Noah Lukeman, literary agent and author of The Plot Thickens and TheFirst Five Pages talks about his books, the differences between writing and agenting, the chief function of books and films, trends for literary heroes, the state of the publishing industry, self-publishing, his next book and lots more.
Magdalena Ball: You know so much about writing fiction. I know you’ve stated publicly that you have no desire to write fiction, but do you feel as though you are vicariously producing fiction through your agent work?
Noah Lukeman: Thank you.
No, I wouldn’t say I feel as if I am vicariously “producing” fiction. Writing and agenting are both creative, but also both vastly different processes.
I have, though, given dozens of novelists and story writers a chance to be published with first rate houses, and to support themselves. In many cases I’ve discovered them out of obscure magazines – and often helped editorially – so you might say I’ve had some influence that way. But it still remains a different process.
MB: You mention in The Plot Thickens that art has become less of an escape and more of an embrace of the mundane. Author Drucilla Modjeska (Timepieces) criticises Australian authors for doing just the opposite (ignoring the realism of “now” in favour of an historical and “more exciting” but unrealistic setting). Have you noticed some specific plot or literary trend changes over the years?
Personally, I just don’t see the inherent virtue in feeling obligated to realistically set down the “now.” Imagine if a film were to chronicle every second of, say, someone’s waking – after 60 minutes of film time we get to this person’s brushing their teeth. What have we accomplished? Yes, it is exquisitely realistic, but it is also very dull, and I personally don’t see the merit. In my opinion, the chief function of books or films is to captivate, to entertain – not to chronicle facts.
In any case, it would be silly for me to generalize about the use of realism, as some writers pull it off wonderfully; likewise it would be silly for Drucilla to generalize about “historical, exciting” stories, as some of them, I’m sure, capture her sense of realism better than the modern day “literary” novel might. Ultimately, each work must be judged on its own merit.
MB: Are we in danger of losing our literary heroes? Or have anti-heroes like Don Quixote, Benjy (from The Sound and the Fury) or Leopold Bloom (Ulysses) become important character models for modern fiction writers.
NL: It seems these days that multidimensional characters have, at any cost, taken the place of unabashedly heroic (or villainous) ones. I would be hard-pressed to point to a recent character as clearly heroic as, say, a Rocky. Perhaps it’s a reflection of our culture, which seems to be more cynical and realism-minded. We gain a lot from this, but we must also ask ourselves what we lose. I don’t think the heroes, literary or otherwise, are gone; I just think we’ve forgotten how to look.
MB: You’ve said in a previous interview that “Publishers do almost nothing to promote their books once they are published. It is a shame, and a continual frustration of writers.” Is this a relatively new phenomena? Are there exceptions? Small publishers that do work on publicity?
NL: Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. There are occasionally exceptions, but they tend to come with the major six or seven figure advances – not necessarily with the small presses. This is why many published authors find themselves in the predicament of whether or not to hire their own publicist – which often does little good anyway. It is one of the mysteries of the publishing world: why publish books if you’re not going to promote them? There doesn’t seem to be an answer, other than a general philosophy that publishing – big or small – is always a gamble – thus publish as many books as you can, don’t promote at all, and see what sticks on its own. It seems to be an archaic remnant of the early days of publishing, and is in dire need of change. Yet no one seems to have the answer. Part of the problem is that too many new books are published every year – indeed, every week – and there are very few open slots in the media for big news, much less books.
MB: What about editing? Can authors expect to receive much personal editorial advice from publishers? Do you do much in the way of shaping and editing for the books you represent?
NL: Most editors do edit, some more, some less. That said, a book still needs to be in amazing shape in order to sell it, as editors do not want to acquire books that will need a ton of editing. It depends both on the editor and the publishing house. Yes, I personally do a lot of editing, although again, if a book needs a ton of work, I am much more averse to take it on.
MB: You have said that you work something like 12 hours a day (a fairly typical NYC working day). That doesn’t leave much time for writing. Is there a constant tension for you between the “urgent” and the “Important”, both in your life and in terms of the work you represent?
NL: My life seems to be dominated by the Urgent more than the Important. I’ve reached a point where there are only so many hours in the day and I can only handle so many authors if I am going to do my job well. I represent over 100 authors and at this point really don’t want to exceed that, so if I am going to make an exception and take on someone new, it has to be really incredible, or a personal passion, or a book that I feel can make a major difference.
As far as my own writing (of books on writing), I really don’t feel much of a conflict. The First Five Pages and The Plot Thickens were each written over a 6 month period, the former about 5 years ago and the latter about 2 years ago. I set aside time from 6am – 9am for that time period, and did the work I had to. Then I went on with my working day, from 9am to 9pm. So they didn’t interfere. It did tire me out, though, which is why it has been 2 years since I finished the Plot book and don’t have plans to turn to another one for at least a few more years.
MB: Talk to me a bit more about the last “way” to bring fiction to life: Transcendency. This is the most subtle and more complex part of fiction writing, and perhaps the most difficult to teach. Was writing this chapter difficult for you?
NL: Yes, the Transcendency chapter was difficult. When I set out to write the book, I knew it would have to encapsulate it, as I wanted it to ultimately point to something greater. I also hadn’t seen it brought up in many writing books. I didn’t set out to resolve the matter, but I did hope that by raising it it would force writers to at least grapple with it themselves, which is all we can ask for. Ultimately, as I emphasize throughout the book, you, the writer, are your own best teacher.
MB: Did you take all the ideas for The Plot Thickens from your own experience, or were you following some method (eg The Jarvis Method, etc)?
NL: It was all from my own experience. I deliberately didn’t want to be influenced by any particular author or method. I am familiar with other books on writing, but as a rule, I don’t read any of them while writing.
MB: Do you find that your non-fiction titles tend to sell better than your fiction? If so, why do you think this is?
NL: It really depends on the title. And it depends on the genre (i.e. literary or commercial fiction, or practical or narrative non-fiction). As a rule, non-fiction tends to outsell literary fiction. Generally this is both because book buyers tend to buy more non-fiction and because non-fiction is generally more likely to attract publicity.
MB: Tell me about the “dialogue” book you hint is coming next. Will your focus on dialogue also come out of characterisation?
NL: The dialogue book is going to be complex. Characterisation will be a piece of it, but not in a way that has traditionally been presented before. It will be practical, and example-intensive. If I can pull it off the way I’d like to, it will be unlike any other dialogue book that has come before it. But it will be a massive project, and I wouldn’t even begin writing it for at least a few years. So the earliest I’d say it would come out might be something like 2006.
MB: Do you still find time to act? Are there some links between what you do as an editor and what you do as an actor (for example, finding the heart of a good piece of writing and bringing it to life, or even pitching a new book to a
NL: What I like about acting is that it puts you on the line creatively, in a very intense way. It makes you remember what it feels like to be on the creative side, which in turn, breeds more empathy and sensitivity for the artists you represent. Also, acting forces you to take risks, which is crucial as an agent. These days, I find very little time, unfortunately.
MB: Do you feel that the rise of self-publishing has diminished the overall quality of books being produced? Are authors skipping the crucial editing step?
NL: Yes, I do feel that most self-published books have diminished the overall quality of what’s out there, and it is unfortunate. It makes it that much harder for other books to get media and bookstore attention.