With so much doom and gloom about the state of publishing these days, I am even more excited to share a really inspiring story with you. It’s not mine to tell, but super agent Julie Barer’s. If you don’t know Julie, you really should. If I didn’t already adore her, I would probably be too envious of her client list (Josh Ferris, Kathleen Kent, Lauren Grodstein, Helen Simonson to name a few) to be her friend, but she is one of the good ones in publishing. She’s a dynamo agent, a voracious fiction reader and a wonderfully helpful and supportive colleague.
Over a recent agent dinner of wine and plates of charcuterie and cheese at her house, Julie shared the story behind her most recent best seller, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. The following is a must read for any author, agent or editor who is trying to overcome a less than stellar track record, for Paula McLain’s first two books, while wonderfully well reviewed, did not sell particularly well.
EW: Tell me how you and Paula McLain first found one another?
JB: Paula came to me five years ago through an editor who had worked with her before on her memoir, Like Family. She was looking for a new agent and I fell in love with her writing immediately. Paula is a poet, and I think that’s reflected in everything she writes- her novels are so lyrical they almost read like songs to me.
EW: And then you sold her fist novel, A Ticket To Ride? What was that about?
JB: A Ticket to Ride is a gorgeous coming of age novel set in the early seventies. It’s the story of an insecure, motherless teenager named Jamie who falls under the dangerous spell of her sophisticated older cousin Fawn, and the desperate lengths she goes to win her approval. For me, it was an incredibly perceptive novel about that painful time of early adolescence when in some ways another girl’s approval is more powerful than any boy’s. Paula was able to really tap into that insecurity and lack of confidence that so many young girls feel, and how vulnerable that can make you.
EW: Tell me a bit about the conversation you had when she returned with a second "quiet" novel?
JB: Paula gave me two chapters from a new novel she was working on about three or four months after the publication of A Ticket to Ride. It was clear at that point that despite being a wonderful book and getting great reviews, the sales figures were going to be modest. So I was already in a frame of mind where I knew we would need to think very carefully about what to sell next. The new pages she sent me were beautiful – my mother used to use the phrase “she could wear a paper bag and look pretty” – well Paula could write about a paper bag and it would be gorgeous, but that didn’t make it saleable. We had a very frank conversation about how challenging selling a second novel can be, especially when the sales of the first book were lower than what we and the publisher had hoped for. I told her I loved her writing in these new pages, but the story wasn’t blowing me away, and I had concerns that the voice and tone felt too similar to the book that had preceded it. Even if I could sell this new book, I was worried that it would have a hard time getting attention from reviewers, and that bookstores would stock fewer copies because the last book hadn’t sold significantly. More than anything, I wanted the world to read Paula’s work, not to have it buried.
EW: What did you tell her to encourage her to go back to the drawing board?
JB: I hope I told her I had complete faith in her, because I did (and still do). I think I told her that she was not just a beautiful writer, she was a great storyteller, and that she just had to think a little more about what kind of story she wanted to tell.
EW: So, am I right in that she went back to the drawing board and came back with what is now The Paris Wife?
Yes, she came back with the most extraordinary pages about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, and the years they lived in Paris before he was famous. I didn’t know a thing about Hadley, but I had recently read the novel Hemingway wrote while he was married to her (The Sun Also Rises) and it seemed like kismet.
EW: Did you know you had a winner before you went out with it?
JB: It feels like tempting fate to say so, but I kind of did- it’s just a funny feeling you get in your gut, kind of like when you start to develop a crush on someone you’ve just met. I was so excited to send it out I could hardly sleep the night before.
EW: Did her modest sales concern you?
JB: To be honest, they didn’t. I was completely head over heels in love with the story and the writing, and especially the narrator, Hadley Richardson. I couldn’t imagine someone not feeling the same way. But I think it made a significant difference that I knew the book had strong commercial potential – I could see it reaching a broad audience, and appealing to both men and women of different ages. Historical novels were gaining traction in the marketplace, and other books written about famous authors had performed well, so I felt confident there was a framework already in place for how the book would be published. I was hoping that marketability would help overcome anyone’s concerns about the track record for her previous books.
EW: What happened after you went out with it?
JB: There’s no way that every single editor you send a book to is going to love it as much as you do, but it was incredibly validating to come to work the Monday after we had sent it out and have so many editors echoing my own feelings about the writing, the story, and the characters. They were as passionate about the book as I was, and it was everything I had always wanted for the book, and for Paula. We had a very exciting auction, and found a fantastic home for the novel – it’s the happy ending I always hope for.
EW: And now you have another happy ending. The Paris Wife has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for the last 5 weeks.
JB: I don’t want to imply that this process was easy for either of us, especially Paula- walking away from a book at any stage is one of the hardest and bravest things I think an author can do. And I don’t want to suggest that writers should think first and foremost about whether their story is “commercial” or “marketable”. That said when I love a writer’s work, I want everyone to read it, I don’t want it to be published to radio silence and remaindered after a year. I think it’s important to be realistic about the kind of story you’re writing, and who you envision your audience to be, and what your hopes and expectations for the book’s publication will be as well. I see it as my responsibility to help guide my authors in all aspects of their career, including what they choose to write and how they envision their long term careers. But I’m also blessed with clients who want me involved in that way, who listen to the advice I have to offer, and who at the end of the day follow their heart and write what they are passionate about. Paula’s fascination and adoration of Hadley and Hemingway came across on every page that I read- if she hadn’t been that invested in them, I could never have been.
EW: Thank you, Julie! To read more about Paula McLain and The Paris Wife go to http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/features/paula_mclain/author/ and to find out more about what Ms Barer is up to, check out her agency website http://www.barerliterary.com/ I am also going to be getting her on Twitter VERY soon!