The Agent Tango

by Maya Rock
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And actually, there’s a lot more than books about boys in Brooklyn. Stories from the Roof by Willa Morris ’90SOA is about “two friends who connect after twenty years,” Morris says. “It’s about the Jewish community in Queens. It’s about love, friendship, betrayal.” Russell Contreras ’02SOA, a journalist, came from Placitas, New Mexico, to suss out interest in his nonfiction proposal about JFK’s groundbreaking engagement of Latino-rights groups, When We Arrive: JFK’s Last Night and the Birth of the Latino Vote.

The first half of the event has a palpable energy, writers rushing to meet as many agents as they can. Then acting writing-program chair Ben Marcus takes the stage to give a brief welcome, and quips to the writers, “We hope you don’t feel too nervous or too shy and just go and talk to anyone who is attractive to you.” The crowd laughs.

Indeed, there are moments when, despite the evening’s grownup hors d’oeuvres, sophisticated music, and impeccable manners, one feels a middle-school-dance vibe. The agents and the writers — around a hundred people in all — sometimes drift to separate corners, like boys and girls to the opposite sides of the gym. Publishing is a small industry and many of the agents know each other. They linger together by the drinks station, talking about how much easier nonfiction is to sell than fiction.

Paul Lucas from Janklow & Nesbit explains that nonfiction is sold on proposal, whereas fiction usually requires a polished manuscript. “With nonfiction, you can work on forty pages before submitting to publishers, instead of four hundred pages. I really like that about nonfiction.”

While Getzler, Lucas, and Brower talk about common friends in the business, Carolyn Hill-Bjerke ’03SOA comes over. She has a book of poems, but tonight her main focus is on getting representation for her memoir.

“The reason I’m here with the memoir is because I am adopted, and I did recently get my information about my biological family, and basically, with the right film agent, you will sell this as a movie-of-the-week in about ten minutes.”

“Oh, wow,” Brower says.

Hill-Bjerke goes into more detail, eventually revealing that though she does not remember it, she spent time in an orphanage, “the New Haven Children’s Asylum.”

“That’s the title of your book, right?” interjects Brower.

“No, my poetry book is called Things I Don’t Want to Talk About. My memoir is called Mistake.”

“I would love to read your first twenty pages,” Brower replies smoothly. “Send me your first twenty.”

As the evening winds down, the jazz seems to grow louder. We hope this evening proves successful for you; we also hope that you enjoy yourselves and perhaps catch up with old friends. The writers who remain seem satisfied, invigorated even, at having had the chance to talk about works that they’ve largely labored over in solitude.

“I spoke to about seven people,” says Karen Moulding ’01SOA. “I perfected my pitch and people seemed really enthusiastic.” She’s ready for the next step, the follow-up. They will not remember you; when you do send your manuscript, open the cover letter with the reminder that you met at the Columbia mixer.

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