First up: Author Josh Berk (The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, Knopf, Jan 2010). Have you ever met someone who seems like a brother from another mother? Josh fits that role; we have the same infantile sense of humor, the same taste in books, and are both gifted Scrabble players. Well, gifted in that we both apply our infantile sense of humor to building Scrabble words. I’ve never met Josh in person before, but through the magic of Facebook, online Scrabble, and LiveJournal, I feel like I’ve known him for years. But hey, enough about me, this is supposed to be an interview, right?
By way of introduction, I’ll start with his deal announcement from Publishers Marketplace:
26 November, 2007 - Young Adult Children's librarian Josh Berk's debut, set in coal mining Pennsylvania and narrated with sardonic humor by a boy who is overweight, deaf, and mute during his first year in mainstream high school, when he begrudgingly solves a murder and uncovers a secret truth about his family history, to Cecile Goyette at Knopf, for six figures, in a pre-empt, in a two-book deal, by Ted Malawer at Firebrand Literary.
Let’s review some key words: Cecile Goyette, Knopf, six figures, pre-empt, two-book deal, Ted Malawer, Firebrand Literary—any writer would be thrilled to have just one of these attached to his name, and Josh has a string of seven. It’s a good thing he’s impossible to hate. (And believe me, I tried, mostly because as a result of being bublished by Knopf his book will probably have deckled edges and I have serious deckle envy.)
Before we get to my deeply insightful, richly nuanced questions, let me
Five things about Josh:
1. I have a quiet day job (librarian) and a loud hobby (punk rock).
2. Both of my parents are also librarians.
3. I have two dogs with a total of three eyes.
4. I have a degree in political science yet pretty much hate politics.
5. My son has the ridiculously literary name of Elliot Emerson Berk.
And now, on to the questions.
Please tell us about finding your agent.
In May of 2006 I saw a little announcement in a local arts magazine that a literary agent would be speaking at a writer's group near to where I live (Eastern PA). Since graduating from library school and falling in love with YA lit the previous May, I had been working on a YA manuscript of my own. I was just about ready to begin figuring out how to send it out into the world so I thought I'd attend this meeting even though the idea of talking to an agent was terrifying to me.
The agent turned out to be Nadia Cornier of Firebrand Literary. She gave a great talk and I approached her afterward despite feeling nervous that she would brush me off. Surely she gets accosted by a hundred hacks a day with a "manuscript in a drawer at home," right? Well, that is probably true, but she was very nice to me and said that Firebrand had a young agent looking for new clients. I took down this young agent's e-mail address and felt very proud of myself for having the guts to talk to an agent (even though Nadia is totally not-scary, it was very very very stressful for me).
At this same meeting, I met Cyn Balog, a YA author who was one of Nadia's clients. Cyn was also incredibly nice to me. When she found out that I wrote YA, she gave me her e-mail address and offered to stay in touch. I could not believe my luck! Here was a real agented writer being so kind to me!
I sent my manuscript to the agent at Firebrand who read it, but "passed on the project" (in other words "no thank you"). I was a little upset, but thrilled because she said that I showed some talent and offered to read future works. I also stayed in touch with Cyn and sent her some of my writing. (If I was smart, I would have asked for Cyn's critque *before* sending it to an agent, but I was very new to everything at that point.) Cyn also said that I showed some talent and offered ways to improve. Basically, at that point, I would say that my writing was "over-written." I wrote a lot of fancy metaphors, deep inner monologues, and unnecessarily complicated plot devices. Cyn advised that I keep it a little simpler and add more action and less "brain dumping" (when the narrator just "talks" to the reader without anything happening). She reminded me of the old adage "show don't tell" and I took it to heart.
When did you start the book that would end up as The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin?
I was thrilled that I had an agent offering to read my future works and beyond thrilled that someone like Cyn would take the time to help me improve. I took her advice seriously and around this time--the summer of 2006--started the manuscript that would become DARK DAYS. My wife was pregnant at the time so I felt motivation on top of inspiration!
It took me about a year to finish a draft of DARK DAYS that I felt good enough about to send back to that agent at Firebrand. When I did, I found that she no longer worked there. She no longer worked in publishing at all! (I tried not to take it personally.) I used Agentquery.com to find some other agents and started querying. I got some interest and also learned that there was another new agent at Firebrand. He turned out to be a perfect match for my sensibilities and skewed sense of humor. That was Ted Malawer. He read the manuscript and offered representation in June 2007. I happily accepted!
Ted worked with me over the next six months until he was confident enough in the manuscript to send it to editors. It grew and blossomed under his oversight into something far superior to the draft (I didn't know it was a draft at the time) that I sent him.
Tell us how your amazing deal happened.
Yes, I still can't believe that said string of words applies to me! Ted sent the manuscript around to editors at various publishing houses who he thought might be interested. I was amazed that there was quite a bit of interest. Several very impressive editors called me to talk about the manuscript. They were all interested! I was astounded!
Ted told me that when this happens, the manuscript goes to auction. Auctioneers make me laugh and I pictured Ted talking fast, wielding a gavel. (I have since learned that it doesn't actually go down that way - mostly phone calls and e-mails.) This was right before Thanksgiving. He told me just to relax and that the auction would happen after the holiday. And then he called me again and said Knopf made a pre-empt offer! There was some back and forth between Ted and their people and then Ted called me at work. He asked me if I was sitting down. I reminded him that I work at a library, and that he shouldn't say anything that would make me scream. He said "I can't promise that!" and told me the details of the deal. He advised that we take it and we did. On the way home from work I bought a huge bottle of champagne and had a very happy Thanksgiving!
You sold the book in November of 2007, your pub date is January 2010, can you tell us where in the process you are now?
After lots (and lots and lots) of revisions, the manuscript was approved by Knopf for publication just last month. It is currently with a copy-editor. It then comes back to me and my editor for final scrutiny and then goes into design. The process of layout and design will start then and before long it will resemble an actual book! My publication date is actually January 2010.
Can you share one piece of advice for writers?
FOUR PIECES OF ADVICE FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!
(1) Don't be afraid to talk to agents or editors or other authors! They are just people and (for the most part) aren't that scary. They want to find a book to buy/represent as much as you want to find someone to do that for you.
(2) Practice and patience! If someone told me back when I was writing that first novel, that it was just a "practice novel" and that it would never be published I would have probably given up. But I learned a lot on that first manuscript and it led the way to the next one, which led the way to publication! (With a lot more waiting along the way, so yes! More patience!)
(3) Take any writing gig you can get. I took lots of other small writing jobs while working on my novels. These were neither glamorous nor high-paying (local magazines, newspapers, etc.) but they were great practice. I learned how to tell a story, I learned how to work with editors, I learned how to meet deadlines, and I learned how to write on days even when I didn't feel like it.
(4) Read! It might not be impossible to write and sell a manuscript without reading what's out there in your field, but it's probably pretty close to it! I had a great YA class at Pitt, but anyone can walk into any public library and ask "What's hot in YA right now?" (or any other field) and begin their education for free!
* * *
Wow. GREAT interview, wasn't that? I think it's safe to say that Josh is a writer to watch. Josh is going to be a Big Deal. And if this interview alone didn't convey that, just look at his photo. I mean, clearly this is a man who is out standing in his field.
If you'd like to know more about Josh, here are some avenues, (all sanctioned by him, of course). To become Facebook friends click here (I recommend this highly). To see his Myspace page click here. Or to be, as he says, “updated about the book and the excitement that is my career” send an e-mail to joshberk (at) gmail.com. Prepared to be awed.
BONUS: Josh's cover is now done! The art was done by the fancy French artiste Philippe Petit-Roulet, bien-sur, who does a lot of covers for the New Yorker.