Fizzy Fangirling – An Interview with Jim McCarthy
Hello, my darlings!
Jim is a faboo agent who has had a hand in escorting some genuinely amazing books down the publishing path.
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
1. First off, how long have you been an agent? What made you want to dive into this wacky business in the first place?
I landed at Dystel & Goderich as an intern 17 years ago, the summer after my first year of college. When I graduated, a full time job had just opened up. And I signed my first client way back in 2003. I’d love to say that I chose to work in publishing for noble reasons, but when I started part time, the main reason was that of the 50 resumes I had sent out, the first call, interview, and offer was here. I fell in love with the job, but those early days, I did wonder if I should have held out longer because other people started calling. “I could have been a ticket taker at Radio City,” I complained. But let’s just say it all worked out. And I’m here 17 years later for a host of reasons.
2. What genres do you represent? How important is the genre, or will you take on something different just because it gives you the feelings?
I’m willing to represent just about anything (other than poetry where I’m at a loss. That said, I’m best known for doing YA, fantasy, romance, and mystery. Because those have been my most successful areas, they’re where I’m most comfortable and where I see the most submissions. But I’m always looking to push myself.
3. Tell us a little bit about how writers go about snagging a magnificent agent such as yourself? Aside from slush, you’ve had some amazing success with online contests as well!
I have done well with pitch contests! In the most recent Pitch Wars, I signed Laura Creedle whose debut was pre-empted by Houghton. It’s an exceptional novel, and I’m so lucky not only to have found it but to have been chosen as Laura had several offers. I’m intensely proud of her work. I’ve also signed authors I’ve met at conferences from Willamette Valley to RT. Clients sometimes refer friends to me, and I’ve signed folks that way. But the vast majority of my clients still come right out of the slush pile. I confess that there’s an extra special thrill in finding something in the pack and not having it handed to you on a platter. At least, there is for me.
4. What’s your favorite part of your job? For balance, what makes you cry sad, agenty tears now and then?
The very best moments of my job are when I get to call unpublished authors and tell them there is an offer for their debut novel. Having the chance to tell someone that their dream is coming true is a thrill that really, truly can’t be beat. On the flip side, because the agent/client relationship is such a close one, an author’s difficulties—personal or professional—can weigh on me very heavily. One of the hardest parts of the job is staying available and connected without becoming overly emotional. I’ve cried on behalf of clients. But never with them or while on the phone—it’s about balancing the personal and the professional which is a challenge. Sometimes it’s very hard. But often it’s incredibly rewarding.
5. Do you have any stories that are now, “The one that got away?” If so, did it change the way you looked at submissions from then on?
The ONE?! I wish. I have several that have gotten away. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of a literary novel where the author was deciding between me and another agent and went with the person who had more experience doing adult literary fiction. I hated losing it, but I know she made a good decision. Do I still think I could have done just as well? Of course. Or there was a recent time when a YA novelist went with the less experienced agent saying that they felt that agent had been more enthusiastic. That one was a real knife in the heart because I adored the book and wanted desperately to represent it which made me think a lot about how I express enthusiasm and whether I was clear enough about my love for the book. There are others, of course. Books that I waffled on that went on to become bestsellers. Books that I flat out rejected because I didn’t like them at all that also became bestsellers. Those are much easier. In those cases, part of me wants to kick myself, yes. But the larger part of me recognizes that I wouldn’t have been the right match for that author. And the success they’re having? That’s at least partially attributable to the excitement and engagement of the agent they did work on.
6. What’s something you’re working on right now that has you all aflutter?
I’m working on a debut fantasy novel that I actually turned down twice. I knew there was greatness there, but I thought it needed editorial work, and I couldn’t pin down what I thought the answer to the book’s problems were. And then on a second revision, the clouds parted and I suddenly knew exactly what I wanted to happen. I assumed the author would tell me I was a lunatic for suggesting she do what I proposed. But we hopped on the phone, and it was this blissfully simpatico moment. I feel like I was able to give the author a key to unlock the true potential of her novel, and it was a tremendous gift. It hasn’t gone on submission yet, but I’m already really honored by her trust in me and her commitment to making the book work.
7. You’ll be attending the Midwest Writers Workshop this summer as faculty! For those on the fence about attending, woo them with some details on what you’ll be offering up in your panels/sessions/critiques.
I’ll be taking pitches, offering query critiques, co-running a querying intensive, and running a class on interviewing agents—how to handle the exciting moment you do get an offer from an agent while making sure you also cover your back and work with the RIGHT agent.
8. As is customary on my blog, it is here I require an embarrassing or hilarious moment. Bonus points if industry related. Double bonus points for accidental nudity.
I have a million. I hope other bookworms can relate to this, but I’m often off in my own world. It’s why I’m such a bad driver (2 years driving, 12 accidents) and have a tendency to bump into things. Just this morning, I went to HarperCollins to meet with two authors and their editor. I was thinking about their book and the process and who we would meet and what I would have for lunch…the usual. Long story short, I found myself on the wrong floor of the building, having gotten someone to let me past the doors you need a keycard to open, waiting for the editor to come get me. When she texted that she couldn’t find me, I started to put things together—this was not at all the right floor of the building. Realizing my mistake, I went to leave, but I was now locked inside the glass doors without a key. I wandered into a sea of cubicles and had to ask a very confused, slightly alarmed stranger to unlock the door and let me out. Except…I didn’t. Because they explained that there was a large button next to the door that said “Push here to exit.” Sorry, stranger. I’m an idiot.
My own random thought: I really love how honest Jim is about the “ones that got away.” I think it’s easy to sometimes forget this business can be just brutal to the agents and editors as it is to the authors. I love seeing that side of things and getting that reminder.
Also, definitely still giggling at the wrong floor bit…
A huge thank you to Mr. McCarthy for joining me today, and as always, leave any questions or thoughts in the comments section below!
Find Jim on:
Also, register to see him throw down some wisdom at Midwest Writers this July! Register nooooow!
Until next time,
Peace, Love, and Simpatico!