Yes, I know I talk about it all the time. But few authors I’ve encountered are the personification of this word. Many writers I’ve interviewed have had a few bumps along the way to being published, but few have had as many as today’s featured author, Leslie Stella.
Leslie is an accomplished writer. She cofounded a satire magazine, Lumpen, and then went on to sell three adult fiction novels. But in 2005, she hit a wall. She wrote three books over the next several years and none of them sold. Now, let’s be honest, even the sturdiest heart could be broken over that long of a dry spell – but Leslie persevered. She found a new agent and eventually wrote, PERMANENT RECORD, which was released in March. Her story is proof that you can’t give up on your dream even if you hit a few roadblocks along the way.
Here is Leslie’s writing odyssey. I hope it will inspire you to hold tight to your publishing dream.
Amy: I noticed that your first several books were adult fiction. What made you start writing YA?
Leslie: My new book, PERMANENT RECORD, started off as adult fiction, told from the perspective of an adult character (who no longer appears in the book). My agent and I could not sell that book, though we had several near misses. It was painful to lose that book, and I could not get it out of my head for a year. When I tried to figure out what it was that stuck with me, I realized it was the teens in the story that I gravitated to, not the adults. So I rewrote it from Bud’s perspective (the teen protagonist), and an entirely new story grew from that.
Amy: How many manuscripts had you completed prior to FAT BALD JEFF?
Leslie: That novel was published in 2001 by Grove/Atlantic and was the first full-length manuscript I ever wrote. Prior to that, I had written mainly essays and short stories for various countercultural ’zines and anthologies, including Lumpen magazine, a Chicago-based politics/satire monthly that I cofounded.
Amy: How long did it take you to write the query for FAT BALD JEFF? Did it go through many drafts?
Leslie: I would say I probably worked on the query for maybe a week or two and then fine-tuned it as the responses rolled in.
Amy: How many agents did you query for FAT BALD JEFF?
Leslie: I queried about 10-15 agents.
Amy: Did you receive instantaneous response or did you have to wait for requests/rejections?
Leslie: Nothing was instantaneous! I queried for that novel in 1999, so 99% of my queries were letters and snail-mail submissions; almost nothing was submitted through email. I spent about 5 months querying before my first agent called with an offer of representation. That’s right: “first agent.” I have had several, which is an interesting story in itself. My first agent sold FAT BALD JEFF in 3 months.
Amy: Can you tell us what your “call” was like with your agent, Lucy Childs? How did you know she was a good fit for you?
Leslie: As I said above, I have had a number of agents. The agent who sold my first and second novels was a fantastic person who I still consider a friend. She quit the business to pursue other interests, and the principal of her agency took me on—without much enthusiasm, I’m afraid. He sold my third novel, but dumped me when its sales tanked. Lucy Childs signed me at the lowest point of my career—which lasted for years—and she is my final and forever agent.
If you want to know what the call was like from my first agent, it was fun and funny and full of promise. I had really suffered no rejection prior to that, and that agent was relatively new to the business, so we both had a fresh and positive outlook. That novel was not to everyone’s taste—the main character was a fool I had hoped readers would laugh at but ultimately root for—and my agent “got” the humor.
With Lucy, who has been with the Aaron Priest Literary Agency for 18 years, our call was more practical and realistic, as she knew the ups and downs of my publishing history. The reason I knew she was the agent for me was because she said, “You are a risk. Even this novel is a risk. But I love it and I want to sell it.” She knew what she was getting herself into with me, and yet she still believed in me.
Amy: FAT BALD JEFF was your first novel published in 2001, you wrote two other books after that with your last one being in 2005. Have you been writing since then, or did you take a break before working on PERMANENT RECORD, which released March 5?
Leslie: For a detailed and highly personal essay about that time, I invite you to read a blog entry from my website: http://www.lesliestella.com/site/lets-say/. But the short answer is the break between my last book’s publication in 2005 and now is best summed up by the phrase, “Those were dark days.” I had written 3 novels in that time that no one wanted and that even now taunt me from their folders on my desktop. PERMANENT RECORD represents a switch in writing style, audience, and concept for me.
Amy: What advice did you get early on in your writing career that you still use today?
Leslie: From a mechanical standpoint, the best writing advice is, “Cut, edit, slash, delete, kill.” Not everything is precious. Also, we all need to heed the old adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t underestimate your readers’ ability to figure things out on their own. From a more artistic standpoint, you can’t beat the advice to “Write the book you want to read.” I spent many years ignoring that advice and writing “to market,” all the while thinking, “Is this what they want? Will they think this is funny? Is this type of thing hot now?” and churning out books that did not sell well (or at all) because I was not deeply invested in the work. After a long dry spell, I admitted, “I don’t know what they want. So I’m just going to write what I want.” And that’s what sold.
Being yourself can be such a bad idea.
For sixteen-year-old Badi Hessamizadeh, life is a series of humiliations. After withdrawing from public school under mysterious circumstances, Badi enters Magnificat Academy. To make things “easier,” his dad has even given him a new name: Bud Hess. Grappling with his Iranian-American identity, clinical depression, bullying, and a barely bottled rage, Bud is an outcast who copes by resorting to small revenges and covert acts of defiance, but the pressures of his home life, plummeting grades, and the unrequited affection of his new friend, Nikki, prime him for a more dangerous revolution. Strange letters to the editor begin to appear in Magnificat’s newspaper, hinting that some tragedy will befall the school. Suspicion falls on Bud, and he and Nikki struggle to uncover the real culprit and clear Bud’s name.
Permanent Record explodes with dark humor, emotional depth, and a powerful look at the ways the bullied fight back.
Leslie Stella is the author of four novels: Unimaginable Zero Summer (Crown, 2005), The Easy Hour (Crown, 2003), Fat Bald Jeff (Grove/Atlantic, 2001), and the young adult novel Permanent Record (published by Skyscape/Amazon Children’s Publishing). She was a founding editor of Lumpen magazine and her work has been published in The Mississippi Review, The Adirondack Review, Bust, Easy Listener, and anthologized in The Book of Zines (Henry Holt, 1997). She is a Pushcart Prize in Short Fiction nominee. You can find her on Twitter @leslie_stella, on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/LeslieStella11), or her website (www.lesliestella.com).