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A Conversation With Evan MarshallBy Claire E. White
Evan Marshall has always loved books. His love of reading as a child helped influence his decision to pursue a career in the book industry. A former senior editor at Dodd, Mead, he now heads his own literary agency. He is a nationally acknowledged expert on the writing, selling and promoting of novels, and is
Evan spoke with about his new book, Missing Marlene, and gives some excellent advice to apsiring novelists about finding -- and keeping -- an agent.
What did you like to read when you were growing up?
I was not your typical child reader. No Hardy Boys for me. I stepped right into the classics and then quickly discovered mysteries. I had read all of Agatha Christie's books by the time I graduated high school. (Little did I know I would one day be a senior editor at Dodd, Mead, her American publisher.) I also developed a penchant for best-sellers from earlier times. For example, I read Forever, Amber; Portrait of Jennie; Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; Good Morning, Miss Dove; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and of course, Valley of the Dolls (one of my favorites). I wanted to know what people used to read, as compared with what they were reading now. This practice gave me a good grounding in the development of popular fiction.
How did you become a literary agent?
I was a book editor and, frankly, became disillusioned with this career choice. I felt it was a thankless, low-paying, drudgery-filled job. And yet I adore working with books. So being an agent seemed the only choice. (Yes, I was already writing books--my first came out when I was 29--but I knew writing wasn't going to support me!) I set myself up as an independent agent, but was immediately approached by Sterling Lord to work in his agency. I did work there for several years before going out on my own again, nearly fifteen years ago now.
What do you love most about being a literary agent?
What I love most about being a literary agent is seeing the writers I represent rise in their careers and achieve greater recognition and success--seeing them achieve their dreams. I also love discovering new talent--and making that wonderful phone call to tell an author her first novel has been sold.
As a literary agent, what about a new mystery manuscript really catches your eye?
What catches my eye in a new mystery manuscript is impeccable writing--writing that exhibits a thorough knowledge of craft--and a strikingly original "hook." The hook is a fresh and interesting occupation for the sleuth, a setting or time period we haven't seen before, or some other aspect that sets this book apart from thousands of others.
What mistakes should new writers avoid when dealing with agents?
How has the publishing industry changed since you first became a literary agent?
The most obvious change is that there are far fewer publishers than when I started as an agent. Editors don't edit as much anymore, and books are seen more as products than as works of art. If books don't have strong hooks, they usually don't get bought. In general, publishing is a colder, harder business than when I started.
What inspired you to cross the line from literary agent to novelist?
I had wanted to write my own fiction for years, and finally challenged myself to complete a novel and submit it. It had become frustrating for me to sell so many novels by other people, yet not to have sold one of my own.
Why did you choose to write in the mystery genre?
I take a highly plot-oriented approach to the creation of fiction, and the mystery's puzzle seemed an excellent "skeleton" on which to hang other aspects of the novel such as character development and suspense. Also, mysteries are my favorite reading, so I was passionate about the genre and knew much of what had and hadn't already been done.
How did growing up in a small town influence your writing?
My observations about small-town life had a strong influence on my fiction set in Shady Hills, a town much like Sharon, Massachusetts, where I grew up. It appears pretty and peaceful, but as in all small towns, secrets and sin lie just below the surface. These underlying elements, and the lengths to which people went to hide them, fascinated me, and I resolved to explore them one day in my novels.
Let's talk about your new mystery novel, Missing Marlene. How did this book come into being?
Jane, the star of Missing Marlene, is an interesting and entertaining character. How did you create Jane?
Jane Stuart is, like me, a literary agent. I followed the golden rule of writing what you know. Jane's ideas about being an agent and about publishing are my own ideas. I find it wonderfully cathartic to be able to express these ideas--and my frustrations--"safely" in my fiction. Jane's personality is also a lot like mine. I'm told I have a dry wit and tend to be blunt and sarcastic. All of these factors make Jane a very easy character for me to write and know.
What went into your decision to use a female lead for this series?
On a purely commercial level, I knew as an agent that female sleuths are more appealing to readers, at least in cozy mysteries. But for some reason I felt more comfortable writing about a woman. Many readers have commented that I do this convincingly. My wife says it's because I'm a woman's man--whatever that means. I think it's because I know Jane so well and understand her.
How much of Jane's day to day life as a literary agent parallels your own?
A lot of it! Everything Jane does, from evaluating manuscripts to fighting with editors over deals, comes from my career as an agent. I draw liberally on the details of my workdays to add realism to Jane's office life.
Tell us about Winky. Is she modeled on any cats you know personally? Are you a cat lover?
Long before our two sons were born, my wife and I had several cats, one of whom was a tortoiseshell cat named Winky. We were quite fond of Winky, who, sadly, is gone now. When I decided to give Jane and her son Nick a cat, I felt Winky would be perfect. Winky, too, is an easy "character" for me to mwrite, because she is our very own Winky, acting and reacting just as ours did.
Our cats did not respond well to the introduction of children, and as much as we love cats, my wife and I decided not to replace our furry friends once they were gone. From time to time I do think fondly of having cats, or at least a cat, again, but I think if that happens, it will be once our children are grown.
What's next for Jane and Winky?
I've just finished Jane and Winky's second adventure--and must admit I'm delighted with it (I hope that doesn't sound conceited!). It's called Hanging Hannah, and it's about a young woman found hanging in the woods behind Shady Hills' big old inn, Hydrangea House. (Was it suicide or murder?) No one in town knows who the woman is--or if anyone knows, no one's telling. Other murders, including the particularly nasty murder of an especially obnoxious New York book editor (see what I mean about catharsis?), hold a clue to the death of the poor woman behind the inn, if only Jane and Winky can put all the pieces together in time to save themselves from a killer waiting to strike again....
Let's talk about the creative process. Tell us about the process of writing (do you write on a schedule everyday, do you use the computer etc.)?
How do you juggle your work as an agent with your writing?
My work as an agent keeps me hopping Monday through Friday, eight-thirty to six. So my writing happens evenings and weekends. This makes for a full life--and often I must remember to spend more time with my family--but I don't think I could ever give up either my agenting or my writing.
I'd like to turn to your writing book, The Marshall Plan For Novel Writing. What inspired you to write the book?
What mistakes do aspiring writers most commonly make when writing fiction?
The most common mistake is ignoring viewpoint. Every scene must be written from the viewpoint of one of a preselected set of viewpoint characters. Another mistake is presenting too much background information, and doing so in the first few pages. Writers should begin their stories with the event that kicks off the story, and then spoon-feed us background information only when it's needed to understand what's going on.
Why is it important to outline a book's plot before you start the actual writing?
I believe it's important, especially in a mystery, so that you won't wander or stall as you're writing. In my opinion, books that are outlined first are richer and treat the reader to more surprises than books that aren't outlined first.
When you're not working, what do you like to do for fun?
Fun? What's that? Just kidding. I love to read, of course, and to spend time with my family and our friends. In the summer months you'll often find me in our pool with my wife and our boys. I also love to wander around the Internet, which always holds something new and surprising. My wife and I enjoy going to movies, museums, ballet and the opera. And, whenever possible, we love to travel.
How much do you use the Internet? Do you find it useful?
I find the Internet invaluable. It is the writer's most vital research tool. Now I can get the facts on countless subjects for my novels without having to leave my office. This ease makes my novels richer. And of course e-mail has become the most convenient method of communication. Virtually all of my clients "do" e-mail, and I am able to keep in closer touch with them than ever before.
What do you like to read for pleasure (other than required reading for work)?
I love--you guessed it--a good mystery or thriller, though I'm on the squeamish side and can't take much gore. I literally grow faint at the sight of blood--especially my own! I also enjoy what I would call literary humor. Some of my favorite authors are Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, P.D. James, Andrew Klavan, Muriel Spark, and Margaret Drabble.