#68: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with literary agent Michelle Brower, by Maria Gagliano


The 2015 Slice Literary Writers’ Conference is four months away, and we can’t wait until September to hear from our panelists about their corner of the book publishing world. We’ll be chatting all summer with the editors, agents, and authors who are joining us in Brooklyn for a weekend of candid conversations, mentoring, and craft workshops.

We recently caught up with Slice conference veteran Michelle Brower on her secrets to finding new clients. Writers, rejoice: she rocks the slush submissions!

Michelle will be on our “Don’t Be Creepy” panel on September 12. The weekend’s full panel schedule can be found here.

Have you ever signed an author you’d discovered in your slush submissions?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I’ve signed a few authors that I’ve found in my slush submissions that have gone on to be bestsellers. I deeply believe that there are always going to be gems in the slush, and I will never get tired of the feeling of finding something good in there.

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An Interview with Author Valerie Geary and Editor Emily Krump, by Celia Johnson

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Crooked River, a debut novel by Valerie Geary, is the story of two sisters who go to great lengths to save their father. Fifteen-year-old Sam and her ten-year-old sister, Ollie, don’t know everything about Bear, their beekeeper father. But both girls are certain that he is innocent of murder. Crooked River is a poignant tale of grief, ghosts, crime, and above all, family. I spoke with author Valerie Geary and her editor Emily Krump about the editorial process, what surprises authors after they land a book deal, and more.

Valerie, what inspired you to write Crooked River?

VG I’d been reading a lot about minimalists and people living off the grid, and I came across this article about a man who left his kids to live in the woods where he read books and made art. I kept wondering about those kids, what that must have been like for them. So I started to play around with a story idea about two young girls visiting their reclusive, teepee-dwelling father. The first time I sat down to write, things didn’t go so well. Nothing was really happening; I was bored. So I took a long walk and along the way the question popped into my head: What if the girls find a dead body in the river? And then: What if their father is blamed for the murder? That’s when the story really began to unfold.

Emily, what drew you to this manuscript?

EK There were many things that drew me to Crooked River. The writing is beautiful; the dual narrative felt particularly dynamic because both Ollie and Sam’s voices are so clearly developed; and the characters—big and small—reminded me of people we might know in our own lives. There is a humanity and truth to this story that resonated with me and is captured succinctly in one of Ollie’s lines, “He is not evil. I am not good. We are the same; broken and put back together again.” I think that observation is probably true of everyone. But more than any of these individual elements, I love the way that they all blend together to create a story that really stuck with me and I hope sticks with other readers, too.

Valerie, how did your creative process differ between the short story collection and your novel?

VG Most of my short story ideas seem to come to me fully formed. I know how I want things to start and end and what kind of hoops I want my characters to jump through. This is not to say that the first drafts are perfect. I still go through several revisions, but because short stories are short, they are usually easier to wrangle into something readable. It’s easier to see what’s working and what isn’t and how to fix it. The challenge comes in figuring out the most effective way to tell a great story with a limited number of pages.

Writing a novel, on the other hand, is a huge undertaking. It’s a different kind of commitment. When I get an idea for a novel, it’s just a spark and it takes me a long time and many false starts and practice words to understand the characters and the heart of the story. I give myself a lot of space when I write novels. Meaning: I turn off the inner editor and allow the writing to be bad for a while. Ultimately, I think novel writing requires more faith than short story writing. You spend an enormous amount of time wandering around in the dark, not sure where you’re going exactly, not sure if you’ll ever get there, and even if you do, if it will be worth your while. But you know, you just keep going, keep wandering and poking around in the dark. You trust your process, you trust your instincts, and that’s when amazing things start to happen.

Did you write from alternating perspectives from the outset?

VG Originally my plan was to write Crooked River entirely from Sam’s perspective. When I finished the first draft there were no Ollie chapters, but the book felt lopsided. I decided to try a few chapters in Ollie’s voice and that took everything in a new and very interesting direction. The book really started to come alive. Ollie added such a unique perspective of the events. Working with the first draft as a guide, I plotted carefully and rewrote all of Sam’s chapters. Then I went back to the beginning and wrote all of Ollie’s chapters. It was easier for me to maintain the individuality of each girl’s voice doing it this way. After both girl’s chapters were finished, I cut them together and then went back through and smoothed out the transitions and timing between the two.

Emily, which character fascinated you most in this novel?

EK I love all of these characters, but Bear’s pain and struggle has clung to my subconscious the most. He has tried so hard to be a good father, but in many ways he has failed. We are often taught as young children that if we work hard and do our best that everything will be OK. That is not the case for Bear and yet despite all of this, his daughters still love him fiercely—that is beautiful. And, the idea that a person’s life can go very wrong despite best efforts and good intentions is complicated and fascinating.

Valerie, what about the publishing process has made you cringe most? And what have you enjoyed most?

VG For me, the hardest part of publishing a book is the waiting and uncertainty. When the book is out on submission, the wait is agonizing. But things don’t necessarily get easier after a contract’s signed. There’s still a lot of waiting, a lot of unknowns. This was my first time going through the publishing process. So there were times when–despite an incredibly supportive team of people who answered all my questions (even the stupid ones)–I felt lost and completely unprepared. Times when I found it difficult to manage expectations simply because I’d never gone through anything like this before. I’ve learned a lot about myself this year–a lot about perseverance and patience, about resilience, about letting go of trying to make everything happen at once and just enjoying the journey.

My favorite part was revising the book with Emily. She really drew out some of the best parts of Crooked River, some of my favorite scenes. She brought fresh eyes to the manuscript and was able to see connections that I had let slip. I’m still surprised at the amount of changes the story went through during the revision process. Emily asked great questions and nudged me in directions I wasn’t expecting, but she never explicitly said “You must change this!” I think this allowed me the creative space I needed to shape Crooked River into the book it is today. She really helped show me what I was capable of as a writer and the ways I could push a story. I’m incredibly grateful for that experience!

Emily, what do you find that authors are most surprised by, when it comes to the publishing process?

EK I think most authors are surprised by the large number of people who work on every book we publish at HarperCollins. The last count I heard was that more than 78 people will work on a book from the time it is acquired to publication.

Valerie and Emily, who are some of your favorite contemporary writers?

VG Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Margaret Atwood, Benjamin Percy, Patrick Ness, and Megan Abbott.

EK Excluding authors that I work with some of my favorites are Ann Patchett, Jennifer Haigh, Kate Atkinson, JoJo Moyes, Tom Franklin, Lisa O’Donnell, Gregg Isles, but I could go on and on.

Valerie Geary is the author of Crooked River, a November 2014 Indie Next Great Read. Available now!  Her short stories have appeared in Weekly RumpusDay One, Menda City Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Foundling Review, the UK publication Litro, and others.

Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice and author of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.

Emily Krump has been with William Morrow since 2006, and edits both fiction and nonfiction.  She works on a wide range of projects, but is particularly interested in acquiring psychological thrillers, suspense, and smart crime fiction that makes readers think for the Witness list. She is, also, a sucker for well-drawn characters and witty dialogue. Emily lives in Manhattan with her husband.


An Interview with Author Lily King and Editor Elisabeth Schmitz, by Heidi Sistare

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Lily King’s most recent novel, Euphoria, is inspired by the life of Margaret Mead. The novel made many of the top book lists of 2014, including the New York Times Book Review, 10 Best Books of 2014, and NPR, Best Books of 2014. I interviewed Ms. King and her editor, Elisabeth Schmitz. They spoke about the writer and editor relationship, a childhood friendship, and the spark of inspiration.

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#67: An Interview with Poet Ben Fama, by Paul Florez

Humanity’s end is nigh, and poet Ben Fama is here to chronicle the final battle between morality and capitalism in his latest poetry collection, Fantasy.

I first met Ben at a book party over at The New School. His wit and deadpan humor were so charming, I thought he was April Ludgate’s long lost twin brother (yes, that would make me his Leslie Knope). An established poet, he is the author of many poetry collections and chapbooks, including Mall Witch and Cool Memories.

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An Interview with Sharma Shields and Caroline Zancan, by Celia Johnson

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Sharma Shields’ debut novel, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, is about a family pulled into one man’s hunt for the elusive sasquatch. The book is populated with myths and yet it feels strikingly real. Shields’ editor, Caroline Zancan, said that, when she first received the manuscript, “I was partly reading with childlike wonder, using parts of my imagination I hadn’t used since I was a kid, but at the same time, there were forces at work that were terrifying to me even as an adult.” I spoke with Sharma and Caroline about myths, the editorial process, and unsung heroes in the publishing world.

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An Interview with Bill Roorbach, by Heidi Sistare

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Bill Roorbach is a lot of things: novelist, essayist, father, screenwriter, and naturalist. Most of all, he is someone who finds, writes, imagines, and tells good stories. His most recent novel, The Remedy for Love, is a love story set during an apocalyptic snowstorm. He also wrote Life Among Giants, which is in development as an HBO series; Temple Stream, winner of the Maine prize for nonfiction; and many others. I spoke with him about his blog, writing for television, and advice for new writers.

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An Interview with Jynne Dilling Martin, by Tom Haushalter

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“Maybe, pilgrim,” begins the first poem in Jynne Dilling Martin’s marvelous debut collection of poems, We Mammals in Hospitable Times, “if I permit you to sleep on my floor tonight, tomorrow / every house on this block will burn to the ground except mine.”

In no more than two lines has Martin offered us shelter in her midst, only to show us come morning the neighborhood is gone. And that sets the tone and the stage for a trek of epic consequences, through Martin’s kaleidoscopic lens to scan this already fallen world, clutching “armfuls of leaves…a rare glass paperweight collection, a cat who, like you, will never die.”

mammalsThe earth is screwed, scientists agree, but spin its perils into pulsing, painstaking poems like these, and you realize we—we mammals, down to the last flaring of the last polar bear’s nostril—pilgrim, we’re already over. Except Martin, who would be as if Laika, the Soviet space dog, watched overhead as all gave way to the rising tides.

Despite line after line stringing together one unforgettable image after another—“we wipe reindeer hair from our eyes, / the glaciated passages too dazzling to see quite clearly”—Martin, who has served as an Antarctica writer-in-residence, can’t just let this cosmic neighborhood smolder without answering to the sorcery with which she has begun to rebuild it in her dazzling poems. So I sat her down for a talking to.

TH: If we count the bologna that “swells into a shiny pink hill” as swine product, and if we permit the “frogman with a harpoon…eeling in the murk,” every poem in your book contains an animal. (I catalogued them: mole rats and bumblebee bats, maggots and albino locust, wolverine and arctic fox, to name a few.) Which isn’t simply incidental or adorable or to make of them figurines. Animals are central to your lyrical concern. What exactly or generally do creatures large and small bring to the worlds of your poems? 

JDM: Animals are my central everything, Tom! Is it that they are our unwitting, faultless companions in our headlong rush into planetary destruction? Is it how bafflingly weird this thing we call “life” is—manifesting in a slime mold, a kitten, a narwhal? Yes, yes, and also this: they live in our midst yet we know so little about what colors, emotions, dreams, sounds, companionship, and death look and feel like for them. We all live and die in this same world, maggots and narwhals and humans alike, but their experience of it is so unknowable; and in some ways, for me, that stands in for the mystery and unknowability of other humans, too.

TH: What is your spirit animal? And where is its hand (or claw) in this collection?

JDM credit Cara Sucher verticalJDM: I have an unusually specific spirit animal, which is Knut, the famous Berlin Zoo polar bear. He visited me on a shamanic journey years ago and, absurd as it may sound, the connection I feel with the Knut of my meditation life transcends language. But taking a stab on where he resides in the poems: rejected by his mother at birth, a childhood alone on a rock, then dead at four by drowning in the zoo pool, Knut emanated wildness and beauty and something primordial and unknowable, even while hemmed into a giant man-made diorama, artificially cooled, stared at by millions. Some element—Knut, or the rock, or the staring, or the loneliness, or the unknown, or the pool—has claws in every poem.

TH: Both the merciless hyper-realism in your poems—“the sled dog who breaks through a crevasse pulls all the rest down”—and the cosmic prognostications—“there will be no vegetables with dimpled skin, no onions at all”—transmit a visceral sense throughout this book that Things to Come have already, if we have eyes to see. Much is tied, I imagine, to your experience in and deep fascination with Antarctica. What frightened you most about your residency there?

JDM: Most frightening may be how close I feel to giving up everything to live and work in Antarctica full time. The beauty of such a vast, untouched, shimmering landscape is staggering. No photo captures even a fraction of what it looks or feels like in person. Not even the Himalayas or Sahara, both of which I’ve spent time in, can touch its scale or beauty. It was the most ecstatic and humbling experience of my life. When I got off the prop plane back in Christchurch, I sat at the airport bus stop staring at the cement and concrete, the cars and planes, the landscaped shrubbery, the flowers organized into neat rows, and felt the full, horrific weight of how epically we have fucked up this planet.

TH: You inhabit beautifully—or unsettlingly, as the case may be—the role of the meticulous observer, even an outsider, on a clamorous earth, and yet you weave yourself into lines like “I draw uncounted fugues from pianos but no consolation, / and recall the ogre who mistook hot coals for roasted nuts, / and dream of riding atop my sadness like it is a horse.” On which side of God’s one-way mirror are you most likely to be found?

JDM: As my nephews can tell you from our many games of sardines, I am most likely hiding in the shower.

TH: In a parallel life, you’re associate publisher and head of publicity of Riverhead Books, and have helmed promotional campaigns for countless books. So how are you settling into the idea now of being “the author”?

JDM: I turn bright red every time someone talks to me about this book; even all the incredibly thoughtful and warm feedback is overwhelming and makes me feel newly exposed. I already had great empathy for my authors, and how vulnerable it is to put years of your private work and creative life out into the world, but now I am newly amazed that they don’t all hide in a closet and eat cookies for the entire month of publication. That’s certainly my plan for February, anyhow.

We Mammals in Hospitable Times comes out on February 3rd. Martin will be reading and signing copies at BookCourt in Brooklyn at 7pm on Wednesday, February 25th.

 Antarctica photo by Cara Sucher.

#65: An Interview with Penguin Random House editorial assistant Kary Perez, by Maria Gagliano

Authors and editors offer excellent insight into the publishing world, but sometimes the best wisdom comes from deeper within the machine—the assistants who make this crazy book world go ‘round. Because while it’s the editors who find brilliant authors and help make their books even better, the assistants are often the ones who truly make the book a reality. They work closely with production departments, legal teams, and liaise with dozens of people who are part of a book in some way. Without them, our books may not ever make it to the printer with integrity and grace. I spoke with Penguin Random House editorial assistant Kary Perez, who worked her way through a series of internships and is now keeping the machine running around several bestselling nonfiction books each year. And when Kary is not busy keeping everyone’s books intact, she spearheads office coat drives and keeps her colleagues laughing with .gifs that take the tension out of any stressful day.

What made you want to work in book publishing?

Like most people that end up in this industry, I’ve loved books from a young age. Books offered me an intoxicating form of escapism and adventure. I travelled the world (and beyond), won wars, attended a certain wizarding school, and questioned the meaning of it all from a jail cell, all before I even went off to college. Once I got to college I realized that books were much more than the experiences they granted me; I realized they were also products with an industry dedicated to them, and that I could be a part of the process.

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An Interview with Sharon Erby, by Celia Johnson

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In 2011, Slice published a short story called “Night Dogs” by Sharon Erby. It is a powerful piece that, in just a few pages, will transport you to rural Pennsylvania. So, of course, we were thrilled when we heard that Erby had written Parallel, a collection of linked stories, all set in Timmons Mountain, the same backdrop as “Night Dogs.” I spoke with Erby about her characters, her creative process, and where she writes, and it all comes back to the region she calls home.

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