Q&A: Literary Agent Anna Stein O’Sullivan

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Q: First things first: how did you become an agent?

A: I resisted initially, spent five years trying to find a different calling, and finally realized that being an agent was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I worked for an agent (the wonderful Irene Skolnick) the summer after I graduated from college.  I had a great time, and Irene taught me tons, but in the end her assessment was that I was awfully green, which I was. I left for graduate school in Paris that September thinking that was it for me and book publishing.  I spent the next five years getting two graduate degrees (and working non-publishing-related jobs) and trying out different career options, all fruitlessly.  During that period my older brother Lorin moved to New York and started working as an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  Every time I visited, he made some kind of effort to convince me to join him in the industry.  I held back, sometimes because I wanted to be overseas, sometimes because I didn’t want to work in his shadow (he IS the older brother, after all).  Still, I started doing some freelance work for him while I was in school, reading French novels and writing readers’ reports. That’s what started it.  And then finally, after graduate degree number two, September 11th, and an unhappy job search in Washington, DC, Lorin convinced me to interview with a literary agency.  I accepted a job, moved back to New York about three days later, and have never looked back.

Q. The two of you have obviously done well in the industry—you head up the New York arm of Aitken Alexander Associates, and Lorin is the editor of The Paris Review. Do you ever ask his opinion about manuscripts or edits, or vice versa? How collaborative is your relationship?

A: I certainly talk to him about work we’ve both read—books or essays or stories, but no, no collaboration when it comes to manuscripts or edits. There has to be a firewall when our work is so close, and we have so many writers and friends in common.

Q: How do you find your writers? Blind submissions, word of mouth, referrals?

These days the great majority of my clients are referred to me by other writers, often my own clients or acquaintances in the industry.  There are occasions when I’ll read something in a magazine or simply be impressed by someone’s blind submission letter, but this happens much less often.  I have a wonderful assistant, however (as you know), and he keeps his eye on magazines and journals that I might not otherwise see, and is building a great network of friends and colleagues.

Q: What do you look for in a first-time writer? In the manuscript itself? What does a good query letter look like?

A: Query letters are like resumes: one skips to the words in (implicit) bold.  I look for someone who gives me very little plot description (descriptions mostly tell me nothing about a reading experience), someone who gives me reason to think they’re serious and committed and have put in their time.  This means they’re not writing a form letter, that the letter itself sounds like it was written by an intelligent and thoughtful person.  And that they’ve already gotten writers’ residencies, or an MFA from a program I know and respect, or have published work in magazines or journals I respect, or have praise from writers I respect.  Or maybe they’ve been working away on their novel for ten years, revising and revising and revising before letting anyone else lay eyes on the work. There is no particular formula, but certainly if a writer has some or all of the above, then he or she definitely has my interest.

Basically, I look for the same thing in a first-time writer that I do in a veteran.  I want to be both surprised and immersed.  I want to forget that I’m reading something WRITTEN (just as when I’m watching a film I want to forget that I’m seeing an actor acting), but at the same time I want to be able to stop and admire the crisp sentences, or a knock-out image.  I want the craft to be so perfect that you can’t see the 100 revisions that have gone into it.  Is that too much to ask?

Q: You’re a busy agent with some amazing clients on your list—Antoine Wilson, Etgar Keret, Yoko Ogawa, Anya Ulinich, and Ben Lerner, to name a few. You also just got married and had a baby. And yet I can vouch for the fact that you make every writer feel as if he/she is your only client. How do you do it? Do you read every submission that crosses your desk?

A: I’m glad you feel that way!  My assistant is incredibly smart, hardworking, and intuitive, making it much easier for me to focus on my clients.  Also, I prioritize clients over potential clients.  I’m not very good at speed-reading for what we call beauty contests.  In fact, I’m one of the slowest readers I know.

Q: Speaking of reading, I read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams for the first time recently, and—as is often the case when I read Johnson or other great sentence-makers—I felt an overwhelming sense of admiration and awe mingled with humility and desire. The experience was akin to falling in love. What’s the last book you fell in love with, and why?  

A: One of the last books I fell in love with was actually Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.  It’s a novel about poetry, and translation, and yet it’s incredibly funny and absolutely, uncomfortably true while very clearly asking questions about authenticity. And the sentences are beyond perfect.  I couldn’t believe he’d pulled it off.  (I should mention that he is now my client, but he wasn’t when I read the novel!)

And then obviously Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  Who knew modernism could be pushed in that direction, and that this new kind of modernist approach could also be used in a historical novel? It blew me away. I missed Cromwell terribly when I’d finished it. (I’m saving the second book for a time when I’m not nursing a newborn.)

Q: How involved are you in the editing process, before you take a book to market? How do you know when the manuscript is ready?

A: Every book is different.  It’s rare for me to send something out that I haven’t edited (in fact, I can’t remember ever doing that), but the nature of the editing changes from book to book. Sometimes it means teaching someone how to write certain elements of a book proposal, sometimes it means getting rid of a bum sentence or two in a story; sometimes it means figuring out how to get the plot to work. Most of the time it means making it as true as it can be.

Q: What do you love most about your job?

A: You know, we all say the same thing, but it’s true: discovering something wonderful. You slog through a number of mediocre manuscripts, and then bang! Something lands, and it’s surprising and thrilling, and as you’re reading you start thinking of the editors you’re going to send it to.  That’s really fun.  What’s also fun is getting the radiant feedback from editors once you send it out, and then surprising the author with an auction, and then a really nice book advance.  That’s very satisfying.

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Anna Stein O’Sullivan joined Aitken Alexander Associates in June 2009 as a senior agent heading up the New York office. Previously, she was an agent and foreign rights manager at the Irene Skolnick Literary Agency.