse, Elizabeth George, and Deborah Crombie.

NEFF: If you could pick the perfect literary novel to represent this coming year, what would be its defining characteristics?

DEBORAH: It would be big, set in another time and/or place, have a rich and intricate plot, and have characters so well defined and colorful that I would feel a real sense of loss when the book ended because I would have to leave their lives.

NEFF: What does the future hold for Deborah Grosvenor?

DEBORAH: The opening of a NY office this fall (2004), and I hope continued expansion, particularly into more fiction.

About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is editor@webdelsol.com


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