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Interview

#SLWC17: Meet The Speakers – An Interview With Ayesha Pande Literary Agent Anjali Singh

by Maria Gagliano

Anjali Singh has built her publishing career around championing underrepresented voices. Nearly two decades ago, at her first job as an editor, she pitched the idea of publishing a graphic novel by a debut Iranian author to her new bosses at Random House. More than one million copies later, that book, Persepolis, is one of the most important graphic novels ever published. These days, Anjali is a literary agent and her dedication to advocating for unheard voices only burns brighter.

We chatted with Anjali about her new(ish) role as an agent: how she likes to connect with new writers, her infinite patience when it comes to waiting for an author to finish a manuscript, and how she’s seen diversity in the industry evolve—or not—since she entered the book world.

We’ll hear more from Anjali at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on September 10 in Brooklyn, when she joins a team of agents on our panel “Making a Case for Fiction.” Conference attendees can also sign up to pitch their work to Anjali in person at a one-on-one meeting.

Pitching agents can be a discouraging journey for emerging writers. How do you tend to connect with debut authors?

AS

The easiest way for me to connect with a writer is definitely through a personal connection—which is one of the reasons I harp so much on the importance of a writer building up her community, because it is through fellow writers and mentors that you are most likely to get connected with an agent.

It’s also nice for us agents to get out from behind our desks, meet writers at conferences, at places like Slice or Bread Loaf. For the writers, I think it’s helpful to get a sense from a panel or one-on-one meeting of who the agent is, what their style is, and what kind of books speak to them. But if there is no personal recommendation, it really is meaningful to hear from a writer that they sought me out because I published a particular writer, to know that they’ve done their homework and aren’t just querying me blind.

What kinds of projects are you currently looking for?

AS

Literary fiction will always be my first love, but I cannot take on very much of it. In terms of what might draw me to a novel, it’s feeling swept up in the storytelling, invested in the characters’ lives and fates, and really feeling that this book has taken me to a place I’ve never been before. And while all books don’t have to be political, it is important to me that the fiction I’m representing be engaging with our world, be perhaps representing an experience of living in our world that feels new, and important. I’m also drawn to anything with a French connection.

But honestly, I’m still feeling my way as an agent—because it’s not just what I’m drawn to, but finding a place for it in the marketplace—and sadly those two things don’t always line up! I’m also really interested in taking on more middle grade and young adult fiction, and graphic works for young people and adults—authors that are finding new ways to tell a story.

You were a longtime book editor before making the move to agenting. How has your perspective as an editor affected your work as an agent?

AS

The editor in me is still alive and well, so my authors do get a lot of hands-on feedback before we send their books on submission. But I feel like becoming an agent has given me some necessary distance in terms of looking at and thinking about the system of publishing. It’s only made me hungrier to see more editors on the trade publishing side willing and given the leeway to take risks, and to see more diversity throughout every aspect of the industry. There’s a terrific new energy on the independent side of publishing, and some great publishing happening, but there are still too few places with a real commitment to, and understanding of, what diversity means and why it’s important.

You have a great history of championing underrepresented voices. Back in 2002 you brought Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis to the U.S. by making a case for it at Vintage/Random House. Fast-forward to today, you and your colleague Ayesha Pande brought Arif Anwar’s debut to Atria/Simon & Schuster, and you’ve helped launch the careers of so many other debut authors. Are you seeing more opportunities for diverse voices in recent years? How have you seen the industry change in this regard?

AS

I think one of the lessons I’ve learned from my 20 years in publishing is how important the culture of a publisher really is to a book’s success, and to the kind of books they’re willing to try. With Persepolis, I was very lucky to have landed at Vintage, whose sister imprint was Pantheon, and Pantheon had published Maus—so they knew exactly what to do with a graphic novel. And I was lucky enough that the first person who could give me the go ahead, Pantheon’s wonderful editor-in-chief, Dan Frank, could read French and supported that acquisition. Now Persepolis, like Maus, reached a huge readership because it overlapped with so many other categories—memoir, history, middle-east studies, coming-of-age—but we still had a firm platform from which to launch it. I’d like to think that any publisher would have been able to make a brilliant book like that work—but I’m not sure there are many publishers that would be open to taking that kind of risk—especially today.

You could also have looked at it as a comic book about the Islamic Revolution by an unknown Iranian author based in France—we had no translated pages—being championed by a young editor who’d never been an editor before! I definitely had one colleague who, before I acquired it, told me she just didn’t see an audience for it. That, to me, gets right to the crux of this conversation about diversity. When I saw that book, it was like being struck by lightening. I was obsessed and convinced there would be a huge audience for it. I’ve never had that feeling again, but it was like something I knew in my bones, and I was lucky enough to find the in-house support.

Ultimately Sonny Mehta was the one who allowed me to buy it, to take a risk on that book. All of this speaks to the subjectivity in many ways of the buying editor (and who gets to decide that there’s an audience), and I just happened to be given the power in that situation to have my perspective count, and to have some colleagues who recognized the importance of that story. The stars aligned in terms of timing (2002) and being in the right place, but for me that also meant being a part of a publishing culture that not only supported graphic works, but had a commitment to publish stories that are truly international.

I haven’t yet answered the question about changes—but I think the children’s book world gets the importance of diversity and is miles ahead of the adult book world, which is one of the reasons I’m excited to be stretching my wings as an agent into that space. There are small pockets in the adult world where diversity is considered a value, but they are still too few and far between. I think Arif’s novel The Storm is a truly terrific novel, but I also don’t think that it’s a total coincidence that Rakesh Satyal, the U.S. editor Ayesha and I sold it to, the one who recognized the value in a sweeping literary novel about 50 years of Bangladeshi history, is a South Asian-American himself—working at a publishing imprint that is headed by an Australian and interested in international literature.

What do these changes mean for writers who are struggling to have their voices heard?

AS

There’s definitely a diversity bandwagon these days and even though I’m critiquing it for not being enough, I’m hoping that this really is the start of a valuable conversation and that publishers will begin to move past their defensiveness and truly begin to make changes in the culture that will make it more inclusive.

Lisa Lucas is out there doing the good work of championing this idea of expanding the audience, of who we think of as a reader, and I’m hopeful publishers will take heed! As for the writers, I think the answer is to be smart about who’s out there. If you’re struggling to be heard, seek out those editors and agents and small publishers who are making it their mission to help your voice be heard. But again, there are too few of us! I wish I had the energy for this, but I’d love to see some younger editors and writers come together to start some new publishing houses, just the way those left-leaning academics got together and started Verso once upon a time. I’m so glad there’s a Verso out there, but they’re not publishing fiction (yet)!

You’re joining us for a panel about how agents build a solid case for a novel before it’s pitched to editors. Once you know you want to represent a writer, how do you work with him or her to get the book ready to pitch?

AS

Usually, the pitch is there from the beginning—it’s the pitch that will have hooked me, so it’s really a matter of making sure, once I’ve committed to taking a writer on, that the novel itself be as compelling as it can possibly be. That means that there’s some good reason—though sometimes that can be the quality of the writing itself—to keep a potential editor turning the pages. In practical terms, that usually means at least a year if not more of a revision process, and this is where I think it comes in handy to have an agent who is also an experienced editor.

I was recently at a conference in Boston where a writer (a bestselling novelist) signed with her agent immediately after she finished her MFA, then spent the next 6 years, through 4 drafts, working with her to get the novel just right! That’s an agent who did her job really well, and it paid off in the end. So, I’m not saying anything new here, but editors are always looking for an excuse to say no, so it is beyond important that together, the agent and author have done everything they can to make a novel be as perfect as it can before it goes out on submission. I’ve been an agent for almost 2 years and I have only sold one novel! This is because they take a very, very long time to be ready. So, besides patience, the other advice I give my authors with works-in-progress, is to continue to work on building your writing community—apply for fellowships like MacDowell and Yaddo and VCCA, that will at once help you accomplish the work, but also bring you, hopefully, more friends in the writing community.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for emerging authors hoping to connect with an agent? Are there any blind spots writers tend to miss, or common mistakes they make, that hurt their chances of getting ahead?

AS

Probably the biggest mistake is sending a book out before it’s really ready. There is no deadline for fiction, no window of opportunity that’s closing. So I really don’t mind waiting a long time, even if we’ve met at a conference, for your book to land on my desk. I won’t forget about you, or even if I have, it won’t matter the minute the book lands in my in-box, if it’s good.

The other thing I want to signal about the pitch and/or the summary, is that it’s not really enough to just describe your story, you have to be thinking about—and answering the question—of what will make a reader want to pick up this book and go on this journey with you. I would say if you are meeting your agent through a mutual connection, or have a writer-mentor championing your work, the bar to make the pitch perfect might not be quite so high—but the more “blindly” you are querying, then the higher the bar is. I know that being a good writer and knowing how “to sell” your work aren’t necessarily the same, and at the same time, knowing why you felt compelled to tell a particular story is important. If you can communicate why it was important to you, hopefully that will speak to a potential agent/reader as well. If you spent so many years of your life working on a novel, then you really should be able to answer the question of why someone else might want to read it. And of course, when you reach out to an agent, know and explain why you have chosen that agent in particular.

*****

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

Currently an agent at Ayesha Pande Literary, Anjali Singh started her career in publishing in 1996 as a literary scout. She has worked as Editorial Director at Other Press and as an editor at Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Vintage Books. Among the authors she has published are Marjane Satrapi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Samantha Hunt, Preeta Samarasan, Diana Abu-Jaber, and Victoria Patterson. As a literary agent, she is looking for new voices, character-driven fiction or non-fiction works that reflect an engagement with the world around us, literary thrillers, memoirs, YA and MG literature and graphic novels. Among her forthcoming projects as an agent are Bridgett M. Davis’ What Does Happiness Play For?, a memoir about her mother, Detroit, and the Numbers (Little, Brown); Sherine Hamdy and Myra El-Mir’s YA graphic novel about coming-of-age Muslim-American (Dial Books for Young Readers); and Arif Anwar’s The Storm (S&S).

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