'I encourage writers to get to know their contemporaries, so that they can build a support network, and a dialogue about the work . . . If they can be available to readers online, via various reading communities, or online book groups, that can really make a difference in an author's audience.'
Duvall Osteen joined Aragi Inc. in 2012, where she's had the opportunity to work with a long list of literary authors, including Junot Díaz, Colson Whitehead, Edwidge Danticat, Denis Johnson, and Rebecca Makkai. She represents fiction, narrative memoir, and select humor projects. Her literary interests include writing rooted in place, multigenerational storytelling, music, literary suspense, and humor. Duvall holds an MA in Southern Cultural Studies from the University of Mississippi.
Q&A with Duvall
After having worked with Nicole Aragi for some time, you're representing your own authors - how do you choose who to represent?
The words on the page are the most important thing. After that, it's how well I connect with the writer. We're very much a 'full service agency' – which means everyone we represent, no matter how known or unknown they are, gets the same amount of attention. To that end, we're selective about taking on new authors.
You've recommended Bethany Ball's new book, which is sampled on Tablo - what was it you loved about her writing when you took her on?
With Bethany, it was the voice. From the very first to the very last sentence, she shows a mastery of language and humor. It's great pacing, great dialogue; you can feel the chaos and beauty and sadness and love in all of her characters, across the entire novel. And, she came to me the old-fashioned way, she just queried the agency. Sometimes it's that easy.
What role does an agent play?
A good agent shepherds your publishing career. She recognizes your talent, and your visions for the work are aligned. She works with you on the material, and helps you get it into the best shape possible, then she introduces your work to the world. Agents manage the business side of your career, contracts and deadlines, and all of the steps that come between the sale of a work, and its publication.
Any particular secrets to being an effective agent?
Nurturing great relationships with people in all parts of the industry, from independent book sellers, to sales and marketing folks, editors, publishers, book critics…anyone who champions writing and writers.
Can you please list some advice for new writers you’d suggest before they send their book off to an agent or publisher?
Make sure it's in the best shape possible. Get it just right – as far as you can take it. And, include page numbers.
How do you tell if the writing is exceptional when you start reading a manuscript?
That’s tricky, because the answer is, 'you just know'. And that is totally subjective. To work in publishing, you have to love books. And I feel like the best qualification for a job in publishing is that you're a reader, and you know what sort of books you like. Armed with what you know, and what you love, you're able to evaluate if something works for you the same way the things you've spent your life reading worked for you.
Can you please give a brief overview of the process once an author sends a manuscript to you?
I print out the first 25 pages and read them. It usually takes me a few weeks, books are long! I think that's the thing everyone forgets. How long books are, and how many submissions we get (hundreds!) and how we don’t read at the office. So, I work a full day, go home, and have to find time to read hundreds of pages, while also keeping up with published books. So, I read the pages. If the writing is compelling, I read more. And then, if I've finished the book, I reach out to the author to talk to her or him about it, and see if we 'click' - if how I think about the manuscript is in line with how the author sees it, and if we get on well.
How important is your relationships with publishers?
It's second only to my relationships with my authors. That is – it's hugely important. It's the only way we're able to do our job effectively. I spend a ton of time reaching out to editors and publishers – via email, phone, having lunch and drinks – just getting to know what they like, what they want to see more of, and talking to them about my authors, and what I'm looking for. It is constant upkeep, and it's a lot of work, but it's also a very fun part of the job, getting to know all of these brilliant people who've decided, for better or worse, to spend their lives bringing books to life.
Is it hard for writers to make a living from their work?
Yes. I hate to be so blunt about it, but yes. Nearly impossible, I'd say, or at least not without an enormous amount of work and hustle.
Do writers themselves have to heavily self-promote?
It's important that authors understand the ways the industry is shifting. No longer to a few good reviews put a book on the map, and no longer do most authors get big book tours. No longer to book tours even sell books, for that matter. I don’t encourage authors to start using social media if it isn't something they are familiar with, or enjoy doing, but authors do need to be able to engage with readers, and talk about their work without feeling nervous. Usually, I encourage writers to get to know their contemporaries, so that they can build a support network, and a dialogue about the work, rather than just being walking billboards for their own books. So, authors should be willing to engage with their work, and the work of others. If they can be available to readers online, via various reading communities, or online book groups, that can really make a difference in an author's audience.
Who are your favourite writers and what have you learned from them?
This is a very tough question, so I'll put some parameters on it. All of the writers we represent are my favorite writers, so, moving forward with that understanding, speaking only of non-Aragi authors, my favorite writers are ones who are obsessed with voice, place, and character, in that order.
Flannery O'Connor being the master, of course. But more contemporary, Grace Paley, Alice McDermott, Ramond Carver, George Saunders and Mohsin Hamid.
There are so many single books that do these things…too many to name, of course, but The Collected Stories of Breece D'J Pancake by Breece D'J Pancake is another example, and good lord, what a devastation that we never heard more from him. These writers couldn't be more different on a sentence level, but every single one of them teaches you how to see a place in an unexpected way. You learn about human nature by reading between their lines. They don't give anything away, they rarely give you the whole story, but they give the reader everything she needs in order to know a person, or a place. The full backstory is unwritten, but if you pay attention, it’s all in there. Does that make sense? I think, mostly, the best writers don't beat you over the head with plot.
Duvall accepts unsolicited manuscripts. Literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, predominantly. Authors should feel free to query her at email@example.com with Attn: Duvall Osteen in the subject line.