Behind the Book Deal: A Conversation with Kelly Sundberg, Joy Tutela, and Gail Winston
June 11, 2018
An excerpt from an interview with Kelly Sundberg, her agent, Joy Tutela, and her editor, Gail Winston, by Bre Power Eaton. This interview will appear in the fall issue of SLICE, Issue 23: Flight.
We’re publishing this excerpt now to celebrate the publication of Kelly’s debut memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl, which was released early June to high acclaim. Roxane Gay writes, “It is a hell of a thing to write about brutality and suffering with strength, grace, generosity and beauty. That’s precisely what Kelly Sundberg has done in her gripping memoir about marriage and domestic violence.”
In July 2014, Kelly Sundberg was at a demolition derby in her small hometown of Salmon, Idaho. Amid this annual celebration of destruction, she received a message from a friend, telling her that an essay of hers that had been published in Guernica had been shared on Twitter by Cheryl Strayed, a writer she admires. Flattered, she figured that the essay, which had already received a larger response than she had expected, would gain even more exposure. Little did she know what would happen next.
The essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” is, as the title suggests, about an ending, but not the fairytale kind—a prince and a princess disappearing over the horizon, awash in pink and golden hues. Rather, it’s about the end of her almost decade-long marriage to the father of her son, a funny, intelligent, generous man she had fallen for quickly and deeply.
In pungent, poetic bursts, the essay reveals the unraveling of Sundberg’s marriage, relaying scenes of sweet devotion and shared humor juxtaposed with those of mounting abuse, both verbal and physical—scenes that make one shudder, followed by those of warm forgiveness and renewed hope that if she keeps trying, her husband, Caleb, will finally become the loving, supportive partner she believes he could be. The title comes from something an urgent-care doctor says when explaining how a huge bruise on Sundberg’s foot will look as it heals, a wound she receives when Caleb hurls a ceramic serving bowl at her, the final injury that motivates her to leave. For good.
A few months after that helpful tweet, disturbing hotel elevator footage of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his fiancée Janay Palmer in the face took over the news outlets, which began sharing Sundberg’s essay in response to questions about why a victim of abuse would stay. The essay went viral, highlighting a void in honest discussion about domestic violence, victim blaming, and how abuse can happen to anyone, and happens more often than we realize.
The captivating artistry of the essay, which was later published in Best American Essays 2015, along with the outpouring of responses, prompted a chain reaction that led Sundberg (whose first published work appeared in SLICE) to a book deal with HarperCollins for her debut memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl, a work that expands upon the initial essay.
Goodbye, Sweet Girl reads in layers of time and place, as Sundberg excavates both her life before Caleb and their relationship, working to untangle the web of confusion that held her captive—and deeply in love—in their abusive relationship. Sundberg’s vivid scenes pull readers into her experience, beckoning us to join her attempt to make sense of it all: her childhood and family relationships, her youthful rebellions, her isolated and broken hometown, and her commitment to a man who did not deserve her. All the while, her voice, vulnerable and strong, builds a bridge toward understanding and empathy.
To learn more about how this necessary work made its way into print, I corresponded with Sundberg as well as her agent, Joy Tutela of the David Black Literary Agency, and her editor, Gail Winston of HarperCollins.
Kelly, how did you react when your essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” went viral?
I was stunned by the response. When I finished that essay, I felt it was something unusual, but I had no idea the nerve it would touch for so many people.
How would you describe the overall response to the essay, and how that response affected you?
After that essay was published, I received many, many emails from survivors of domestic violence, as well as those who just wanted to understand it more. What I grew to realize was that the value of storytelling, as much as it might be about building empathy, can also be about validating the stories of others. What I heard more than anything was that there were a lot of people like me who needed to hear that they were not alone. The experience of publishing that essay was painful for me, but it was also intensely nourishing because of the relationships and the community that grew in response to my willingness to be vulnerable.
What happened after the essay went viral?
An editor from a different publishing house reached out to me and told me she wanted to edit my book when it was ready. She gave me a list of agents to reach out to, and Joy was the first one she suggested. The first time I talked to Joy, I knew I wanted her to be my agent. Joy had a good understanding of my aesthetic, and I really loved her energy. I think of her as a very kind bulldog. She’s my best advocate.
Joy helped me draft a book proposal, which took about a year of conceptualizing and writing. Gail was the first editor to respond to the proposal. Again, I knew the first time I talked to Gail that I wanted her to be my editor. I guess I’m just someone who knows what I like! But what I felt from Gail, always, was that she was committed to helping me fulfill my own vision of the book. I never felt that Gail was going to push me to write a book that wasn’t the book I wanted it to be.
Gail and Joy, how do you view your roles as editor and agent?
My job as an acquisitions editor means I spend a lot of time reading submissions from literary agents. These submissions have been deemed strong enough to be submitted to editors. Even so, I tend to reject upwards of 95 percent of the material that is sent to me. It’s always a subjective matter, of course, but when something jumps out at me, it makes a huge impression. And that was the case with an amazing proposal sent to me by an agent I respect, Joy Tutela.
I feel a great responsibility toward my clients and their projects. I also want to spend my time on topics that are meaningful to me and that I think will be meaningful to an audience that may be underserved. Gail and I had worked together many years ago on an LGBT-themed book at a time when LGBT books weren’t seen as having commercial viability. I’m not surprised that we are reunited again with Kelly’s book because Gail is willing to take chances on projects she believes in too.
What about Kelly’s project caught your attention and inspired you to take it on?
I was struck by the power of the prose, the literary merits of the writing, and most of all, the incredible bravery of the author. I was also impressed that the author had written an essay based on the experiences revealed in the book, and that the essay had gone viral. The comments had come pouring in. From my point of view as an editor, I understood that there was a real need for the book and an audience waiting to read more.
I was instantly drawn to Kelly’s story and, as Gail mentioned, her incredible bravery. While I was blown away by Kelly’s writing style in “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” I was especially pleased to learn in her note to me that she wanted an agent who was interested in her truth-telling over the long haul. When I began working with Kelly, my great hope for Goodbye, Sweet Girl was that it would inspire dialogue within families, between friends, and in communities about domestic violence. At the agency, I’ve seen firsthand the power of books (especially memoir) to facilitate difficult conversations. For example, both Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom and The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch inspired robust discussion about terminal illness. The act of recommending or giving a book to someone on a tough and personal topic can swing open an otherwise locked door of dialogue.
Read more in SLICE, Issue 23: Flight, available in September.
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- Bre Power Eaton is an MFA grad from Antioch University of Los Angeles at work on a memoir about how marriage survives war. Her interviews, features, and essays have appeared in Slice, Full Grown People, Newport Life, Mercury, TravelMag, and elsewhere. She is currently living in South Korea with her husband and curious toddler.