Thursday, August 07, 2008

Q&A with literary agent Gary Heidt

The following is an interview I did earlier this year with NYC literary agent Gary Heidt for The ASJA Monthly.

FinePrint Literary Management agent, Gary Heidt, was a John Jay Scholar at Columbia University and General Manager at WKCR-FM. Upon graduating, he returned to the nightclubs as a gigging musician; the Village Voice called his first album a "masterpiece." He is a published poet and columnist. His librettos for composer Evan Hause's Defenestration Trilogy earned praise from Newsday, Opera News and the New York Press, and his musical comedies (he has written several in collaboration with Gary Miles, including The Feng Shui Assassin and American Eyeball) were described by The Onion as "strangely funny." Originally from Texas, he has lived in New York City for a decade and a half.
Gary is looking for history, science, true crime, pop culture, psychology, business, military and some literary fiction.

BDB: Talk about how you became an agent.

GH: I wrote a few novels, and in the nineties I was briefly represented by two different agents, neither of whom had any luck with my rather precious, self-indulgent work. Ten years later, it occurred to me that those people had what seemed to be a pretty neat job— they were fairly independent and got to read a lot. So I went to work at a literary agency.

BDB: What sort of material do you especially like to handle?

GH: Like everyone, I love something that is truly and deeply funny. I am convinced that humor is the hardest thing to do well. We are awash in bad humor and pathetic comedy, and the bad stuff is really terrible. A finely tuned sense of humor is a wonderful thing, and it enhances any genre of writing. I am also very interested in well-researched history, although it's hard to sell if it isn't by someone who doesn't have any history credentials.

BDB: Is what you like to handle and what sells best one and the same?

GH: What I like to handle is precisely what I think I can sell best. What I like to read for personal fulfillment is often a book I would never represent, because I couldn't sell it. I read poetry, which I don't represent, and some academic nonfiction, university press type stuff, art criticism, histories of banks, things that I would probably not represent as an agent. But I also like to read commercial fiction, thrillers, and mainstream literary stuff.

BDB: Talk about the nonfiction you represent—science, history, psychology....

GH: I recently signed up two physics professors. I love to read about science. History is, to me, about understanding one's self and how the world got to be the way it is. Psychology is murky—I don't do self-help books or prescriptive nonfiction, how to survive depression, things like that. In order to write books in any of these subject areas, these days, one really needs a Ph.D. or a strong resume as a journalist.

BDB: Do you see any particular trends in publishing right now, in terms of what’s being sought after?

GH: Overall, the picture right now is one of downsizing, shrinking lists, former editors standing around fires in hobo encampments wearing fingerless gloves and fighting over tattered copies of McSweeny's. Every publisher wants an author that doesn't need a publisher—in other words, they are eager to sign authors who can sell a half-million copies on their own, through their Web site or their television show. A larger and larger proportion of books are being bought from packagers rather than authors—it's another aspect of editors at corporate houses shifting more of the work of editing onto an external supplier.

BDB: Of course writers shouldn’t pay attention to trends, right?

GH: That depends. If by writers you mean bitter, lonely, unpublished writers, yes, I would agree.

BDB: It’s a conflict for a writer, perhaps especially for literary writers: You want to write from your passion, yet if you’re not aware of what’s selling, you’re considered na├»ve.

GH: I would say that if you find yourself thinking or saying, "Nothing good is being published now," as I hear so many people say, you should realize that something on the order of 150,000 titles were published last year, and that it's likely that a few good ones may have escaped your notice. I think it is profoundly important for writers to be as aware as possible of their peers. So for literary writers, I would say it's especially important to seek out and champion writers whose work you like. Review books for a local newspaper, on your blog, whatever. I am constantly reading new literary fiction, and there is a lot of very good stuff being written. I would say that literary fiction isn't really about trends, but at the same time, there's no excuse for not being aware of who is doing good work in this day and age. If all the writers who queried me about their literary fiction in the last year bought twelve new literary books a year, we would see an immediate renaissance of literary publishing in this country. If you're stumped because all the critics liked Franzen's novel and you can't stand it, don't stop there. Look for the books the critics ignored, buy them, read them, tell everyone about the good ones.

BDB: Speaking of fiction, what sort of fiction are you attracted to?

GH: My favorite fiction writers today—who are published: In literary fiction, I love Charles Yu, Tito Perdue, Stephen Policoff, Carol Emschwiller, Shelley Jackson, Stephen Wright, Daniel Patrick Scott, Frederick Barthelme, Charles Baxter, Ryan Gattis and Sam Lipsyte. There are a some that I like a lot but which don't speak to me quite as emphatically as that first list, but they are very good and worth reading—folks like Bruce Wagner, Viken Berberian, Walter Kirn, Danuta de Rhodes, Amelie Nothomb, Gregoire Bouillier, Joe McGinnis. In YA, I particularly like Marcus Zusak, Chris Lynch, Sonia Sones and of course Jason Myers. In crime fiction, everyone should read every single book that Charles Ardai's Hard Case Crime publishes. Not that I have, but I would guess I've read over a dozen of them and have yet to be disappointed. In thrillers, I love the team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Lee Childs.

BDB: You’re interested in graphic novels, yes? Please elaborate...

GH: They are a lot of fun to read. I was into Marvel Comics as a kid, and then in the nineties was introduced to Alan Moore's work by a friend of mine. I think that the potential of the genre is nearly limitless. On the business side, the graphic novel shelf is the fastest growing segment of the bookstore. I think publishers are a little confused on how to deal with this, but I am trying to give them some helpful guidance.

BDB: Do you see books going away in favor of electronic publishing?

GH: It could happen. The reading of books has mostly gone away already, and all that's left now are the actual objects. I read somewhere that a pretty large percentage of books are bought as totems. You can put the book on your coffee table or carry it to Starbucks, and it sends a message about who you are. Now how will this work with a Sony Reader? No one will know that you are carrying a copy of The Stranger in that Kindle. The portable electronic readers will go down in price, and once they hit, say, fifty, sixty bucks, I think e-books might do for publishing what the mp3 did for the record business. The good thing about electronic publishing is that it lowers the production cost for a new book, so theoretically more authors could get published.

BDB: If you had to sum yourself up in one line, what would you say?

GH: Don't take it serious, it's too mysterious.--Lew Brown

BDB: How does the fact that you’re a published poet and columnist, and a musician, figure into the mix?

GH: I think I have a better understanding of what goes on in the creative process than some of my fellow agents who haven't pursued these kinds of activities.

BDB: What else should potential clients know about you?

GH: That I want you all to go out and buy a lot of books, especially those by my clients!


Anonymous said...

I mean, who does this guy think he is with the hand to the forehead pose and the turtleneck sweater. Anyhow, I'll probably send him some of my stuff because he's bound to dislike it personally and that bodes well for both of us.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Jordie, you just love to create a stir, doncha?

Kelly Pollard said...

Interesting perspective, thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

Once again, Kelly, no thnks is necessary. I live to serve.

Love said...

great! thanks very much for sharing!

Nicholas Borelli said...

I'm reading "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen. It's outstanding. Can't put it down. So well written. So interesting. Familiar with her work?

Hope you're well. Haven't communicated with you in a long while. Busy and diverted in my day job as a suit. Still writing--adapting novels to screenplays. Still hoping one day . . . .

best always,


Sara J. Henry said...

Gary Heidt - now with Signature Literary Agency - repped the wonderful DUST OF 100 DOGS by A.S. King this year.