by Tammy Burke
It is with great delight that we welcome you to this year’s GLVWG’s “Write Stuff” conference. I must admit I love the term European Amerophile from your bio on Regal Literary Inc.’s webpage. What a well-rounded perspective that must give you having experience in “both camps” (Europe and North America).
I know you probably get this question often but what drew you to law first? When did you realize creative writing and becoming an agent was what you really wanted to do?
Claire Anderson-Wheeler: Interestingly, I think a lot of lawyer’s or legally-trained folk migrate to publishing. There are some strong shared affinities: a love of words – of their persuasive and descriptive power – and an interest in abstract ideas and problems. Also, often, a dimension of social engagement: even though the day-to-day can be quite solitary, stories are about wider society and so is law. Both are a way of engaging in a kind of dialogue, and an attempt to make that dialogue relevant. But ultimately, to me, law began to feel a bit too much of a straitjacket. In law, you have to hold back quite a lot of your personality or individuality. You have to be quite dry. Books are all about individuality.
Instead of asking you what your favorite book is I thought I’d ask if you’d share an example or two of stories which you feel changed how you saw the world.
Claire Anderson-Wheeler: I think the stories that really change your sense of the world are the stories you read as a kid. It’s amazing the windows they open. For me, I’d pick out The BFG. It was quite a philosophical journey for a 7- or 8-year old. I realised I’d never really thought about sleep before, or dreams; I’d never thought that much about how miraculous our minds were that way. I’d never thought about what it might mean to be an outcast in quite the way Roald Dahl presents it here. I’d never thought about humans as being a “bad” race: this wonderful giant does a great job of pointing out just how dangerous and far from innocent humanity can be. Heady stuff!
I have been reading more middle-grade having a second grader in my house. I was wondering what you see and/or hope to see for this genre in 2015? Also, with the increased savviness in today’s kids…any topics come to mind that might be too close to the edge?
Claire Anderson-Wheeler: I don’t tend to have very specific desiderata – it’s more a question of knowing it when I see it. But I do love books with “issues” – we tend to get them more at the older end of the children’s spectrum but there can be such marvellous issue-oriented books for the MG demographic too. And a good fantasy adventure never goes amiss. I’d quite like to see some more “sibling” adventures; I feel like a lot of the MG submissions I get have just one solitary nine year old at the heart of them, but I think that’s an age where the presence of siblings can be really important. As for “too close to the edge” – no, not really. Not much is off limits these days, if it’s sensitively handled, with a level of sophistication that’s right for the reader. For example, a MG book where an older sibling or parent is transgender – I think that could be very interesting, but it couldn’t be treated in quite the same way as it would for the older YA audience.
If an author with an ideal project sat down with you for a pitch, what could he or she say or do that would favorably grab your attention? On the other hand, what would be a big no-no?
Claire Anderson-Wheeler: They’d be able to present their book succinctly, not “selling” it but “analysing” it, with a focus on what’s distinctive about it. They won’t recite to me a learned-by-rote “blurb” (In a galaxy far away, intrepid orphan Alex gets the surprise of his life when… etc)
Do you find there is a difference in European and North American readership? If yes, do you see that changing?
Claire Anderson-Wheeler: Not enormously. A lot of the big hits translate. I think in contemporary, realistic YA/MG, and in adult literary fiction, there tends to be less in common because these areas can have a more culturally specific focus (for example, they might tackle socio-economic issues (race, minorities, poverty, class) in a way that is more reflective of a particular culture. Also in general, I would say Americans are more attached to the idea of learning something from their fiction (learning about a historical conflict in a foreign country, for example). Europe is not necessarily so pushed about that. I don’t see those differences eroding much further. Cultures have different hot buttons and that’s natural.
What would you say is most important element in telling a compelling story that crosses over genre lines?
Claire Anderson-Wheeler: I’m not sure if it can be reduced to a single element! Ambition, perhaps. If you’re talking about crossing genre lines then you’re looking at something quite high-concept, but tackled in a really thorough, really thoughtful way, so that it’s telling us a story but also telling us about our world: not neglecting theme for plot.
And finally, what advice would you give to writers who are looking to get published?
Claire Anderson-Wheeler: READ. Read published authors (recently published authors: it’s no good if all you read is Dickens or Twain); read your peers’ work so you can practice breaking down works in progress and analysing why they do and don’t work; and finally, read your own work. Out loud if possible. We get into habits of perspective. Re-reading helps combat that, and allows you to keep fresh.
Thank you again, Claire, for taking the time out for this interview. On a personal note, I’m hoping I get an opportunity to ask you about the Old Library and the Book of Kells at your old alma mater Trinity College in Dublin. That has to be an amazing sight!
Claire Anderson-Wheeler: You’re welcome! And I hope you do.
Claire Anderson-Wheeler is a literary agent with Regal Hoffmann & Associates, a New York-based full-service literary agency founded in 2002. Regal Hoffmann & Associates works with a wide range of authors in different genres, representing the likes of fiction writers such as Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveller’s Wife) and Daniel Wallace (Big Fish) and non-fiction writers such as Carl Hoffman (Savage Harvest) and James Reston Jr. (Defenders of the Faith) as well as middle grade and young adult. Claire represents writers across a broad range of fiction and non-fiction genres. Recent sales include the forthcoming debuts Mindstormer by AJ Steiger (Knopf), Cold Feet by Amy FitzHenry (Berkley) and To Feel Again the Kind of Love That Hurts Something Terrible by Patrick Dacey (Holt). Claire is Irish, was born in DC, and grew up in Dublin, Brussels and Geneva.
At the moment I’m particularly looking for narrative non-fiction by writers with a strong platform (biography, memoir, or general non-fiction that puts an expert’s slant on an aspect of everyday life – think Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together). I’m also particularly keen to find some challenging middle-grade fiction. In general, I’m always interested in fresh voices that tell ambitious stories, be it in non-fiction or fiction (literary, commercial, children’s). I like to see historical fiction that leverages an unfamiliar perspective on a familiar historical character or place (Think Girl With A Pearl Earring). I’m open to science fiction and fantasy, though more of the urban than the epic kind. I am not currently looking at: romance or erotica; picture books; prescriptive non-fiction (how to); screenplays or poetry.
Tammy Burke, GLVWG member, 2011 conference chair and past president, has published over 400 articles in daily newspapers, newsletters and regional magazines. As a journalist and also with helping with the GLVWG “Write Stuff” conference she has interviewed a wide-range of literary agents, publishers, authors, state and local government officials, business and community leaders, everyday folk and celebrities. Currently, she is in the revision stage for her first YA fantasy adventure book, Uriah’s Window, the first in an intended series. When not writing, she works in the social service field, fancies herself a student of the fantastic and mundane, and is a fencing marshal in the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA).