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How I Got My Agent: Stacy Pershall

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, How I Got My Agent Columns, Memoir, Memoir Writing & Memoir Examples.

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. To see the previous installments of this column, click here. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at literaryagent@fwmedia.com and we’ll talk specifics.

Stacy is excited to give away a free copy of her memoir to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Valerie N. won.)

    


Stacy Pershall, born in Arkansas in 1971, is a lifelong
gypsy who’s lived in nine cities and three countries. She
holds a MFA degree in electronic art from the University
of Cincinnati. Her memoir, Loud in the House of Myself:
Memoir of a Strange Girl (2011; Norton) was chosen
for the Barnes and Noble spring 2011 Discover Great
New Writers program. Booklist called the memoir an
“electrifying account … one whirlwind ride.”

 

WITHOUT A CHANCE IN THE WORLD

I first had the idea to write my book, Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl, in 2002, over tea with my best friend. I said to her, “I’m thinking of writing a memoir about mental illness,” and she said, “You mean like Elizabeth Wurtzel and Susanna Kaysen and Marya Hornbacher and Kay Redfield Jamison?” I said yeah, knowing what stiff competition I was facing. I didn’t really believe anything would come of it, but I knew I had to try. Shortly thereafter, I saw an article in the New York Times referring to memoirs as “The M-word” and stating that they were virtually impossible to sell in a glutted market. I felt certain I really didn’t have a chance in the world. Still, I started writing.

I worked on the book for a year and a half before I began querying agents. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I got a book about how to write a query letter, and I started sending them out. Thus began two years of rejections, with a glimmer of hope from Sydelle Kramer of the Susan Rabiner Literary Agency. She invited me for coffee and told me she wasn’t going to represent the book because it wasn’t ready yet. However, she assured me the writing was good enough that it would sell eventually if I just kept working at it. She gave me a few pointers, for which I am eternally grateful, and I took them all to heart.

AN AGENT’S FIRST CLIENT

In 2004 I read the book Sickened, by Julie Gregory, and looked up her agent’s name in the acknowledgments. I sent my query to Katherine Boyle at Veritas in San Francisco, and to my amazement, she signed me. Katie is a saint of infinite patience, and she worked with me on the proposal for two years. By this time I was going crazy to start sending it out, but she felt there was something not quite there. We knew we had to have a hook, something to really set my book apart from the incredibly saturated genre, but it eluded us. Then, in early 2006, Katie had to go on indefinite medical leave and gave me permission to find another agent. I was crushed.

So I went back to the beginning. I had queried the Ann Rittenberg Literary Agency before, and made a note before when Ann turned me down, but somehow I forgot about it. In searching for agents on the Internet, I found Penn Whaling’s name. Penn was a brand new agent working for Ann, and she was looking for odd memoirs. I sent a query, not making the connection to ARLA, and a few days later, she called.

It turned out that Penn was 25 years old and had never represented a book before. However, Ann had given her permission to choose her first one from among the queries she was reading. Mine had just come across her desk, and, because I am incredibly lucky, she chose it. She called me in to meet with her and Ann, who loved the sample chapters I sent. I knew as soon as I walked in that this small, quirky agency was perfect for me.  Penn called me a few hours later and officially offered to represent me.  This was approximately three months after Katie and I parted ways.

She saw right away, after meeting me and learning that I am covered in tattoos, that the tattoo stories were the anchor for the book. With that in mind, we worked on the proposal all summer, and Penn talked it up to editors she knew at several publishing houses. In September, we sent it to 12 editors who had asked to see it.

Between September and June, all of them turned me down. Marya Hornbacher had just proposed her book, Madness: A Bipolar Life, and we heard from several of the editors that it was the definitive book on the disorder and there was no room for mine. Having grown very discouraged, I found myself in St. Mark’s Bookshop one night looking at memoirs, trying to figure out what they had that I didn’t. I was looking at a book by Lauren Slater when Penn called. We’d been talking about Slater a few days before, and Penn was trying to figure out what publishers to send my manuscript to next. She said, “Hey, who’s Lauren Slater’s publisher?” In one of those rare moments of synchronicity, I said, “Norton.”

Penn said, “Oh, they’re tough. That’s a long shot, and I don’t know anyone there except the senior executive editor. I interviewed to be her assistant when I first moved to New York. But what the hell, we’ll try.” She sent it to Jill Bialosky by messenger the following day.

THE BOOK SELLS (FIVE YEARS AFTER I STARTED)

The day after that, Jill called and asked us to come meet with her and the marketing team. They had lots of questions about my tattoos, and the meeting ended with me drawing a tattoo machine for them and explaining how it worked. Jill said she’d call later that afternoon.For two tense hours, Penn and I waited. Then we got the call: Norton wanted the book, five years after I first started writing it.

In the meantime, I had happened to go back through books looking at publisher profiles and seen where I’d noted Ann Rittenberg’s rejection three years earlier. When I told her about it, her response was, “What was I thinking? I must have been having an off day.” I should also add that the afternoon I came home from Norton, there was an e-mail from another publisher in my mailbox, turning me down and citing Marya Hornbacher as the reason. In the process of writing the book, Marya and I became friends, and had a good laugh about all those letters.

If your writing is excellent and you work harder than you ever thought you could, your book will sell, no matter the genre. Rejections are nothing but a temporary road block. There will be a place for you eventually if you refuse to give up.

Stacy is excited to give away a free copy of her memoir to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Valerie N. won.)

Writing a memoir or life story? A great
resource is Writing Life Stories.

 

 

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24 Responses to How I Got My Agent: Stacy Pershall

  1. Samuel says:

    I think it’s terrific that you worked so hard to tell your story, not only because you like writing, but also because it’s an important story to tell. It’s just hard for me to understand where the persistence came from. On a personal level, I don’t understand how any amount of DBT could create that. I’m curious how you feel DBT affected your motivation and persistence, I’m skeptical as to whether it can really create motivation in someone who plainly can’t stick to anything. It does make me happy to hear your story though, keep on motivating.

  2. Kim Hornsby says:

    Oh, Oh, Oh, Can it be me? I have my arm waving in the air, trying to get your attention because i want the book. Now i’m punching the air above my head, like we all used to in school when we knew the answer SO BAD! Please, please, can I win the book Stacy? I promise to mention you in the acknowledgements of my memoir? I’m still sitting here with my arm up and now it’s falling asleep….
    Kim
    PS: The ‘code shown’ is my name so if that isn’t a sign…

  3. Stacy, I’m so inspired by your story and your persistence. As a writer/editor, I have worked in many formats and found journalism to be the friendliest. Still, I long to do something more creative.
    I just finished my first non-fiction book proposal. As I prepare to send it out to my carefully culled list of prospective agents, I will keep your happy ending in mind.

    Another OH memoirist you may be interested in reading is Mira Bartok. I just finished reading her incredible memoir, "The Memory Palace," which, oddly, also revolves around the mental illness theme. (Is there something in the water???) What strikes me about people who are willing to share such intimate details of their harrowing lives is the absolute courage it requires, not so much to risk being vulnerable to one’s readers, but to risk bringing oneself back into the depths of horror, in order to bring light and hope to readers. That, to me, is amazing!

    Best of luck in your career!
    Rebekah

  4. Elizabeth Albert says:

    Stacy, this seems like quite the process. I’m a senior at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, majoring in creative writing. I’m taking a fiction workshop class this semester and found it incredibly difficult to engage. What memories should I choose to write about? What was I willing to spill to the entire class. I was a nervous wreck when I had to hand in my first story. It was terrible, I’ll have you know. But! I’m improving. I had no idea writing non fiction, actually telling the truth about my life, would be so therapeutic, so hard, and heart breaking. Reliving those moments, making them relatable to the public, without fear of judgement is the stuff warriors are made of. Selling a story so personal and close to your soul is brave. I commend you.

  5. What an encouraging story, Stacy! Your descriptions have intrigued me, and I would love to read it! I’m in the process of writing my own memoir and have taken to reading several. Each is so ordinary, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the journey in the writing process. I look forward to hearing what you choose to write next!

  6. Hey everybody! Wow, thanks for your comments. I realize this became more "how I got my book deal" than "how I got my agent," but the whole thing was just such a series of serendipitous long shots I felt I should tell the whole story.

    I will say that living in NYC played a big factor in all of this happening. The ability to go meet Penn and Jill in person was pretty essential. That’s not to say you have to live here to sell a book, but it does help. I love my agent and editor and knew as soon as I met them both that they were right for me. We are a VERY unlikely team — you’d never put us together in a room — but we met at the right time and they saw something in me and my weird little book.

    As for what I’ll write next, I don’t know! That’s my current life crisis. I’m vacillating between another memoir and a Southern Gothic horror novel replete with lobotomies and dead relatives in the attic.

    Oh, and my title is from Anne Sexton’s Poem "The Double Image." I’m glad you like it! That’s one thing that never changed.

  7. siddiqa sadiq says:

    I love writing and I feel so much more confident in writing after reading the above. Wish you all the best and hope to have the same luck as you.

  8. Jenn Hoyt says:

    As a new writer, I so appreciate your story! Thank you for the words of inspiration. Wishing you continued success!

  9. Valerie Norris says:

    I love memoir, and am looking forward to reading yours!

    Thanks for this post. It’s all kind of a crap shoot, isn’t it?

  10. Leanne Beattie says:

    Congratulations! This just goes to show that even though many books may share a common theme, such as mental illness, it’s how you write your story that makes it unique.

  11. Laura says:

    What a great story – you give me hope. I’m facing the same odds of finding an agent and its nice to know others who have had to struggle. Nice title, too!

  12. It’s great to see stories of perseverance pay off, because we all need a little hope now and then that we can make it happen if we’ve got the talent, skill, and determination. Curious, though–what’s your next project? Will you continue tapping your life for memoirs, or do you plan to branch out into other genres? I haven’t started querying yet so I can’t speak from personal experience here, but it seems we novelists come to a point where we have to gauge whether it’d be better to keep trying with one book or put it aside to work on something new. However, this is your life, the only one you’ve got to share, so I’m glad you kept trying!

  13. Kristine Keil says:

    Great, entertaining story of how your memoir came to be. It gives me hope that I might have a chance to overcome my obstabcles if I keep at it. Congratulations!

  14. Glad that you made it through, Stacy. Your words were very encouraging to me today, since the last few weeks have been extra tough. Good for you!

  15. Amy says:

    As someone who is just starting out on the journey to (hopefully) find an agent, your story was just the kick in the pants that I needed. It’s great to see that despite all the obstacles you faced you kept at it and were rewarded with success. I will look to your example when I feel like just giving up. Thanks for sharing your story.

  16. Kristan says:

    Wow, what perseverance! Really impressive. And the book is getting great reviews at Amazon and GoodReads; I’m definitely intrigued! Thanks for sharing your story, and congratulations. You obviously earned it. :)

  17. Perri says:

    This post just screams "DON’t GIVE UP!" As someone who’s come close and taken a break from an almost-there novel. I so needed to hear that. Thanks so much!

    And yeah, that is the best title!

  18. Juliana says:

    It’s always encouraging to hear about other people’s not-so-direct paths to success! Thanks for sharing this story.

  19. Karyn Bristol says:

    Thanks Stacy for sharing this with us. So inspiring! I hate those stories of someone who, on the same day they finish their ms, spills coffee on someone at Starbucks who just happens to be the perfect agent and they share a knowing smile and the deal is done. Those stories make me want to launch my computer across the room. Yours keeps me plugging away! Thank you.

  20. Jen Zeman says:

    Congrats Stacy! I love reading stories of authors who seemed to face tremendous odds of not getting published but stuck with it. It gives me hope!

    BTW, I love tattoos. I think they’re beautiful works of art – I have seven myself! :-) Best wishes for continued success!

  21. Mike says:

    This is one of the most amazing "How I Got My Agent" stories I’ve ever read on this site. I live in Cincinnati, so it’s nice to see a fellow Cincinnati resident sell a book!

  22. Doreen says:

    I am interested in your title and intrigued with your story. I have been slowly working on a memoir collection of sorts and need to become immersed in the success mindset if I am to pull off my book. You were definitely tenacious in your quest. I would really appreciate the opportunity to read your story. You are unique and all the more reason this sounds like a great read.

  23. Kimberly Sutton says:

    Thanks for sharing!Your story is inspiring. I would love the opportuntity to read your memoir and see all of that hard work put into words!

  24. Julie Nilson says:

    Congratulations on publication! As someone who always has trouble coming up with interesting titles, I have to tell you that your book’s title is FANTASTIC.

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