Behind the Book Deal: Interviews with Stan Parish, Julie Barer & Allison Lorentzen by Maria Gagliano
September 3, 2013
As readers, we only ever see one side of a book: the finished, polished version. Plots move along smoothly, characters are fully formed and convincing, and even endings sometimes seem to have written themselves. With the complete work in our hands, it’s hard to imagine what an earlier version of a novel could have looked like. We don’t see the weary writer who spent years revising after he thought he had a finished manuscript. We never meet the literary agent who saw the potential in the project and had the vision to realize that it needed a bit more work before it would be ready for pitching to publishers. And we forget the editor who brought the manuscript before an entire editorial board, making a case for why her company should devote its resources to launching this author’s work into the world.
Our new interview series Behind the Book Deal pulls back the curtain on the three major forces behind a debut novel: the author, the agent, and the editor. In each installment, we’ll follow a novel as it makes the journey out of the mind of a writer, through cycles of revisions, and eventually into the hands of a book publisher.
In this issue, we’re sharing the story behind Stan Parish’s debut novel Down the Shore, which Viking/Penguin senior editor Allison Lorentzen signed up in early 2013. But before the manuscript went from Stan’s desktop to Allison’s office, agent Julie Barer worked closely with Stan—literally for years—to help him bring the book to its fullest potential.
Stan, Julie, and Allison joined me for a candid discussion about the many incarnations of Down the Shore, each one bringing us readers closer to that beautifully crafted, completed novel. At the time of these interviews, Stan is still in final revisions. But we at Slice have a feeling he’ll do just fine wrapping things up. As you’ll see, he’s in excellent hands with Julie and Allison, even if they aren’t afraid of sending him a little hard work.
We’ve Only Just Begun: Author Stan Parish
How did you go about your search for an agent?
I was steeling myself for an intensive and exhaustive agent search when Alexander Chee invited me to a party that Julie Barer was throwing. I knew almost nothing about publishing back then, and had only a vague idea who Julie was. Mostly, I remember thinking that the party sounded fun. Alex is one of my favorite writers, the best professor that I had in college, and an ace matchmaker—in the professional sense. I liked Julie immediately, and when Alex saw that we had hit it off, he said, “Look, she’s an incredible agent, and you should think about submitting to her when your manuscript is ready.” My manuscript was not ready at that point, but meeting Julie gave me another reason to work nights and weekends to get it there. She was the first agent I submitted to when I felt like it was done. Also, Julie throws good parties.
Did you have to do a round of manuscript edits before signing on with Julie?
Julie and I had a long lunch before she offered to represent me, during which she said some very nice things about the writing I had sent. She also said some very thoughtful and insightful things from which I gathered that there was some work to be done before the book went out. “Some work” turned out to be the underestimation of 2009. The following week I got an envelope from Barer Literary that contained two documents: a client agreement for me to sign and a three-page edit letter which I immediately recognized as notes toward a stronger book—and an end to what little free time I had back then. The implication was clear: Congratulations. Now back to work.
Were you surprised to hear that it still needed so much work, excited as you were?
I don’t let work leave my desktop until I’ve taken it as far as I can. Built into that tendency is a secret hope that the response will be something like “Yes, perfect, have a drink, go outside.” I was pretty naive at twenty-five, but not quite naive enough to think that my college thesis was camera-ready. I knew it needed work. What surprised me was the way that Julie went about it. She would say (and I’m paraphrasing here), “This section needs to do this, which it’s not doing now. How you do that is up to you. But it needs to get there.” She’s a good judge of the distance between what you were aiming for and where you landed.
Now, Back to Work: Literary Agent Julie Barer
What was it about Stan’s query that kept it out of the rejection pile?
Stan was referred to me by a writer friend named Alex Chee, whose taste I deeply respect. I absolutely believe in finding talent in the slush pile, but I would say about half of my clients come by way of referral, either from another client, a writing teacher, or a friend in the business. Alex brought Stan to a party I hosted, and I liked him immediately. I don’t think I knew anything about the book itself when I agreed to read it, except that Alex thought it showed remarkable talent and promise. He was right!
How closely do you typically work with authors on manuscript revisions before the project goes out on submission?
So closely that some might say too closely. I typically go through three rounds of line edits before submitting a book—revisions can take anywhere from six months to two years before I feel a manuscript is ready to be shown to publishers. I think it’s extremely important to tackle any editorial concerns you can anticipate a publisher having, because the market is so competitive, and it’s become harder than ever for editors to get sufficient in-house support for fiction that needs significant work. It’s hard, because you’re asking an author to trust you and go on faith that all that work before even selling the book will pay off (and it’s work we’re both doing for free, essentially). But I think it’s worth it when a polished manuscript gives you a choice of publisher and a healthy advance. Plus, it’s one of my favorite parts of the job; I got into the business because I wanted to be an editor.
A Novel Is Born: Viking/Penguin Senior Editor Allison Lorentzen
What is your process when acquiring a book? For example, once the submission hits your in-box, do you have to pitch it to an editorial board? How many people do you have to sway? What was that process like for Stan’s book?
After I’ve read a submission, if I’m interested in acquiring it, I’ll share it with colleagues and bring it up at the Viking editorial meeting. For Stan’s book, I shared it with a number of colleagues including the president of Viking, the editor-in-chief of Penguin Books for what we call a “paperback read,” and the director of Viking’s publicity department, who is on the front lines of pitching books to the media for reviews and other types of coverage. One of the things I loved about Stan’s book was how he writes about New Jersey and prep school and the cross sections of wealth in the state. It reminded me a lot of my own teenage years in Massachusetts, and I felt there would be a lot for readers to relate to in the way he tackles issues of class and coming of age. But since I haven’t spent much time in New Jersey, I was a bit nervous to hear from one of my readers who grew up there. Did Stan get New Jersey as much as I felt he did? Luckily, my reader liked it.
That’s key—you’d definitely want the New Jersey reader to like it. Does everyone who reads the book have to love it? What happens when opinions conflict among major decision makers?
Not everyone has to love it, but boy, does that feel good when they all do. Every book and submission is different, and I think the most important thing is that the editor looking to acquire the book is deeply passionate about it and has a vision for how to publish it on their imprint’s list. I don’t think most editors want to sign up books that their colleagues dislike; you never want to start from a negative feeling in-house. But I also think it’s great when people react strongly to a proposal or manuscript—that the writing or the voice makes them react either very positively or very negatively. Then at least you know the work has made an impact.
*This interview is an excerpt from a feature that appears in issue 13 of Slice. To purchase a copy and read the full interview, click here.
Stan Parish is the author of Down the Shore, forthcoming from Viking in 2014. His writing has appeared in GQ, Esquire, the New York Times, Departures, and New Jersey Monthly, among other publications. He lives in New Jersey and New York.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and co-publisher of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, Salon, and BrooklynBased.net, among other publications. When she’s not playing with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at pomatorevival.com.