NEFF: Ellen, hi. Let's start at the beginning. What made you decide to leave the publishing side and form an agency?
ELLEN: I had hoped to find an editorial position since I had loved the editing I had been doing as assistant to an editor at Harper & Row (now Harper Collins) but none were turning up. He suggested I work at an agency to gain experience on the other side while waiting for the right job. I began at the Paul R. Reynolds Agency (no longer an active agency, and the oldest in America) selling first serial rights for the agency's clients. I placed their book excerpts, articles, and short stories, and after about a year, I started to find writers of my own. I was hooked. In another couple of years I was hired as an agent at Curtis Brown and left in 1980 to begin my own agency.
NEFF: You are at the top of your game. Why the decision to merge with Trident Media Group?
ELLEN: A number of reasons. It was a great opportunity to be able to have more time to take care of my clients within a larger framework, but with the same autonomy which I've enjoyed. Running a business, particularly one that had grown as mine did, is a separate parallel endeavor and an extremely time-consuming one. It's liberating not to have to find solutions for malfunctioning computers and other equipment, employee health care options, bookkeeping systems, and so on.
Nevertheless, I might not have made such a move if the right situation had not presented itself. Robert Gottlieb is an exciting and innovative partner and Trident's list of authors is an interesting contrast and balance to mine. Together we cover all aspects of the business very nicely. Trident also offers certain clients of mine additional professional opportunities since the company's interests go beyond traditional book publishing. We've already begun work on an exciting project which combines our resources.
NEFF: It's been said that you provide "boutique-style" attention to your writers. What does this really mean? Do you specialize your relations with your writers in a manner that sets you apart from other agents?
ELLEN: I can't speak for other agent's styles and I don't think I'm the only agent to represent writers the way I do, but I can say that I work extremely closely with my writers on all aspects of their books. In a good number of instances, I offer editorial guidance and suggestions when I think the work will benefit.
In some cases this might involve line work as well as broader recommendations in fiction, perhaps in terms of plot or characters. I also have a number of clients whose representation I feel needs a lot of close attention to smaller transactions - these writers are often asked to write introductions to other books, contribute to anthologies, and they often receive magazine assignments. Several regularly have their work excerpted or quoted in other books; this requires negotiating permission fees and contracts which is careful and time-intensive work. Also some of my writers of fiction are also poets, playwrights, anthology editors, consultants on film projects, and so on. I try to provide assistance in these areas too.
Overall, I like to give my writers close attention in matters which seem smaller than selling their books but which are nevertheless quite important (another good reason why it's great to be free of the ever-increasing time spent on the administration of a business!) I also like to really get to know my clients and spend as much time with them as possible. I have close and rich client friendships which I treasure.
NEFF: As a pragmatic literary agent conscious of market demands, how do you pick and choose between quality literary fiction that comes your way from new and unrepresented writers? Assuming that the ms is well written to begin with, what factors enter into deciding on whether or not to represent the writer?
ELLEN: I try to choose books that I can't bear to turn away - those that stay with me way after I've finished the last page. Books that move me, whose language dazzles me. Books that keep me quickly turning the pages, characters I keep thinking about. Books that take me to a place or an experience that I would not have had, teach me, entertain me, or make me laugh or think. And I have to be optimistic that I can find the right editor and house and launch the career.
NEFF: As an agent who represents literary fiction, how important to you is the quality and originality of the story itself as compared to the wordsmithing, i.e., if given a strict choice between the two, would you prefer an entertaining and original story written in a non-flashy manner--for example, a straightforward literary style like Robbins or Kingsolver--or an adequate story brilliantly wordsmithed in Annie Proulx-like fashion?
ELLEN: Wouldn't choose. I'd take them both.
NEFF: As a reader and an editor, I often see the work of certain name authors getting worse and worse; and I hear it is difficult if not impossible to edit some authors, i.e., once they've become legends in their own mind. I know from my own experience with certain writers that severe indignation follows if one attemtpts to suggest edits to them. They clearly believe that anything they type on a white space is gold. Given this situation, how do you approach, i.e, if one of your clients ever presented an ms clearly in need of a fix, are you able to assist?
ELLEN: I would always speak my mind. It's up to the writer whether or not to listen.
NEFF: A minor agent I met at a recent conference openly scoffed at seeing a synopsis as useful. As an editor and workshop leader though, I find a comprehensive yet short synopsis to be invaluable in being able to determine whether or not an otherwise good writer has an original story and/or one good enough to possibly get published. What is your take on the value of the synopsis?
ELLEN: I think a synopsis is useful only when it follows several chapters or more of the book. I don't feel a summary without the writer's ability to engage the reader's interest in the actual pages is useful. However, if it is a device to show where the story is going from that point it can be very helpful.
NEFF: Who are some of your favorite contemporary literary authors right now?
ELLEN: Other than my own wonderful writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Louise Erdrich, Rohinton Mistry, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood.
NEFF: What factors determine whether or not a first time literary work is going to get marketing dollars?
ELLEN: Obviously what the publisher has paid for the book and whether there is a solid advertising and marketing budget (and perhaps an outside publicist as part of the deal). Then early reactions inside the house, good early industry reviews, great quotes, strong press, large orders and consequent large printing which will then have more marketing dollars attached.
NEFF: What is your view on the contemporary publishing climate for first time literary authors? Any advice?
ELLEN: There is always an appetite for new voices and strong first books. There is so much joy in discovery and the promise and potential which comes with the launch of a new talent. A strong concept and dazzling writing help.
NEFF: How best for an aspiring author to balance "writing from the heart" with "writing for the market"? Any way to resolve?
ELLEN: Always write from the heart. You should be writing because the story and the characters take you over. The result will have the best shot in the market. If you write by the numbers it shows.
NEFF: For our readers and writers, please tell us what types of stories Ellen Levine is looking to represent now. What will capture her heart and mind?
ELLEN: My interests are wide - right now I'm in love with some of these new mss - a Southern novel starring several eccentric women, a heartbreaking and exquisite novel about a mother who deserts her daughter, a period piece set right after WWII with a tragic love story and characters so real I feel I can speak to them. Right now I would love to find a novel set in earlier times, perhaps a century or so ago, a novel with an exotic setting, always a novel with very strong characters who are discovering some truths, a novel which teaches me about some new scientific or cultural phenomenon, or presents me with a slice of life I really don't know, a novel that is simply a lot of fun. I would love to read anything that is wise, uses language inventively, and surprises me with its observations.
NEFF: Thanks, Ellen! I'll keep a look out!
About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org