By now, it's no secret that Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Agency is an amazing and successful agent who just so happens to lurk here regularly, scooping up fresh clients like handfuls of flowers. But she's also a brilliant author, and I so fell in love with her prose that I wanted to share it with the world! Or at least with my wonderful blog community.
And so, without further ado, I give you this delightful interview with Joan, one of my favorite agents and an all-around lovely person!
AUTHORESS: I got to know you as an agent before I discovered, to my delight, that you were also an author. For you, which came first? And why?
JOAN: The journey definitely began for me as an author. I started writing with a serious eye toward publication in 2003. My mom had recently passed away and I think subconsciously this broke something loose inside me as far as pushing me on the path toward making that dream a reality. There would still be many false starts and uncompleted books ahead before my first novel was published (NOWHERE GIRL, in 2011!), but it’s quite moving for me now to see that the first one to make it all the way through ended up being so very personal in its themes and subject matter. It’s amazing what a circuitous path life takes!
Erin Murphy became my agent in 2008, and it wasn’t until the following year that a shift in my job status got me seriously pursuing exploring the idea of agenting—a desire which had lurked at the back of my mind for a long time. After a number of exploratory conversations and early steps, I began working as an associate agent with EMLA in 2009, and I have to say it’s one of the best changes I’ve ever made. I can truly say that I enjoy every aspect of this wonderful job, and feel so privileged every day to be able to do what I do.
AUTHORESS: And it's equally a privilege to watch you in action!
I think what amazes me most about your author/agent combination is the creative energy that needs to go into your own work as well as into the work of your clients. How do you find balance? What's your method for separating "Author Joan" from "Agent Joan" on a day-to-day basis?
JOAN: Balance, hmmm. Good question! I think it can be hard sometimes for me to maintain my writing persona, because my agent work is so vast and all-consuming, and it’s also made up of these myriad phone-letter-email-manuscript-contract bytes that are each tagged with an individual deadline and each clamoring for attention. By contrast, setting aside the creative time to work on my own writing is much easier to put in the “later” stack. But at the same time, I do value the change in energy I get from switching between the two. Each job is satisfying in its own way, and I love that I get to toggle back and forth between them. So… not really a method so much as just taking each day as it comes, and doing as much as I can do in the time that’s given me? Does that count? *smile*
AUTHORESS: Yep, it counts!
So let's talk about NOWHERE GIRL, with which I've recently fallen in love. What inspired you to write a story set in Thailand? And how all-consuming was the research that must have gone into this?
JOAN: The idea for NOWHERE GIRL first came after I read a news article about a young boy who had grown up with his mother in a Thai prison, so the location came along with that initial story idea. The fact that my character is of American parentage, and has brought up in this very sheltered way, gave me a little flexibility with her portrayal—but research was definitely a big part of the process. I really tried to come at it from every available angle: I researched country details at the library; I went online and read voraciously; I watched YouTube videos on specific events or experiences which I wasn’t familiar with; I read novels set in Thailand to get the tone and feel for the characters and setting. I also sent the manuscript, and the language excerpts in particular, to various friends and acquaintances who are Thai or live in Thailand, which was extremely helpful. It sounds like a lot of work, and I suppose it was, but there’s also something really freeing about working within a structure of that type: the more I explore specific constraints within my writing, the more avenues open up for fresh and original ways to make the various plot turns work. And as a result, I think the story ends up feeling richer and more complex.
AUTHORESS: Well, your research paid off; I felt totally immersed in Thai culture as I read.
Do you have anything else in the works that you can talk about?
JOAN: My newest release is another picture book: THE TIPTOE GUIDE TO TRACKING MERMAIDS (Tanglewood, 2012). Marie LeTourneau has done wonderful illustrations for this book, which is really an exploratory journey along the seashore. The mix of magic and nature should entice mermaid-lovers and beachcombers of all ages :)
I'm also in the process of revising a YA science fiction novel, PARADOX, which will be out from Random House next spring. It's very different from anything I've written before, and the research is leading me in all kinds of brain-boggling directions. Plus several other projects still further out!
AUTHORESS: It's truly amazing that you can accomplish all this while simultaneously agenting a talented bunch of writers -- several of which (6, last count!) you found here on Miss Snark's First Victim.
I first got to know you when you were a Secret Agent back in January, 2010. Since then, you've become my number one "lurking agent". So, what's the draw? Why do you think you've had so much success finding clients here? Is there a common thread?
JOAN: I am a huge fan of your blog, and I think it appeals to me for two reasons. The first is because, as our agency is closed to general slush submissions, my actual incoming pile at any given time is a good deal smaller than the average. So I do have more time to flit around and allow things to catch my eye. And the second is because, well, your readers and posters are kind of exceptional! I really think that the community and critiques and information sharing helps to bring up the level of material being sent out. Of the clients whose work has come my way through MSFV--whether from contests, or lurking, or from the "open query call" which I put out here a couple of years ago (and which I just might do again one of these days!)--all but one so far has sold. And that last is someone I just signed, so... I'm sure there will be more good news soon to come!
AUTHORESS: It's an honor for me to have played even a small role in your clients' success stories--which are, of course, your success stories, too!
Since you've been outed as an avid MSFV "lurker," can you let us know what you're particularly looking for right now?
JOAN: Hmmm, as always I'm really just looking to fall in love. I will say that I'm especially eager for YA material right now, as I find myself with a strong MG list. I could be swept away by something epic these days; I love tight, fast-paced plots that make me think and keep me guessing; extra points for throwing me off-balance late in the game and making me question everything I thought I knew. Psychological thrillers, smart literary projects that take risks, something that feels strong and new and fresh. Shall I go on? *smile*
AUTHORESS: Something tells me you'll find what you're looking for as you continue to lurk over the next few months. *wink*
Your wonderful balance of creating your own stories while expertly championing the stories of others is inspiring. What words of advice and encouragement can you offer, from an agent's as well as a published author's perspective?
JOAN: Write with passion. I think that's my best advice. The world has millions and more stories; what will make yours stand out from the crowd is infusing it with that unforgettable spark that only you can bring. What moves you? What makes you laugh, cry, rage? What are you most afraid of? To write a truly unforgettable book, you have to tap into that deep part of yourself that you are pretty much too afraid to show anyone else. Let it out of the dark for the world to see. That's all--easy, right?
AUTHORESS: You have certainly made it seem so!
Joan, thank you for this glimpse into your dual-career world. I will always be one of your biggest fans!
JOAN: It's been my pleasure! And the feeling is mutual :)
(Run--don't walk!--and buy your copy of Nowhere Girl today. When you're finished reading it, pass it along to your favorite middle grader. I cannot remember when I have last read such lush, lyrical prose written for this age group.)