by Tammy Burke
It is a delight to have you join this year’s GLVWG “Write Stuff” Conference. The breadth of experience you bring…working as an assistance at Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency, a small boutique agency to becoming an agent for one of the world’s leading literary agencies…is sure to be a wonderful boon for our conferees. Welcome!
I am wondering…did you always know you wanted to be an agent or was this a decision you made later…perhaps as you were working on your Master’s Degree in Creative Writing?
David Forrer: In 1996, I was accepted into the creative writing program at Boston University. I had written some short stories but I had no idea how anything got published. The more ambitious writers in my workshops were already “querying agents” – I didn’t know what that meant until the head of the department suggested I read manuscripts for a former student of his who had just opened her own agency on Newberry Street. Well, I quickly realized that reading other people’s work was more satisfying than creating my own. When I finished at BU, I went through the job listings in Publishers Weekly and got an interview for an assistant’s position with an agent in Manhattan. I took Amtrak to Penn Station – it was my first time in New York. I’ve lived here now for 17 years and I’ve worked as an agent the entire time.
Out of curiosity, was crime fiction something you enjoyed reading as a kid? What would you say some of your favorite stories were growing up? Also, do you ever get time to read just for enjoyment only? If yes, what do you like to read?
David Forrer: My life has always been full of books. My mom was a school librarian and as a kid I used to make my own books by stapling pages together, drawing (awful) cover art and writing stories that were heavily derived from the authors I admired. Most of the reading I did as a child was classic young adult but I remember I had a book about the famous racehorse Man O’War that I read obsessively, over and over again – I wish I could remember why because that knowledge would be valuable to me today as publishing professional!
My relationship with crime fiction really started when I was representing books on behalf of some UK agents. Val McDermid, Mo Hayder, Mark Billingham, John Harvey, Peter Temple, Minette Walters are some of the major crime writers who I’ve been privileged to work with through their primary agents and publishers overseas.
I think it’s important to read for enjoyment – there’s a lot of rejection and disappointment in this business, but the pleasure of reading is what first drew me to publishing, and a really good book always inspires me. I recently read Adam Johnson’s THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON and I was like, How did he do that? That came out of his imagination!! When I’m reading a manuscript that I really love I start to imagine the thrill of sharing it with other readers as a finished book and having them feel the same way I do. Also I need to know what’s working in the market. I once read a whole bunch of books by Debbie Macomber during my Christmas break because I wanted to understand the appeal. She writes great contemporary romances – and I really enjoyed them!
Do you work on your own writing?
David Forrer: No, I think really successful writers are compulsive about it, and as much as I wanted to be “a writer” I never actually felt an overwhelming urge to sit in front of a blank page and fill it with words. To quote my favorite Kristen Wiig skit from SNL, “that’s a major red flag!”
Could you tell us what type of historical fiction really “grabs” you? Also, what exactly do you mean by popular history?
David Forrer: For ANY work of fiction to really grab me it has to have a great story and great characters, particularly a protagonist that you can root for. An historical novel that illuminates a way of life on an intimate, human scale (GIRL WITH A PEARL EARING) can be just as absorbing as one that’s written on a larger canvas (WOLF HALL). Also, if something sparks my interest in historical events – SHADOW OF THE WIND probably isn’t considered “historical fiction” but reading that book made me want to learn more about the Spanish Civil War.
You asked about “popular history.” I represent a writer named Vicki Leon who is a self-styled “historical detective” and she publishes very accessible portraits of life in ancient Greece and Rome that are meant to inform and entertain. That’s what I mean by popular history. One of her books explores career choices in the ancient world. The working title was HELP WANTED: ORGY PLANNER but her publisher made her change it to WORKING IX TO V. I still think that was a mistake!
It must have been an exciting time during the “birth” of Inkwell Management (the 2004 merger of Arthur Pine Associates, Carlisle & Company, and Witherspoon Associates). What has been some of your best experiences about the merger and/or agenting at such a prestigious agency? What would you say has been the most challenging?
David Forrer: I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of InkWell. We work very collaboratively – I share clients with Kim Witherspoon (David Vann, Carol Cassella and Kaui Hart Hemmings) and Michael Carlisle (Elin Hilderbrand), and I spend a lot of time in Richard Pines’ office strategizing and talking about what I’m working on. Every day is a “moment” but the best experiences always involve witnessing a writer’s success. At the New York premiere of the film adaptation of THE DESCENDANTS, I was remembering the phone call with Kaui when said she was planning to expand her short story “The Minor Wars” into a novel, and it blew my mind that here we were with George Clooney and Alexander Payne bringing her imagination to life on the screen. At the other end of the scale, I was recently working with a first-time author who was absolutely thrilled to get rejection letters from publishers – it meant that someone was actually reading his book! It reminded me that the whole point of writing is simply to make a connection with one reader – of course, you do that a million times and it’s called a bestseller. (By the way, we did get an offer and the book is publishing this summer.)
The biggest challenge is obviously all the rejection but I’m an eternal optimist so I keep putting one foot in front of the other – there’s always some happy payoff or a nice surprise right around the corner.
If at some point today your dream submission “fell from the sky and landed in your hands,” what would it look like?
David Forrer: It would be fresh and innovative and if the ending made me cry that would be a bonus. And it wouldn’t have any typos on the first fifty pages.
And last question, what three pieces of advice would you be most apt to share with would-be authors?
David Forrer: Write a book you’d want to read but also know who your audience is.
Don’t expect to make a living from your writing. Some writers do, eventually, but most writers need another source of income to give them the security to write.
There is rejection at every level of the business, whether you are a writer, an agent, a publisher or a bookseller. Don’t take it personally!
David Forrer began his career in publishing in 1997 after receiving a Masters in Creative Writing (fiction) from Boston University. He has been an agent with InkWell Management since it was created in 2004.
His areas of interest and representation range from literary, commercial, historical and crime fiction to suspense/thriller, humorous non-fiction and popular history.
Tammy Burke, GLVWG member, 2011 conference chair and past president, has published around 400 newspaper and regional magazine articles. She has interviewed state and local government officials, business and community leaders, everyday folk and celebrities, in addition to helping write scripts for over a dozen television commercials and writing various business communications. Currently, she is in the revision stage for her first YA fantasy adventure book, the first in an intended series. When not writing, she works in the social service field and is a fencing marshal in the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA).