An Interview with Literary Agent Jenni Ferrari-Adler
by Greg Stewart
If Jenni Ferrari-Adler, literary agent at Union Literary, could give emerging writers one piece of homework, it would be to read read read and write write write. She advises new talent to be aware of the conversation they’re entering into with their work. Ferrari-Adler represents authors from many genres, from fiction to cookbooks, and a good deal in between. In our latest interview in the Encounters in Publishing series, Ferrari-Adler shares some great tips for perfecting your query letter and networking in person, and more. You can find her, and maybe put some of her advice to work, at the SLICE Literary Writers’ Conference in September.
What makes a submission stand out to you?
Authority and Clarity. By which I mean in part, that I appreciate when a writer knows who they are and what conversation they are a part of. The last writer I signed from an unsolicited submission was Neel Patel, whose collection IF YOU SEE ME, DON’T SAY HI publishes this July. In his query Neel mentioned our mutual admiration of Junot Diaz and Mohsin Hamid and he said: “If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi is about love, it’s about family; it’s about the experience of being brown; it’s about 90’s hip hop and modern romance.” I loved this description and his title. I also respond (or don’t) pretty quickly to the language in the sample pages. I just read a submission with these lines and was made super happy by them: “And this was sobriety. This was being a grown up. It was just every moment, in real time, in order. It was worse than I remembered.”
Do you actively seek out new talent? If so, where do you find bright new voices?
Yes! I connected with a wonderful writer Susie Yang at the fantastic Tin House Summer Workshop. Susie also won Slice Literary Conference’s 2017 Bridging the Gap Competition in Fiction! I look closely at MFA programs. A trusted professor put me in touch with Kristen Roupenian. I rely on literary magazines and friends and I also just keep my antennae out.
What is the biggest mistake a writer can make when trying to connect with an agent?
Being confusing or overwhelming about your project. I’d also advise contacting a small number of agents and personalizing the queries without trying too hard to force the connection. I don’t care if you’re a fan of the Michigan Football team (though I did an MFA there) or of Eggplant (though I edited an anthology with it in the title).
What kinds of manuscripts are you actively looking for at the moment?
I am looking for absorbing reads; character driven with care to language. I adore narrative non-fiction, too.
If you could give one reading assignment to emerging writers, what would it be?
Subscribe to literary magazines, attend author readings; buy books. Read read read and write write write. Tend to the other parts of your life, too.
I noticed that you’ve worked on quite a few cookbooks. What do you love most about that part of the publishing world?
I love cooking and I think cookbooks for me are secretly just another way for me to connect with other people and their different lives, different upbringings, and different cultures. I think that’s what initially brought me to reading as a child and it’s still a part of it for me – wanting to understand how other people think and how other people go about this business of living as a human.
Jenni Ferrari-Adler is a longtime agent at Union Literary (formerly Brick House) where she represents a range of novels and story collections, cookbooks, memoirs, narrative nonfiction, and other categories. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Michigan and a BA from Oberlin College. She edited the anthology Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone. She has taught Fiction at the University of Michigan and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and worked as a reader for The Paris Review and as a bookseller at Housing Works.
Greg Stewart is a writer and a student attending The New School in their Master’s program for Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism.