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Interview

#SLWC17: Meet the Speakers – An Interview with Aevitas Creative Management Agent Sarah Bowlin

by Maria Gagliano

Longtime book editor Sarah Bowlin made two epic changes this year: She moved from New York City to Los Angeles after more than a decade cramming her book collection into NYC-sized apartments. She also made the switch from working as an editor (first at Penguin and most recently at Henry Holt & Co.) to becoming an agent with Aevitas Creative Management. Broadly speaking, her work is the same—she is looking for talented debut authors so she can help launch their careers. The similarities end, and somewhat continue, there. We chatted with Sarah about her big changes, her big love for working with writers, and what she’s looking for as she builds her new list as an agent.

Sarah will share her insights on the delicate art of editing on the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference panel “Revise This, But Don’t Lose Your Voice,” on Sunday, September 10th in downtown Brooklyn. Conference attendees can also sign up to pitch their work to Sarah in person at a one-on-one meeting.

You just made the leap to becoming an agent after spending a decade as a book editor at Penguin and Henry Holt. What excites you most about the change?

SB

The past eight months have been full of changes and excitement, so this is a doozy of a first question. My move from editor to agent also coincided with a move from New York to Los Angeles, and one of the things that I’m loving about my new agent life is exploring a new city as I’m starting to work with new writers. This city has put me in a different head space and it feels great. My brain is weirdly flexible and engaged right now and I am using that renewed energy to find interesting, diverse, unexpected work. Also, as an agent I have a lot more freedom to work across many different genres, and I’m excited about that, too.

How has your editorial background influenced the way you work with writers as an agent? Are you doing much hands-on editorial work?

SB

Definitely. I think I’ll always be pretty hands-on, editorially. I still love editing and developing material and, given my years on the house side, I know how hard it can sometimes be to get something—fiction, especially—through the acquisitions process. Editing still seems very important as an agent and it’s certainly still a big part of how I’m working with writers.

What was the hardest thing about making the move from editor to agent?

SB

It was so hard to leave the writers I was working with at Holt, but I knew that it was the right time for me, personally, to make a change. I still love the books I worked on as an editor, of course, and I will still be their cheerleader in any way that I can. Speaking of that, here comes a shameless plug for two forthcoming books that I LOVE so utterly and absolutely and am telling everyone about: GOODBYE, VITAMIN by Rachel Khong, which is a funny and warm and heartbreaking novel about caring for aging parents and a young woman fumbling through a rough patch (out on July 11) and THE OUTER CAPE by Patrick Dacey, a sharp and gorgeous debut about a white-collar crime in a small town in New England and how it reverberates through a family (out on June 27).

Where do you look for new authors/clients?

SB

As an editor I was constantly reading journals, magazines (Slice is always on my list, but there are many others, too–One Story, The Common, Granta, Kenyon Review, Tin House, Oxford American), newspapers, and books from other countries in hopes that I would find a writer whose work sparks with me. I continue to do that as an agent. But also, I’m reading queries that come to me directly and I’m getting lots of great tips from writer friends and publishing folks. I’m visiting a few different kinds of writing programs, but am always looking for ways to encounter writers who didn’t take the MFA route, too. And because I’m based in Los Angeles now, I’m discovering a whole new literary city—new readings and events series, new art, new kinds of writers, a new landscape that inspires me…

Has anything about your new role as an agent surprised you yet?

SB

Yes, many things! But something that stands out is how early some writers sign up with an agent. It surprises me when someone has only published one or two stories and doesn’t really have a book yet, but they have an agent. It all depends on how the writer wants to work, but I am—based on my years as an editor—hesitant to insert the business part of publishing into the writing too early.

What’s your one piece of advice for emerging authors hoping to connect with an agent? Are there any blind spots writers tend to miss that hurt their chances of getting ahead?

SB

Read broadly across many genres and also deeply into the category into which you think your work fits. And make sure that you’ve taken the work as far as you possibly can on your own before you start querying agents. Sending work out too early can make it especially difficult to parse responses and make the best decision about representation.

What kind of writing and/or authors are you looking for now as an agent?

SB

I’m focusing on literary voices in fiction and nonfiction but really—despite the genre or category—I’m looking for voices that have authority. And I want to be surprised or challenged in some way. I like books that explore class and race and gender and grapple with big ideas. I love “difficult” (complex!) female characters, narratives with a strong sense of place or history or the sensual world, and books that stretch or blur genre boundaries. And perhaps this is a little too specific, but my family is from the south (although I grew up a military kid) and I’d love to work with writers who are taking on the south in ways that feel urgent and alive.

*****

Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, and co-founder/Business Director of Slice.

Sarah Bowlin joined Aevitas in early 2017 after a decade as an editor of literary fiction and nonfiction. She has worked on the international breakout novel How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti; the New York Times Notable Book, The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips; the National Book Award-nominated The End by Salvatore Scibona; and works by the award-winning novelist, Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Originally from the South, she got her start in publishing at Riverhead Books and was most recently a senior editor at Henry Holt & Company.

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