Mohamed Shalabi, of the Talcott Notch Literary Agency, will be attending the GLVWG Write Stuff™ Conference on March 25, 2017. Mohamed took a few minutes to describe what he’ll be looking for during Saturday’s agent pitch sessions.
Interview by GLVWG’s Charles Kiernan.
CK: Can you share with us a bit about your journey to all things literary?
MS: As a schoolteacher, my mother encouraged me to be inquisitive and curious all the time even if it meant I would be the annoying kid in class, which I was. She used to say in accented English that “There are millions of answers to a single question, and millions of questions to a single answer” and she was right.
After ten years in Palestine, I returned to the United States to start college. I earned my B.S. and M.S. from the University of Texas at Dallas and was on a Pre-med track before realizing that medicine was not my calling. So, I taught science for three years while interning at three fine literary agencies, Veritas, Folio, and Talcott Notch where I picked up the skills to become an efficient literary agent.
CK: As an agent, you work with writers, hopefully long-term, but who are strangers to you at first. Do you look at more than the work submitted to determine that relationship?
MS: Yes, of course. I’m still a junior agent at this point and my interactions with clients are still at a minimum. However, the moment I came on board, I was taught by Paula and Gina that being an agent didn’t only constitute finding clients and representing their work. I had to focus first and foremost on developing a relationship with the clients I wanted to represent. I would have to contact them to see how the dynamic would work between us, in terms of how susceptible they are to accepting feedback and making changes and rewrites and general edits. After all, I’m going to be dealing with these specific writers from start to finish and who knows how long that would take. So, it’s better to go on that journey alongside a friend who is open to feedback, both positive and negative, and forging that relationship plays a huge role in my book.
CK: Writers often say they became writers because they have to write. What drew you to becoming an agent?
MS: I became an agent because I also love to write, have written for a long time, and I also like to read. But I mostly love reading other people’s work because it encourages me to be a better writer and critic of my own work. It also gives me a glimpse on what goes on in the heads of these amazing writers and gives clues as to what their inspiration was. Sometimes, I come across manuscripts that have, at one point, been ideas I thought of myself, and my curiosity kicks in to see how that idea was fleshed out. Also, I love, love, love books and the publishing world intrigues me. But above all, I love dealing with authors and helping them achieve their goals in publishing.
CK: When you get a submission, how far into it do you get before you know this one is not for you?
MS: Naturally, I ask for 10 pages along with the query letter. If I’m engaged by the first 10 pages then I ask for 50 pages or the full manuscript. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if the submission is something that I might consider based on the first 10 pages only and if the idea (plot) strikes me as a really good one, and one that sells, then I usually ask to see a synopsis to get an idea on where the story might be headed. But if the story isn’t going anywhere from the start and the plot isn’t marketable then I usually pass.
CK: What trends in the publishing marketplace attract your attention? (Such as, what genres are hot? Where is electronic publishing going?)
MS: I’m very excited to see a rise in stories with diverse protagonists and I think this is where the market is headed now. I read a quote once that rang true to the nature of the book market and what people are looking for nowadays, “Sex doesn’t sell anymore. Activism does.” and I thought to myself that this was such a curious quote. It’s indicative of how the market is merely an extension of our reality, a reflection of the conditions that surround us that could range from peaceful and stable to tumultuous and politically charged. People like to read about the present and learn how other people are coping with the present, especially if those other people are somewhere else across the globe. I’m also seeing a rise in alternate realities (i.e. The Man in the High Castle), space travel (i.e. The Martian), and strangely, dystopian fiction again. As for electronic publishing, I myself do own the latest Kindle device and I love it because it can hold a lot more books, but I still find myself gravitating towards the hard copy. It may sound like a cliché to say this, but I believe hard copy books will remain for a very long time. People have been talking about how books will be extinct ever since the first kindle came a decade ago, but the book market has only been getting stronger and stronger.
CK: What do you hope to find when you attend conferences like ours?
MS: I am very much looking forward to meeting the talented writers, make friends, and hopefully find some work that I can represent.
Growing up in Palestine, Mohamed kept up with current events, sciences, conspiracy theories, and ancient myths that didn’t always ring true. In Arabic, Mohamed read the classics of Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Astrid Lindgren, Daniel Defoe and others. He became hooked on Judy Blume’s Superfudge, and obsessed over J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, and The Chronicles of Narnia.
“I’m looking for projects with diverse characters such as myself. Stories that can teach about other cultures, think Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Girl At War by Sara Novic . Stories that are quirky but offer something new and real, think The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Man in the High Castle by PKD, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Stories that have a strong voice and can stir the emotions until I can’t put the book down, think In The Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner and All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.”
“Adult: up-market literary and commercial fiction, and psychological thrillers. Not looking for paranormal, memoir or romance. I would love to find a great urban fantasy or magical realism for adults.”
“Young Adult: All subgenres except paranormal and romance. That includes realistic young adult, science fiction (alternate history, dystopian, some cyberpunk and time travel) and fantasy (magical realism and contemporary, urban, and retellings of fairy tales). In YA, I would love to find a book with diverse characters. Think in terms of ethnic, cultural, and sexual diversity.”