AGENTS AND EDITORS
NEED TO ADVERTISE THEIR INTEREST IN DIVERSITY
That's the idea. And this series is an effort to do just that.
For now we're focusing on agents, and today's post features agent Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
|Agent Tricia Lawrence|
Tricia is the "Pacific Northwest branch" of EMLA—born and raised in Oregon, and now lives in Seattle. After 21 years of working as a developmental and production-based editor (from kids books to college textbooks, but mostly college textbooks), she joined the EMLA team in March 2011 as a social media strategist.
As agent, Tricia represents picture books/chapter books that look at the world in a unique and unusual way, with characters that are alive both on and off the page, and middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction that offers strong worldbuilding, wounded narrators, and stories that grab a reader and won't let go.
Tricia loves hiking, camping out in the woods, and collecting rocks. She loves BBC America and anything British. She has way too many books and not enough bookshelves. You can find Tricia's writing about blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, and other social media topics (for authors and the publishing industry at large) here and here.
And here's our interview:
Lee: Hi Tricia, let's jump in... There's been growing discussion about how the 5,000 or so traditionally published books a year don't reflect the actual diversity of our world, including the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and the stunningly low numbers of representation revealed in "Children's Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States," put out by the CCBC (The Cooperative Children's Book Center)
So, of the submissions you get, let's say in the past year, how many of those projects included some kind of diversity of characters or theme?
Tricia: Hi, Lee. All of my submissions are referrals or from attendees of conferences that I speak at, and I will say that in years past, the pickings have been slim, but because of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, I’ve actively sought out and advocated for more submissions and thanks to #DVPIT and Justina Ireland (@justinaireland) and Debbie Reese’s work (@debreese) mentoring and advocacy, I’ve found many more in 2016 than in previous years. But I had to be active. I had to seek out those manuscripts, contests, mentors, advocates. I never expected it to be handed to me on a silver platter. I do believe things are changing, albeit slowly. I think I can do better and that we all can still do better. That’s why I’m on your blog and letting people know who I am. ;)
Lee: Hurray for letting people know you're interested in diversity! Let's unpack those submissions a bit: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Tricia: Yes, thankfully. My biggest book sale in 2015 (A CRACK IN THE SEA, by H.M. Bouwman, to Putnam, which pubs January 2017) featured protagonists of color and it just spurred me on to keep going, to increase my reading of those manuscripts every chance I could get. I am very excited about the stories in my query/submissions inbox. And doubly thrilled to represent writers who are writing those stories or on submission right now.
Lee; How about LGBTQ characters, and please break that down - are you seeing lesbian characters? gay? bi? trans*? questioning? queer or gender non-conforming?
Tricia: Again, yes. But I had to seek them out, not expect them to approach me. And I’m happy to do so. The time to just be an observer is over. We have to act, to inspire others to act. I wish I had more LGBTQ, especially in this day and age where hatred and fear pervade our world. I have seen horrible videos of the hatred against Target’s brave stand, and even more disturbing, how that has increased calls to suicide hotlines. And then Orlando. Dear god. If we don’t strive harder today, we will lose important voices, and we need them. Desperately. Again, I’m so grateful for wonderful advocates like Vee (@findmereading), among others, who keep their voices going strong.
Lee: How about characters with disabilities?
Tricia: Not enough, sadly. Corinne Duyvuis (@corinneduyvis) is such a help to me (and all of us) on this. I have received pitches that need some work and I always tell them to follow Corinne’s work and advocacy on this and to keep trying.
Lee: Are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? - And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.
Tricia: I am VERY worried about the lack of diversity progress in submissions that misappropriate Native American customs, tradition, and mythology. I have pushed back with several writers recently about this and was so relieved when they took my challenges to go back to their manuscript and try to figure out how to make it more their story rather than just stealing someone else’s. I’m a bit aghast at our beloved J.K. Rowling for her really discouraging and maddening example here. Despite her resistance to have a conversation about her missteps, I’ve had wonderful conversations with writers who are very open about theirs. This is good. Some writers have just not dug deep enough (hello, this is part of writing!) and other writers become attached to a situation or a character and it’s hard work to move away from something they have settled on, but this is the work we do. This is the work we must do.
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?
Tricia: Yes! I’m delighted to get referrals and attendees from conferences who are brave enough to send something that is often very personal and to open themselves up to the fear of rejection or racism. Luckily, we work in a wonderful industry and our specific little corner of publishing has so many good-hearted people. But as I said above, we can’t simply observe, we have to help. I challenge writers to hand over their privilege by allowing someone who is underrepresented to take their pitch opportunity to an agent or editor during or after a conference. It’s not my idea. I had a writer years ago ask me if she could give her submission spot to another writer and ever since then, I’ve always encouraged people to do so. What a great opportunity to equalize! Especially if an underrepresented writer/illustrator wasn’t able to register in time for a spot or wasn’t able to attend or needs a beta reader or crit partner before they submit. Try it. Those of us who can should be seeking out chances like this. We’ve all had plenty of chances to pitch. Let’s increase our chances to help others get to pitch. What a great goal.
Lee: That's very cool. There's a lot of discussion about who has the 'right' to tell the story of an under-represented type of character. What's your take?
Tricia: I believe in the creativity of each individual writer and illustrator. We cannot control how our imagination works. If we wake up one morning and feel compelled to write a story that may not be our own, we should try. We have to. Un-lived creative potential makes us cranky racist bigots (as we see in our news every day). However, and this is a big however, just because our imagination and creativity led us to write the story for ourselves, doesn’t mean that the story is ours to tell the world. As a writer, I have written many stories for myself, working out themes and situations during my life that just aren’t for publication. They are stories for my soul, trying to heal my soul, trying to work out the darkness inside of me. At the time I wrote them, I was very marginalized in my privileged world, struggling to find my own way, all while working through my own white privilege and my sense of inherited ownership, because of my upbringing, and I got the stories wrong. Completely wrong. And now I choose to tell different stories, from my own experience and truth.
But that’s the process of creativity and imagination. You get things wrong and you see that you did. You have to look at what you are doing wrong. And you change.
And to complete my answer (sheesh, I’m long-winded), this is why diversity is not a quick-fix solution for anyone. You don’t slap a sticker on something and call it good. This is a foundation-shaking challenge that cannot be ignored. If you’re writing something because you must, the next question to answer is “Is this your story to share?” And if it’s not, by God, don’t ignore that voice in your head. Use the story to write another. It’s okay to fail in this way. Not everything you write is publishable or needed or necessary. But if it is YOUR STORY, and you are a writer who has answered the question “Is this your story to share?” with a big YES, dig deeper. Poke at your story, shake its foundations, make sure you are peeling away the facade and giving us the real deal. Have courage. I believe in you!
Lee: When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Tricia: Yes and no. I’ve had very frustrating moments trying to sell something that just didn’t translate to the editors I was pitching to. And I truly felt there was something there. But this is part of being an agent. I believe in something first and then I work to get an editor to believe in it next. Sometimes I can do that; sometimes I can’t. I’ve had stories with underrepresented characters sell right off the bat and then others just haven’t sold. I have encountered resistance to manuscripts because of editor personality, but that’s part of our business. I think my main job has evolved since I started. It’s not so much about just selling or building an author’s career. Being an agent is a chance to advocate and ally with writers who are not as visible and should be. I don’t care if anyone else likes it in the beginning; if I like it and think I can sell it, that’s all I need. And if I can work with a writer or illustrator, maybe that first story isn’t the first one to publish. At EMLA, we’re very focused on a career, and sometimes those careers take a while to formulate, no matter who you are.
Lee: I often feel the sense of ‘otherness’ is transferable. That from my own experiences being marginalized (for being Gay, being ill as a teen, being Jewish, being an Atheist, etc…) I feel tremendous empathy for people who are marginalized for other kinds of ‘otherness’ as well.
Can you share what’s driving your desire to see more diversity in Children’s and Teen books?
Tricia: Being marginalized in a very subset sort of way (as part of a white privileged middle class world) has made this desire grow. The nuanced ways that white privilege can sneak up on me shock me every single day. I was brought up in a very fundamentalist religious world, where “other” is simply ignored, and I got really, really good at judging others. It has taken a while to undo all that (like a tangled sticky web) and yet, working through it has given me truly singular moments to realize that the human soul is powerful. It took a dear friend and heartfelt conversation about his being gay to open the door. What a powerful doorway. I’ve never looked back. It was another dear friend sharing with me about her abortion. Another powerful doorway. I’ve never looked back. And there are stories after stories. The power of story changes lives. This drives me every single day. I am changed because of my friends’ stories. Them opening up their hearts to me, bringing me along with them, forgiving my privilege, my missteps. I am so grateful. And I don’t take it for granted. No one owes me their forgiveness or their stories. No one owes me another chance. I owe. Oh, do I. That drives me.
Lee: Thank you for sharing that.
Can you tell us about some books that highlighted or included diversity that you loved and that inspired you (maybe even ones you wish you represented). What’s a Picture Book favorite?
Tricia: Matt de la Pena’s and Christian Robinson’s LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET. Vivid. Amazing.
Lee: Middle Grade?
Tricia: Sherman Alexie’s DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN still knocks me down every time I read it. A masterpiece.
Lee: Young Adult?
Tricia: I. W. Gregorio’s NONE OF THE ABOVE was fabulous. I offered on it but didn’t get picked. Beautiful.
Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...
Tricia: I want a strong Native American manuscript that rings true (like Sherman Alexie’s PART-TIME INDIAN). I want a historical or fantasy with a LBGTQ mc that delivers that same truth. I adore Lisbeth Salander from GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO, and would love a MG or YA about a hero who fights for truth and she struggles with a disability (and she’s not white). Or something a la VERONICA MARS, but featuring a protagonist who is not blonde and white, but is gutsy like Olivia Pope (another character I adore) and fights for the truth even though she has a social disorder and is scared of talking to people or she’s hiding her true identity because she’s in witness protection and so we see this masquerade she puts on and we also get how hard it is for her to deal with herself, etc. But don’t listen to me! Let your imagination and your creativity run the show. These are just ideas, or prompts, to get your creative engines running.
Lee:. And for writers and/or illustrators reading this who feel a resonance with what you’ve shared and who want to submit to you, how should they go about that?
Tricia: Please send a query and the first five pages (pasted) into the email to email@example.com to my attention. No deadline. Whenever you are ready.
Lee: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?
Tricia: I am so grateful for this industry and for the advocates we have like you, Lee. Thank you for doing this series. I am honored to be a part of it. A special note to the writers who are afraid at this moment, who feel like they are breathless a bit because there is a story inside of them that they need to tell and it’s going to take work. I feel ya. That is the good kind of fear. It keeps us awake as we write our stories, as we push boundaries, as we try to get our truth out to readers who need it. Remember, it’s not all on you. We’re in this together! Keep writing! Reach out! Find mentors! Never settle. Keep pushing for better. Onward!
Lee: Yay! Getting the world of Children’s literature to better reflect the diversity of our world -- the world kids today are growing up in -- is so important. Thank you so much for working to make things better!
Tricia: Thank you so much for having me! I wish I could do more. I owe so much to the advocates and mentors I mentioned in this post. Please, follow them on Twitter and use their guidance. They are doing so much more than I am.
Thanks, Tricia. Look for another Agent Looking For Diversity interview on the first Monday of next month. Until then,
Illustrate and Write On!