Agent and editor, Roz Foster, recently made a move to the Catskills where she now reads manuscripts from her post and beam cabin. In the first Thoughtful Dog interview, Roz shares some of her photos and reflects on whether urban or rural environments make the best creative communities, her first desk, the market for literary fiction and what she’s reading now.
TD: You’re a bit of a renaissance woman! You’ve been a qualitative researcher serving high-tech companies, co-founded a web design company, and now you’re an agent with The Sandra Dijkstra Agency and have your own editing company. Tell us a little about your journey and where your love of reading/writing/books came from?
RF: In second grade, I realized the world was mad and mostly filled with mad people. Nothing made sense, and I didn’t like it one bit. So, I set up an office inside my bedroom closet. I put a reading lamp on a low shoe shelf to serve as my desk. I sidled up to the edge of it, sat on my new office chair, a bean bag, and I read my first novel: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. With my office door closed, I read in silence without distraction. There was just the warm light of my little lamp, the pages, and there was sane little Alice, confused, lost, argumentative, and always demanding Wonderland make sense. The book, the space, the silence—it was a revelation.
Today, I read and edit unpublished manuscripts and book proposals in a small, post and beam cabin near the house where I live in the Catskills of New York. My beau designed it for me, a place for me to work, and he built it one summer with a builder who lives nearby. Inside the cabin, there’s no phone. No internet. Just warm light, books and a very comfy chair. In spring, summer and fall, the only distraction might be Ivy, our paint horse, or Theo, her tall Irish boyfriend, poking their big noses into the windows and doors. In winter, when the horses’ drinking ponds freeze and they board across the county, there’s only silent snowfall through the windows and whitetail deer hoofing at the snow for the grass underneath.
I’m not sure what happened in between the making of my first office and the construction of this one. It’s possible I fell down a hole and had a mad fever dream filled with focus group after focus group and teams of people discussing hoards of whirring little machines and how one should press their buttons, in what order and how many times. It sounds so crazy. Were there mushrooms involved?
TD: Recently, you moved from San Diego to the Catskills Mountains. Do you feel smaller towns (vs. urban centers) can offer a more creative working environment?
RF: Yes. I’ve lived and worked in urban centers on the West Coast for most of my adult life. Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, San Diego. Right now, I live three and a half hours north of New York, and I love living relatively close to the great publishing mecca. I go in and out for meetings, but I think New York is overrated as a creative hub today. It’s not what it used to be for writers and artists. As my client Alessandro Busà writes in his forthcoming book The Creative Destruction of New York City: Engineering the City for the Elite (Oxford, 2017), the working class, middle class and even the upper classes are being priced out of the city by real estate developers in order to accommodate an uber-wealthy global elite. The speedy rise of hyper-gentrification in New York means young creatives, who had made the city appealing as a cultural center in the past, can no longer afford to live there for any length of time. They can’t make lives there, build long-lasting creative communities there. They can’t flourish. Instead, Manhattan and Brooklyn seem to have become a kind of destination “experience” for young writers and artists from all over to have, a temporary stop in the journey of their lives. New York is something they can say they’ve done, like “been there, done that.” But having to room with five others in a small space and eat dried ramen or exhaust themselves earning ridiculous amounts of money to live decently doesn’t inspire young people to put down roots.
I live in a small, no-stop-light town well north of the city where property values are reasonable and everyone knows each other. The beauty of nature is stunning. People are warm, caring, close. That’s becoming a draw for young creatives. Once they find this place or someplace like it, once they hear the quiet, see the idyllic long views, meet the people, once they compare the cost of living to that of New York or other urban centers and see that high-speed internet enables them to commute in and out of any city anywhere across the globe—they realize life can be good. I’m seeing young writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, photographers and other young entrepreneurs putting down roots here, creating communities, working hard to build new, virtual and local economies so they can live vibrant, fulfilling lives. They’re thriving in a new (or very old) way that isn’t possible in cities like New York or LA.
TD: Is it getting harder to get noticed by agents and editors in the publishing world?
RF: Yes, especially if you’re writing literary fiction, it’s very hard to get noticed by the big trade publishers right now. Smaller literary publishers with smaller budgets are still taking risks, pushing boundaries. Those smaller publishers are also very selective, hoping to acquire books that’ll win awards and get reviewed well. They need that particular kind of exposure because they don’t have oodles of cash to spend on publicity and marketing. Big trade houses go for awards and reviews, too, but they also have deeper pockets to pay for fat advances, production and design, sizable print runs, powerful publicity, robust marketing plans and the teams of people who run it all. Agents like me, who earn commission on advances and royalties, tend to favor selling to the bigger houses so they can put food on their tables. Agents know big house editors are looking for work they can securely bet their big budgets on. So, if writers of literary fiction haven’t unambiguously hit it out of the park with a manuscript, or haven’t already made a name for themselves with a small press award-winner, agents and big house editors, are less likely to bite.
Editors also don’t do a lot of developmental editing anymore. In the past, a book could be a little rough around the edges and an editor would still lay an advance down if they believed the talent was there and could work with it. Today, in order to get noticed by an acquiring editor, the work has to be just about perfect right out of an agent’s hands. Editing, revision and polishing is essential to breaking into the business.
TD: What tips would you give writers on the writing process?
RF: Read, read, read! And master the art of storytelling. Read books you wish you had written. Think hard and critically about what exactly the authors of those books are doing and why. How are they telling a spellbinding story, to whom and for what reason? Whether you’re writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, read craft books and learn how dramatic structure works. Remember that publishing is a business that’s founded on this very ancient human thing: storytelling. Across time, we human beings have responded to the wild, chaos of life and the mad harshness of reality by telling each other stories that make sense of it all. We’ve gone from petroglyphs, to the early holy books, to the Viking sagas and Greek epics, to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Woolf and on to Amy Tan, Octavia Butler and now Paula Hawkins and Colson Whitehead. I mean, I skipped some key people there and all the historians, but if you as a writer understand that the great storytellers are our mythmakers, people who make sense of the world for the rest of us, and if you work to perfect and perform that vital job, then whether the kind of sense you bring is Cormac McCarthy’s indifference of the universe, Emma Straub’s funny struggles of the privileged, or Eric Foner’s historical clarity on slavery, the results will be captivating. If you master the art of storytelling, you’ll find an audience, you’ll find an agent and you’ll find an eager acquiring editor.
TD: What book/s are you reading right now? Do you prefer eBooks or traditional paper/hardback versions? Do you read one book at a time or several?
RF: To keep on top of what’s selling and what the culture is being moved by, I usually read the latest bestsellers, or books that are making waves right now in the industry. I read those books at the same time, alternating between them. I haven’t had much of a chance to read work published more than a decade ago for a while, but I recently rediscovered one of my favorite writers, Iris Murdoch, who wrote prolifically from the 50s through to the 90s. I’d read a lot of her novels when I was in grad school. A Severed Head. The Sea, the Sea. The Bell. The Nice and the Good. A Fairly Honorable Defeat. The Book and the Brotherhood. The Good Apprentice. There are so many more that I haven’t had a chance to crack.
Meanwhile, I live in a house with a fair number of books in it. You can say there are a couple of books in the house, yes. It’s a bit like Borges’s Library of Babel. Every book that exists or could exist must be here. Everyday since I moved in, I’d walk through the front corridor, the one that’s covered from top to bottom with books and I’d see a row of Iris Murdoch novels I hadn’t yet read. The Black Prince always caught my eye. Each time I walked through that hallway, I’d see The Black Prince, and I’d think, I should read that when I have time, and then I’d walk by. I’d see it again and again, and I’d walk by. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked by The Black Prince.
I finally took it off the damned shelf, just finished it, and what an absolute delight it was to read! Look, I love ebooks, especially for research, like when I’ve got a client whose market I’m familiarizing myself with, or for more consumable reads like thrillers. It’s great to just buy and download a book and zip on through it that day. But this second printing of The Black Prince (Viking, 1973) is hardbound, cloth-covered and oh so beautiful! While I was reading, I’d lift the book to my nose from time to time and inhale deeply. You know that smell. What is that? The paper, the glue, the binding, the cloth? Smells so good.
And who writes like this anymore? (If you do, contact me immediately.) Iris Murdoch is a master storyteller. If you’re going to write a novel, open it like she does, with a shock like death to ring in your reader’s ears. The first chapter of The Black Prince opens with the perfect sentence. It’s the fictional memoir of a fictional British writer called Bradley Pearson and his first line is this:
It might be most dramatically effective to begin the tale at the moment when Arnold Baffin rang me up and said, “Bradley, could you come round here, please, I think that I have just killed my wife.”
The serenity of the line is ludicrous. It’s marvelously shocking, and it also demonstrates what I mean about great storytellers making sense of the harshness of reality. Iris Murdoch makes us laugh in the face of death. In fact, she makes us laugh in the face a good amount of human tragedy and chaos. If there’s any author I’d recommend writers read to learn how to tell a good story, it’s Iris Murdoch.
TD: Finally, I have to ask, what is The Book Barn?
RF: The Book Barn is what we call that post and beam cabin I read from in the quiet of the country, the one my beau built. Sometimes, when I first walk in, the silence makes me stagger a little and stop. I’ll take a deep breath, and the smell of wood and books is like a balm. The sunbeams coming through the windows are just about otherworldly. In the Book Barn, there’s no landline, no cell service, no pinging email, no mad, mad world. In the Book Barn, there’s a lamp with warm light, a comfy chair and some books. Everything makes sense there.