Ann Beman talks with Regina Brooks, founder and president, Serendipity Literary Agency, Brooklyn, NY
Note: The agency’s website, SerendipityLit.com, defines serendipity as “a word of varied meaning. At its heart: fortune, twists of fate, luck. Its connotations and sinuous elegance uniquely suit the name of a literary agency. Its essence is the beauty of language infused with adventurous spirit, delicately balanced at the confluence of timing and chance.”
Serendipity represents clients in children’s literature, non-fiction, and adult and young adult fiction.
Ann Beman: Regina, if you went to a bookstore to pick out a book, what section would you go for or what authors might you read?
Regina Brooks: I would probably first go into the self-help section—either self-help or new age. I love astrology and psychic phenomena type books.
AB: I heard you get really excited about the tarot. Do you do that at all?
RB: I have friends that are into that. I also like the healing arts, like Reiki and acupuncture. I have a lot of friends who are into that. I like space stuff, because my background before I started in publishing was aerospace engineering. I really like space travel and astronomy-type stuff.
AB: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about your engineering background.
RB: I went to Ohio State University and I graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering. I worked for NASA for a while and the Goddard Space Center in Maryland. I was going to go back to get a degree in biomedical engineering. I started a program and I had the summer off in Maryland and took this publishing program at the Howard University Publishing Institute, which no longer exists, and then I changed my mind. I deferred my fellowship for what I thought would be a year and I decided to stay in publishing. I started out in sales in higher ed(ucation). (John Wiley & Sons) is primarily a nonfiction-book-publishing company, and they do a lot of engineering and science books. I started out with sales, and after nine months, they moved me to New York and I became an editor.
Brooks made history as the first African American woman to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering from Ohio State.
AB: What was your job; what did you do for NASA?
RB: I did structural analysis on space probes.
AB: You told us in your presentation that you have an interesting use for genealogy software. But instead of including, say, Uncle Nate on the family tree, you might plug in a Random House subsidiary.
RB: My interns and I were trying to keep track of the changes in publishing, who’s been bought by whom, and so on, and that’s what we’ve come up with: a genealogy program. It’s the best way we’ve found to track what’s happening. It changes all the time.
AB: Let’s talk about reading strategies, strategies for getting through your piles of manuscripts. To what point do you read to get an indication that this is or is not a project you would consider taking on?
RB: With both manuscripts and queries, I read them and then set them down for two or three days. If I remember (the proposal) after that time, it means that it has resonated with me. That said, I’ve found that good pitchers are not necessarily good writers.
AB: What do you mean?
RB: I find (not always, but often) that good writers tend to be less verbal and better with the written word.
AB: We MFA students appreciate literary agents coming to us, to our residencies way out on Whidbey Island. We learn a ton from your presentations, but I’m wondering, what do you take away from visiting us?
RB: It’s a give-back as well as an investment in the future. For the most part, I’m wanting to help writers know other writers. But I also recognize that there are a lot of people (in these programs) who are serious about writing. They may not have anything at the time (I meet them) but they might somewhere down the line.
AB: As a nonfiction writer, I’ve become curious about how agents work with ghostwriters. What advice would you give a would-be ghostwriter?
RB: I would say, identify yourself as being interested in certain types of projects, as in a specific topic you have an affinity for. I represent writers, too, (as opposed to just representing specific projects) and I keep a list of people who I’ve worked with in the past.
AB: Would you talk more about your stable of clients?
RB: I like to develop writers. When I first started my agency, I was into that a lot: helping writers find their voice. I really got my hands dirty with manuscripts. But now, I’m finding I’m less able to do that. But I like to keep a balanced portfolio—of writers who are ready to go and seasoned writers, as well as people who need some development. I just love taking the seed of an idea and helping bring it to fruition.
AB: What’s you advice to writers?
RB: I’ve been reading the poet Rumi: “Live where you fear to live,” he says in one poem. To be a writer, you have to have a lot of courage. You have to push the envelope. The more you do that, the better you writing is. I go by that advice, too, because I’m going onto ground here that not a lot of people tread. I mean, there are not a lot of African American agents out there.
WS: Susan, you came to nonfiction/nature writing through a kind of circuitous route with visual arts and poetry first. How do you think those experiences have influenced your nature writing?
SZ: I feel so lucky to have worked in poetry first and to have worked with Richard Hugo in Iowa, because I learned an intense kind of language. I learned to pick every word and to write by ear. I like sound. I like sentences. Every word to count and sound right. I like dense language and beautiful description and all the tools that poetry gives you. And the art was also important. I am very visual in my writing in that I include long, visual descriptions, which, for nature writing, is probably a good thing.
WS: You come from a very creative family. What were those early influences like for you? Growing up, was art really valued?
SZ: I guess I grew up in a European-like household in that gourmet food was the fare and there was always classical music playing, or really good jazz or calypso music. Everybody always painted and made art and I just thought that was the way of life. I was exposed to it from early on. My Mom was getting her PhD in art history when I came along. She was working on her doctorate or her masters at Bloomington, Indiana. Then she went to Harvard to study in the Fogg Art Museum. To me, that just seemed like a normal way of life.
WS: You do know now that that’s not the norm for kids growing up in our country?
SZ: (laughter) Yes, we’re not as attuned to art. That’s why I think of myself as growing up in a European household. The Europeans I’ve met are all surrounded by art and value it highly. Of course, I probably meet a selected few in traveling.
WS: That explains the creative influence, but where did the nature writing come in?
SZ: We also had a lot of exposure to the out-of-doors, the wilderness, and things of beauty outside, and the ocean. I remember Mom taking me by the hand, walking along the Atlantic Ocean in Florida and explaining to me about life in the tide pools. She read all of Rachel Carson. She had me read The Web of Life, which was a big popular ecology book at the time, when I was very young, probably too young to understand it, but always exposure to nature and exposure to art.
WS: How did you get from the visual arts to poetry?
SZ: I wrote my first poem at age 8. I don’t know why, but I liked the sound, strict rhythm and rhyme and the language. Ironically, I was very slow to learn to read. I didn’t really start reading until about third grade, and then it just took flight for me. I read a lot of poets, and Robert Burns, who has good rhythm and rhyme and sound, when I was young. Then by the time I was a teenager, I was reading T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland and walking along like a dark poet all dressed in black, melodramatic. That was very unusual in my family. Though Mom is a well-known writer now, she was really a visual artist in those days.
WS: As an undergraduate was your focus visual arts or writing?
SZ: Both. Equally both. I was working on a double major at Cornell and at the last second I decided not to do two theses. But I was in the art department and I was also known on campus as a poet. I often did fiction and tried to do some journalism, but that didn’t work out as well. I just wrote like mad in college. I was really inspired by it. Our English department was quite high-powered so you were expected to read everything. I didn’t realize that you could skip parts of a book and still get good grades, so I read every single word of every single book. It provided me a tremendous English literature background and a background in English poetry. A friend of mine in grad school at Harvard borrowed my poetry book and notes on English poets. He came back and said, “The notes scribbled in your poetry book are more elaborate than anything I have!”
That little college gave me a really good background.
WS: Did you go directly to the Iowa Writers Workshop, or did you go out in the world for a while?
SZ: I probably should have gone out in the world and had more life experience, but I went directly to Iowa. Everybody drank a lot and the poets tended to be kind of dark, depressed people and very intellectual. It was just kind of a crazy culture there, and I think if I had had more maturity, I would have formed my own reality better. But as far as learning poetry, Wow! When Richard Hugo got there, I felt like I just took off. I finally understood what you could do with sound and the power of language without having rhythm or rhyme. I wanted to do more than just the workshop every week, so I went over to comparative literature and audited courses, which I enjoyed tremendously. The education at Iowa was very good. They even gave in and let me take print-making.
WS: Did meeting Richard Hugo have any influence on your move to Washington, or was that just coincidental?
SZ: I once told him how much I loved Theodore Roethke, and he said, “You know, I can hear it in your voice. I think you may be the granddaughter of Theodore Roethke.” I always felt like he was my poetry father and Roethke was my grandfather, and of course, I fell madly in love with Gary Snyder, who is a Northwesterner.
I also studied Zen Buddhism and sat zazen for a while, so I had a huge connection with writers in the Northwest, but I had never been here. I lived for seven years in Santa Fe, where I was the contemporary art curator at the museum, art critic for their major arts newspaper, and worked in a wonderful arts/crafts gallery. But when I decided it was time to go somewhere new, I shopped around a lot. I drove up to Seattle to visit a friend and I just fell in love. I thought, ‘this is home.’ So, I think Roethke, Hugo, and Snyder had a lot to do with that. I liked the way Northwesterners think.
WS: What are you working on now?
SZ: I have two books going. One is about the craft of writing, but not a how-to-write book. It’s more about the transformative power of literature and how it can change a whole nation or change a person; not only the writer, but also readers. And how, like Gary Snyder, a voice can speak for a whole generation and really make a shift in the zeitgeist of the time. Of course, there’s also the craft of prose—using poetic tools for prose writing.
Then I’m working on a second one about my travels with my mom (nature writer Ann Zwinger) and all the different places we’ve gone and the adventures we have had together.
WS: That sounds like fun.
SZ: Yes. My notes aren’t good enough. They are all about the natural history and the science; it’s great. But not enough personal notes. There is a lesson for you.
Also, I’m working on a woodpecker piece, an article that I’ve got to shop around, about woodpeckers being a keystone species in the forest.
And poems pop out; about once every two weeks a poem will pop out, but I don’t give them the time that I should to polish them.
I still do short stories. They always surprise me. One just comes all of a sudden, and I’ll stay up all night to finish it. Then I won’t do anything with it because it takes all my time to market myself as a nonfiction writer. I wish I had time to develop the other art forms as well.
WS: When I invent my 25 hour clock, I’ll be sure to send you one.
SZ: I certainly could use it!