Interview with Kate Johnson, Literary Agent

Words of Women Editor: Shagufta Iqbal

Kate1. Brief biog about yourself?

I’m an agent at the New York-based Wolf Literary Services. Previously, I worked for literary magazines and reviews such as the then-Chicago-based StoryQuarterly and And I secretly believe it is the scandalous name of the latter that secured my job at Georges Borchardt, Inc., another literary agency in New York, where I had worked for about eight and a half years before moving to Wolf. As with most folks in the publishing industry, work is so much a part of my life and identity, but when I’m not reading or doing bookish things, I like to run (OK, “jog” is more accurate), cook, paint, and collect stamps in my passport.

2. Tell us a little about Wolf Literary Services?

Wolf Literary just celebrated its 7-year anniversary! It was founded by Kirsten Wolf, and now there are four of us total. (I’m the newest member of the Wolf Pack.) It’s a boutique, full-service agency, representing dynamic books for all ages. Though our individual tastes and areas of expertise vary, as an agency we all like a good story, and are drawn to projects that make us look at the world in a new way: our list ranges from the highly literary and avant-garde to genre-busting, highbrow-meets-lowbrow mashups.

3. What is your area of interest and focus in Wolf Literary Services?

In addition to handling the UK rights for the agency, I represent fiction and nonfiction for adult readers. Nonfiction-wise, the author needs to have a solid platformif not an expert in the subject, then at least passionate enough to have unofficially become one. I studied journalism at university and continue to love working with journalists. I also like when a personal story intersects with a bigger issue. (That is, I don’t like reading straight misery memoirs, but do like memoirs with a broader appeal, or a more contemplative, cerebral approach, like Emily Rapp’s devastating The Still Point of the Turning World, about the loss of her son to a rare and fatal degenerative disorder. This book recently made me weep on a beach. Note: not the best summer read.) Food, feminism, families, art, the environment, immigration, and words themselves—from punctuation to typography to dialect—are all of particular interest to me, but even better is when a book surprises me by drawing me into subjects I never suspected would fascinate me in the first place.

Fiction-wise, my taste runs fairly literary, and I like stories that look askance at the seemingly normal, reveal a few unpolished layers beneath the glitter, or subvert a reader’s expectations. I look for imaginative, sophisticated voices, believable characters, and moral ambiguity, and I like books that take me travelling along with them, through space or time. Above all, whether weird, fresh, dark, heart-breaking, tear-jerking, side-splitting or all of the above, I like a good, surprising, immediately absorbing plot (who doesn’t?).

4. What advice would you give to writers about getting a novel written? 

If you’re serious about writing, treat it as a job — something with real deadlines, something you prioritize as if your next paycheck depended on it. A writing program or writers group can offer both the motivation and mental space for this, but it’s all a matter of figuring out what works for you. I would also suggest reading voraciously. Find an excited librarian or bookseller and take all suggestions; surround yourself with people who get all swoony about, say, Alice Munro or Donald Barthelme or [insert author here]. Invest in books and short story magazines, both for your own enrichment, and in the future of the industry that you hope will support your own work someday

5. What advice would you give to writers about getting a novel published?

Finish your book, if fiction, or if it’s nonfiction, put together a proposal and sample material. Then, in either order, stick the pages in a drawer for a few days and send it to your ten most honest friends. They don’t have to be regular readers or book people to tell you where their attention wandered, or what they didn’t find convincing. It is hard to know when a book is “ready” — and 80,000 words does not necessarily equal “finished” — but when you feel that you’ve polished and taken the manuscript as far as you can, it’s time to submit it to agents. There are databases you can search via the Association of Authors’ Agents (in the UK) or the Association of Authors’ Representatives (in the US), which are societies of agencies that adhere to a particular code of ethics. Here you can also get a feel for which agents are looking for what; alternatively you can peek at the acknowledgements page of your favourite books to see which agents helped to make them happen. It’s hard work at the beginning, but sending targeted, personal queries, following submission guidelines, and being courteous and patient (while secretly waiting in agony for a response…) will pay off in the end.

6. What are you currently working on?

I always have a few projects simmering before they are ready to be submitted, but my recent and upcoming publications include an anthology called Watchlist, edited by Bryan Hurt, which gathers stories by a variety of authors on the topic of surveillance. Bryan is also the winner of Starcherone Books’ Innovative Fiction Award, judged by author Alissa Nutting, and Starcherone will be publishing his stories in September. Also on the horizon this fall is a memoir by travel journalist Carrie Visintainer, called Wild Mama. Carrie compares motherhood to a foreign country — there’s jet lag, new vocabulary, and strange customs — and shows how remaining true to her “wild ways” (from motorcycle lessons to solo travel in Guatemala) helps make her a better mother. Also this fall comes Love in the Anthropocene, a collaboration between novelist Bonnie Nadzam and environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson, exploring the effects of climate change through fiction, and investigating relationships in a future bereft of natural environments. In October, Scribe will publish the UK edition of Shakespeare, Not Stirred, a marvellously punny cocktail mashup book by Shakespeare scholars Caroline Bicks and Michelle Ephraim. And in January comes A Hard and Heavy Thing, a startling, debut work of metafiction by Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Matthew J. Hefti, as well as a gorgeous, page-turning second novel by Helen Klein Ross, called What Was Mine, about a kidnapping that is discovered twenty years after the act. It’s a gripping read, but also a compelling look at what truly makes a good mother.

7. What authors inspire you and get you excited?

My own clients excluded? Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (particularly her “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”), Josh Cohen’s The Private Life, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? are all searing and smart and have recently inspired me to engage more deeply with the world, reminding me to stop and notice and think and feel. Also: Maggie Nelson and Elena Ferrante and Aimee Bender and Ben Lerner and Zadie Smith and Barbara Pym and Penelope Fitzgerald and George Eliot and Ian McEwan and, truly, I could go on and on.

8. If you could sit down with any author and have a one to one over some drinks, who would that be? 

Dorothy Parker (the wisecracking, 20th-century New York critic) or Rebecca Solnit (the San Francisco-based historian and activist). I imagine these would be two very different cocktail hours.

9. Where can we find out more about Wolf Literary Services and your publications? Please feel free to add anything else you feel we need to know.


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