Interview: Barbara Poelle
Barbara Poelle’s Funny You Should Ask: Mostly Serious Answers to Mostly Serious Questions about the Book Publishing Industry published in January with Writer’s Digest Books. Here, colleague Holly Root, who wrote the book’s foreword, chats agent-to-agent with Poelle about the book and the publishing process.
Holly Root: Hi Barbara! So, you wrote a book. Congratulations! My memory, supported by reviewing our text threads and Gchats from the time this was going on, is that writing a book is, to use some official industry jargon, really freaking hard. Can I ask you some questions about that process, if you haven’t locked all your memories from that time in a titanium box and sunk ’em to the bottom of your brain’s Marianas Trench?
Barbara Poelle: Absolutely. Also, my kids are totally into goblin sharks right now so that reference was very on point for me.
HR: What was the most surprising thing to you about the experience of completing a manuscript yourself, after seeing so many authors go through the process?
BP: I think I mention this in the acknowledgements, but I was surprised at how thirsty I got for my editor, Amy Jones, to give me a little “lol” in the margins during revisions. There was this wash of relief I had anytime I saw those three little letters—I mean, if relief is what Bruce Banner feels when he tears out of his shirt, ’cuz that’s what it felt like. It reminded me how important it is during an editorial phone call with a client to acknowledge the beats that are WORKING in a manuscript, along with the areas of opportunity to improve what isn’t working, so they too can hulk out.
HR: Oof, this is SUCH a great reminder. It is so easy from our side of the process to be focused on ticking off the to-do list and moving the book over the finish line and in the rush to get things done, we forget to remind the client that we love and believe in the project. Such a good reminder for those of us across the desk, to keep that perspective and how vulnerable it is to put work out there, even for established creators.
Speaking of the relationship with your editor, every editorial process involves killing more than a few darlings. Do you have any “ones that got away,” jokes or bits cruelly sacrificed by your editor on the altar of brevity and/or public decency?
BP: OH man, yes. YES. I mean, I think you of all people are familiar with my style of humor: if a single rim shot will suffice, you know I am strapping a snare, three cymbals, a harmonica, two maracas, and a kazoo to a clown…and then kicking him down a staircase.
There was a lot of gentle, “This is a bit muddled” and “I am not sure what this means” and “Unclear” as I would extend a joke through so many incongruent layers it would make a turducken cringe.
HR: And as we all know, it takes a LOT to make a turducken cringe. They’ve seen things they can’t unsee.
BP: [Cackling] Right? Where’s the lie? Okay. I wanna add that, tangentially, I felt like I got away with a lot too…there is a craft question about including chapter titles in novels where I still laugh out loud every time I read it.
HR: I’m so glad they let you have that! Your publisher was sold between the time you received the offer and when the book actually published. In this age of mergers, what advice would you have for authors facing the same experience?
BP: I used a carefully measured recipe consisting of patience, optimism, and people who were smarter than me, and I mixed those things into a cake and stuffed myself with it every few weeks. Basically, I maintained contact with the staff as it was reconfiguring, I watched the trades for acquisition news, I kept a file open for jotting ideas, and I emailed you like twice a month, saying, “Whaddya think?” while eating frosting right from the container.
HR: I think I mostly just sent you GIFs in response. It’s great to have supportive friends, huh? Although, truth be told, GIFs are about all there is to do when there’s corporate maneuvers afoot. Here’s a question for you about that in-between process time: did you have any moments where you heard your own advice to your writers ringing in your ears? Was your writer-self so grateful for the insight and wisdom of your agent-self, or were you convinced agents, like parents, just don’t understand? Bonus points if you work in the phrase “hoist on my own petard” into this answer.
Obviously, I had the most competent agent and the dreamiest client.
Truthfully, I was a maniac on both sides of the desk. On one side, I agreed to terms and timelines that I would never have thought appropriate for a client. Nor did I ever pause to question myself as my agent on the logistics of writing a book while my husband was out of town for three months—no helping hands on deck. Momming was already a full-time side hustle, thus, it soon became clear to me how freaking AMAZING all of my clients truly are. (You never know someone until you’ve typed a mile on their QWERTY, that’s the saying, right?) Often during this time, I mimicked what some of my writers have said works for them. Wake up at five a.m., write for sixty–ninety minutes until the kids are up, get everyone out the door, get to the office. Nine hours later, (after being a MUCH better agent for my OTHER clients) collect my progeny for dinner and stories and bedtime, read manuscript until lights out. Peepers open again at five a.m. the next day and away we go! Every time I sat down to write, I again was in awe of my clients and all they have to have to DO this; weave their tales, send their craft to the future to enlighten and entertain. They make magic happen. Actual magic. Really, this is probably the only time I will write a book, but the insight I had into my clients’ talent and determination will stay with me forever.
Didn’t get the bonus points…or did I…loooook clooooser.
HR: I can’t find it, so I’m holding your bonus points in a reserve against returns; you might see them in two to four payment periods depending on market conditions.
BP: Zing! Hahahaha. Ah, publishing humor is like D&D humor. The majority of the room looks at you, baffled but gently tolerant, but then that one person beelines over and says “I want to talk to YOU tonight.”
HR: I talk a lot with my clients about their imaginary reader—the amalgamated invisible person they’re writing the book for. Do you have an imaginary reader for this book? Introduce us to them.
BP: You got a mirror? Come on, you know I LIVE to make you laugh. Wait, I live to make your husband Jonathan keep laughing while you and Travis have long ago finished laughing at the joke and eye roll at us and talk over our cackles about climate change or bitcoins or Sondheim or whatever clever folks discuss.
HR: That’s true. The best sign of a good night is the number of times you and Jonathan are gasping for air while Travis and I transition gently back to our discussion of our favorite podcast.
BP: Really, I feel like my one true purpose on the planet is to inject a little levity into life. Being an artist is hard. Especially these past months. And being a grown-up is hard. Especially this past millennia. Authors are artists and they are putting themselves out there to be embraced and rejected and lauded and ignored, sometimes all in the same review. And grown-ups are putting themselves out there pretending they aren’t terrified and awed and despairing and hopeful, sometimes all in the same Zoom meeting. We all deserve to laugh, at ourselves and with each other. The reader for this is someone who is looking to give their brain a lot of insight and a little break.
HR: You absolutely accomplished that. I eat sleep and breathe publishing and I still found the book both encouraging and refreshing—truly a brain break. And I laughed out loud, a lot. While I’m blowing you up, if I may say, I felt like you did a really great job balancing those essential basics that you have to cover in a book like this with deeper dives into the whys and hows of publishing, so I can see a reader coming to this brand new and getting a lot out of it, and then finding new layers at a later stage in their careers. But enough about YOU. How did you work up the courage to ask such an esteemed luminary as Holly Root to write a foreword for you?
BP: HAHAH—I mean, if memory serves, I believe I called you and very smoothly said, “Hey, if one of your clients writes a foreword to a book, do they get paid a fee?” and you said “‘Not usually, no’” and I said “Good, because I told them you are writing the foreword to my book and I am not gonna pay you.” And you made a chuffing sound while I promptly ate a scoop of frosting.
HR: That…is exactly how it happened. Hoist on my own petard.
BARBARA POELLE is Vice President at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, representing a variety of genres but focusing on suspense, thriller, upmarket, and young adult fiction. Her book Funny You Should Ask: Mostly Serious Answers to Mostly Serious Questions about the Book Publishing Industry (January 14, 2020; Writer’s Digest Books) is based on her Writer’s Digest column of the same name. You can visit her at funnyyoushouldaskbook.com or irenegoodman.com/barbara-poelle.
HOLLY ROOT is a literary agent who launched more than two dozen New York Times bestsellers before founding Root Literary in 2017. You can visit her online at rootliterary.com.