The Successful Writer’s Personality

The Bennington Writing Seminars MFA in Writing & Literature

January 9, 2002

The idea for this talk came about when a friend asked me whether one kind of person writes a particular kind of book. For instance, does one kind write mysteries, another poetry, a third biography?

I had to say No, I hadn’t observed that. But after 15 years as an agent, I’ve observed things about my published clients that I’ll pass on to you as strictly my own sense of what makes a writer succeed. Some of these things you can do something about, and some you can’t.

The things you can’t do anything about happened in your past. When I look over my client list, I observe that nearly every published writer on it has one or more of the following qualifications: an immigrant parent, an alcoholic parent, an abusive parent, divorced parents, a parent with a mental illness, or a parent who died tragically. Alternatively, they are members of one or more of the following “outsider” groups: adopted children, gays, Jews, blacks, Texans, academics, Mormons, or immigrants writing in English as a second language. Really, any kind of family dysfunction will do. But remember: suffering is equal opportunity and isn’t precluded by a privileged upbringing.

I assume you fit into one or more of these categories. If you didn’t, you would have left by now.

One of my earliest memories is of looking at an alphabet book of baby animals at play. On one page I see a baby panda bear holding his toes and rolling around like a ball. I hold my toes and start rolling around on the living room carpet. I hear my mother say to my father, “Look – she’s doing what the bear in the book is doing!”

This is the first time I identify with a character in a book. I like the character and am fascinated by what he’s doing. When I try it myself, I find it isn’t as comfortable for a human child as it looks for a panda. But I still enjoy the narrative. I learn that I don’t have to do what a character in a book has done to enjoy the experience. And so a bookworm is born.

Flash forward to a 20-year career in publishing. I’ve grown up. I’ve gotten sophisticated. I’ve learned how to flatter an editor and wither a waiter – or vice versa. But my response to any book still hinges on my response to the characters I meet on the page, and to the voice of the narrator. I’m particularly bowled over by the voice that reaches into the deepest recesses of the self and lays bare what is there. The voice that does that usually creates a character so particular in his or her humanity that it’s impossible to resist identification.

I don’t need to find a character like myself. I’ve identified with Ivan Denisovitch, the talented Mr. Ripley, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Lord Peter Wimsey (but not Harriet Vane), Pip from “Great Expectations,” the little boy in a book called “The Last Samurai” by Helen DeWitt, the narrator of “Brideshead Revisited,” the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Timothy Mo’s “Sour Sweet,” Scarlett O’Hara, the Ancient Mariner, and Chip, one of the three Lambert children in “The Corrections.”

What is it about these characters that makes me want to follow them to the ends of the earth? Aside from the Scarlet Pimpernel (my first love after the mailman we had when I was seven) and Lord Peter Wimsey, who are ideal men, the other characters are shown at their best and their worst – at their most human.

What kind of writer can make characters like that? I think the kind of writer who is not afraid to access the deepest places in himself, and is not afraid to share what he comes up with. Such a writer can set those discoveries down on a page without interference from an internal tribunal. I’m sure you all have some kind of internal tribunal. It might be one voice, or it might be many, but it’s the thing that says, “You can’t do that. That’s insignificant. That doesn’t make any sense. Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”

I have a client whose writing I absolutely love, the way I love the writing of all my clients. I’ve gotten to know her well in the dozen or so years we’ve worked together, and I once told her she had no skin between herself and the outside world. Such a condition can make daily life painful, but it can also make for wonderfully particular, wonderfully alive writing. It’s writing that’s stripped bare of the kind of chatty filler that makes the writer feel more secure, that assuages the writer’s fear of what she’s seen in those deep recesses. Every sentence is pointed, to the point, a working part of the whole machine.

I see plenty of writing that has kernels of good in it, but it’s hedged around with so much tentativeness, or uncertainty, or excess, or stinginess, that it doesn’t allow the outsider – the reader – in. It doesn’t reveal the character. And if I can’t find a chink in the wall, I know that the agent/author relationship isn’t going to be successful.

Yet when I read something that speaks to me, that absorbs me, that remains vividly in my head even when I’m not reading it, I’ve been intimate with the person who wrote it before I’ve even met him. This isn’t to say I know anything about him. I only know he or she’s the kind of writer who’s willing to explore the deep essence of character. The kind of writer who’s willing to go to a certain kind of extreme is the kind of writer who has the willingness it takes to get published. And I need to see that willingness before I know I can sell a book.

My belief in the work is the first thing. Once I’ve established that, it rarely disappears. But in the face of an industry that is difficult at the best of times, and in the face of myriad conflicting demands on my time, attention, and energy, it needs help. And the best help it can get is from the relationship I develop with the writer. The relationship is ultimately the fuel that feeds the engine of my belief in your work.

Like any relationship, it takes time to grow. It needs attention, and it can’t be entirely one-sided. I don’t mean I want to talk about myself to you. This is a business, not a pajama party, and I’m completely aware that my business will be healthier if I sell your work. But from wide-ranging discussions that start with your work and move on to your favorite movies, the jobs you’ve had, what your writing day is like, and how many illegitimate children you have, I can get a sense of how your mind works, what your possibilities are, where your limitations lie. I can use that to push you to go back to the well, try again, make your work better. The more my belief in you is fueled by your responsiveness, your willingness to work as hard as I do, the more passionately and convincingly I can promote you and your work to editors, producers, and foreign publishers.

And if in those conversations I share with you not only my staunch belief in your work, but my interest in your entire career, my plans for how best to shape it, or my frustration with an editor’s response, you get a sense of how I work, what my possibilities are, where my limitations lie, and how best to push me to work well for you.

We can’t develop this good working relationship if you don’t call me when you have a question or want to talk about a new work with me or tell me “I’m rewriting Chapter 3,” “I’m going to the hospital for minor surgery,” or even “Gotta love those Yankees.” If you’re sitting waiting by the phone, not asking for anything, you might get overlooked. It would take twice the normal energy I have to read your mind. You SHOULD make those “Have you read it yet?” calls, because we all need to be nudged along at times. But try to vary them. There’s nothing more relationship-destroying than too many “What-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” conversations.

One of my first clients, who signed with me in 1988 and is now writing her sixth book, sent her manuscript over the transom to the Julian Bach Agency, where I then worked. I’m going to admit something awful and tell you that I didn’t get back to her for 11 months. She never called and asked what we thought, so I kept putting it aside. But though the stories seemed quiet, and I knew it might be difficult to place them, their beauty rang in my mind and never left.

Finally I made the call, and she accepted my offer to represent her work. She was then a reserved person, almost severe, and our relationship grew quietly. I would submit her manuscript, it would come back, I would send her the rejection letter, and we would discuss it. I would send the manuscript out again, and we would repeat the process. I had utter belief in her work, but at the beginning she had no real reason to believe in my work for her. Yet over the course of these conversations we got to know each other, and her belief in me grew. I sold some of the stories to good literary magazines. She began a second book and trusted me enough to accept some very forceful recommendations to improve it, and continued to accept my input over the course of two or three drafts.

After 30 rejections, her second book was nearly ready to show, and I suggested we put the stories aside for the time being and go out with the new book. I could tell she was disappointed, but she agreed. A couple of months later, an editor friend came to my house to watch the Superbowl with my husband. At halftime he told me he’d soon begin a new job, and I showed him one of the stories this client had just published in the Kenyon Review. He said, “That’s just the kind of thing I’m looking for – send it to me!”, and within a month he had offered a two-book contract. That first book has now been in print for ten years, has sold upwards of 100,000 copies in hardcover and paperback, and has been published in half a dozen foreign languages.

Another client – the one I told you about who has “no skin,” I took on with a collection of stories that I submitted everywhere. She became even more fiercely loyal to me than I was to her and her work. She inserted herself into my consciousness and my life in a way I couldn’t help responding to. We even had adult braces and our first babies together. I didn’t sell the story collection, and she wrote a novel. At the end of it, the heroine gave birth to twins, and before you could say “monozygotic,” I was giving birth to identical twin girls. (I’ve always insisted she wrote them into my life.)

I didn’t sell that novel, either. But my belief in her never wavered; in fact, it continued to grow, fueled partly by her belief in me. She began a second novel, and sent it to me one chapter at a time. I loved it from the first. When it was finished, a year and a half later, and revised, I told her I probably would be able to sell it, but I didn’t want to get her hopes up. In the end, I sent it out on a Monday morning and had concluded an auction Friday evening for half a million dollars. In the middle of that week we sold the film rights for nearly twice that.

That kind of seven-year-overnight sensation isn’t unheard of; selling a novel in a day isn’t unheard of; selling a novel after four years, or after 30 or 50 or 70 rejections, isn’t unheard of. So before I close, I want to talk a little bit about bitterness. You must never give in to it. While you are struggling to get published, it’s tempting to say, “Why is so-and-so’s book so successful when it’s utter tripe? Why can so much trash be published while my brilliant literary novel gets turned down?”

You can say those things, but especially the comment about trashy books is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s not news. Get over it. But as to the comment about the successful book that’s “utter tripe”? Fine. You’re a brilliantly penetrating literary critic. Now look at the book again. Why are members of the public actually purchasing copies? Read the book, and figure out why. Open yourself to the book, find something in it that you can’t deny. What do you see?

I think you’ll see love. Love for the characters. Passion for telling a story. Love for language, for place, for a time, for an obsession. (I thought I had figured that out myself, but Dickens beat me to it.) If you don’t love your characters – and, more to the point, allow yourself to express that love through the way you write them – you might as well abandon the ship they’re on, because no one else is going to want to get on it with them.

In closing, I have three pieces of advice for you. The first comes from my eight-year-old daughter, Grace. She wanted me to tell you, “Don’t just write about what really happened – make up your own stories.” The second comes from Grace’s older sister, Polly: “Write about something that you love. If you really like cats, then you can write a story about cats.” And the third comes from Grace’s twin sister, Julia: “Write your own memories and make a good story about the memories. Use a different name for the character – use a name that actually fits the story. Use a name like ‘Sally’.”