The Literary Life and How To Live It
by Sean Murphy
An Interview with Todd Pierce
Talk about your Jack-of-all-trades: Writer, teacher, advocate for unpublished writers. Too good to be true? Nope. Todd Pierce epitomizes the literary life, and should stand as a role model for any aspiring fiction writer. Versatile enough to publish short stories while simultaneously setting his sights on novels, he brings a passion and erudition to his work, as well as the classroom, where he teaches fiction writing.
To a large and appreciative, and mostly anonymous, fan base across the country, Todd is known and loved as the mastermind behind the website Literaryagents.org. This site is an invaluable resource for writers seeking publication, and agents on the lookout for new talent. That Todd has taken it upon himself to keep this site alive and active well after his own publishing career has progressed is a testament to the type of artist, and individual he is.
Winner of the IAP Award for Fiction, a Kingsbury Fellowship, and the Charles Angoff Award, Todd James Pierce holds degrees from the University of California at Irvine (MFA), Oregon State University (MA), and Florida State University (PhD). He is the author of two novels, THE SKY LIKE TAMRA BLUE (2006) and THE AUSTRALIA STORIES (2003) and the co-author of the forthcoming textbook BEHIND THE SHORT STORY (2005). His work has appeared in books published by Penguin, University of Iowa Press, and NCTE Press and in magazines such as Fiction, The Georgia Review, Indiana Review, The Missouri Review, North American Review, Poets & Writers, Shenandoah, and Story Quarterly. He is an assistant professor at Clemson University, and his personal website is toddjamespierce.com
SM: First and foremost, for folks who might understandably know you primarily from your Lit Agents website, let's celebrate the fact that you are also a published writer! Not only is your novel THE AUSTRALIA STORIES available in bookstores everywhere, it has received critical praise and clearly found a receptive audience. Are you satisfied with the reaction(s)?
TP: Yes, I'm pleased that there have been lots of positive reviews. Moreover, I'm pleased that people read the book, enjoyed it, found it interesting. At a reading in Portland, a man came up to me and said, no one has ever written a book that contained so much of his own experience before. That was a good moment. That was one of the moments that made being on the road worthwhile. Publishing a book is a strange mix of art and commerce. I wish writing was entirely about the art. When I'm in my room, writing a chapter or a story, it is entirely about the art. It is about the love of a good story, the exploration of a complex character. But publishing those stories or those chapters is not only about art. It's about books as well.
I went on the road and did about forty readings when my novel, The Australia Stories, came out-that helped generate reviews in newspapers. I also appeared on regional NPR. Being on the road is invaluable for exposure: people will show up to readings (really, they will), and there is no question that readings will introduce readers to your work. I had some nice experiences. In Vegas, there was a good turn out, maybe forty people. Same in San Diego and Seattle. There were some readings with just a few people-maybe four or five. One stormy Tuesday in North Carolina, only two. At Dutton's, in Los Angeles, there was a small crowd, maybe ten or eleven people. I sold nine books there. But I had a chance to talk to the booksellers at Dutton's-really, wonderful knowledgeable book people-and a week or two later, when I called back, they had sold all forty copies of the book and ordered more. Those sales were a gift. Even while I was on the phone, I was thinking, at least forty people are reading my novel in Los Angeles. This happened because the staff at Dutton's got behind the book and hand sold it.
I had a similar experience at Books and Books in Miami, one of the best bookstores in the southeast. The store's owner, Mitchell Kaplan, arranged a reading for me on a Sunday night and helped promote it. Not only did he arrange it he attended it as well. He had some flattering things to say about my book and promised to read it when he had a chance. Six weeks later, at a reading in California, a couple came up to me who had already read the book. (I was always amazed when anyone came to a reading who'd already read the book. I wondered, how did they find it?) When I asked where they'd purchased the book, they told me that, while vacationing in Florida, they had visited Books and Books where a young man-judging by their description, none other than Mitchell Kaplan-told them, "If you leave this store with only one book, leave with this book." In short I was totally blown away that a bookseller had so actively helped place my books into the hands of readers. I think what I'm trying to say is this: when you publish your book, go out on the road. Meet the readers. Meet the booksellers. You'll be placing yourself into the hands of very generous people who love good books as much as you do.
SM: Has your experience tended to demystify the publishing process (for good or bad-or both) or has it made it even more special?
TP: Having a book come out is a great excuse to get out there and give readings. I think I had pretty realistic expectations for my book. No one should have any illusions: it's an increasingly tight market-particularly for literary fiction. Things have changed a lot since the mid-80's-for art in general, but especially for books and the publishing industry. I've known people who've recently published first books, and I came equipped with the understanding that it's wise to assume that all the pressure is on YOU to promote your book. Naturally, your publisher will do what they can, but if you go into it with an accurate appraisal of how things work and how much competition there is, you can only help yourself by being involved. For instance, my publisher set up a handful of readings for me, but I set up more than thirty myself.
SM: Other work(s) on the way? (Feel free to discuss works in progress, works already completed, ETC.)
TP: I've been working on a novel for about a year and a half, and I hope to have that done in the near future. My agent, Richard Parks, is currently shopping around another short-story collection. At the moment the collection is called Newsworld. We'll see if that title sticks once the book is sold. I like the title very much. But titles are always a tricky thing.
SM: So you've already completed another collection of new short stories?
TP: Yes. I love short stories; I love reading them; I love writing them. In a perfect world, I'd write even more short stories, but the reality is that short story collections don't sell well. Especially short story collections that aren't linked or tightly themed. It's a shame, but it's a trend we've seen get worse in the last decade. I was at Barnes & Noble recently and when I looked at the new fiction section, in four bookcases there were two collections of short stories and the rest were novels. Nowadays, short fiction simply isn't being published; certainly not at the rate it used to be. But having said that, I left Barnes & Noble that day with three books-two short story collections and a novel. The collections were amazing-David Means' new collection and a first collection (but second book) by David Benioff. I think that's what short stories are becoming-they're becoming a form for lovers of the form.
David Means has been able to make a reputation for himself exclusively as a short story writer, but that's rare now. In terms of publishing, most short story contracts are piggybacked onto novel contracts. That's the primary way that they are accepted by New York houses. With university or independent presses, it's different.
SM: Many people, as previously mentioned, would know you from Literaryagents.org, which you describe as a "low-tech, straight-forward guide to literary agents". How did this incredible resource come to be?
TP: I created it for a class I was teaching at Florida State several years ago, and it sort of exploded. It began getting tens of thousands of hits a month. I look at this project as a useful thing I can put back into the community, and it only takes about one day of concerted effort per month. Every day I get two or three e-mails thanking me, so that makes it worth the time invested. I think for people outside the publishing world, this is useful information, and I'm looking to provide simple, straightforward advice.
SM: Any plans on turning the site into something-dare I say "bigger"? A book perhaps?
TP: I don't know! I've thought about writing a book on agents/agenting, but there are so many good ones already out there, you know? Who knows. I know the word-of-mouth reception (from agents and writers alike) is positive; agents feel more comfortable getting queries, because in order to find this site in the first place, it's a safe assumption that the writer has at least some knowledge of the industry, or is at the very least fairly serious about finding representation.
SM: Presumably you've received kudos-from both agents who can essentially advertise their services, as well as writers who are looking for agents-for the work you've done. Would you care to shed any insight you've gained: the proverbial good, bad and ugly, concerning agents, who are, fairly or not, often thought of as aloof and inaccessible?
TP: The site has been running for about seven years, and I've certainly learned a great deal. For starters, I can appreciate how difficult it would be to become an agent. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on these people, and they constantly have to make difficult decisions. I have known agents who take on books they don't necessarily love but know will sell, as opposed to books they might love but will have serious challenges selling to an editor/publisher. There is only so much time, and it is a business. I've seen a lot of excellent agents drop out because it's such a hard business. I do love getting e-mails from people who have met or found agents and then had books sold via my site. That's a great feeling.
SM: You are now teaching. Has this experience enriched your own writing? I've talked to many writers, who also teach, and there seems to be an inevitable push-and-pull in terms of time and energy, and teaching (probably like any other profession) can be seen as something that contributes and distracts from the craft of writing. Thoughts?
TP: I love teaching. I love those moments when students-perhaps for the first time-understand how to write a story. Teaching fiction writing also is always a useful way to remember or reinforce the basics-the craft of writing. I'm always reminded to think about ways to utilize these tools in my own work. After you've written for a while, you sort of internalize the lessons you've learned, so it's nice to be around people who are writing. Of course, teaching does take a lot of time and energy. I try to keep myself on a strict schedule to ensure that I'm writing as much as I need to be.
SM: Again, as a teacher, if you had to say: has the writing of your students gotten better over time? Worse? The same? What positive trends have you noticed? What awful ones? Is it true to presume that regardless of genre or generation, good writing (and good writers) tend to find their way?
TP: Movies have definitely done a great deal to ruin fiction in college workshops. Maybe "ruin" is not the right word. New writers should take in everything-genre books, literary books, movies, drama, music, documentaries. When I was an MFA student I kept season tickets to the LA Opera because I wanted to have a better understanding of how opera presented stories. But when a new writer's inspiration is too focused on something other than literature or writing-say, films for example-they can spend a lot of energy attempting to translate the style of film-particularly its style of dialogue and visual presentation-into prose fiction. It usually doesn't work well. Film relies exclusively on scene. In fiction, the narrative dances between summary narration and scene. Film strongly relies on objective representations of characters, placing the audience as witnesses to a story. Fiction relies on internal representations, attaching the audience to a subjective point of view of one character. It's a subtle but significant paradigm shift. When I first began teaching workshops, Pulp Fiction distracted a lot of writers. More recently the Kevin Smith movies have done the same thing. A lot of the elements that make for a great movie, whether it's dialogue or style, don't necessarily translate into the short story, especially for the novice.
SM: MFA or No-MFA? Any comments or opinions for the folks who are adamant (pro OR con) about the value of MFA programs?
TP: It depends on what you want out of an MFA program.
I think many people move blindly into MFA programs hoping that the MFA will lead to publication. All MFA programs help students develop their writing. That's the important thing. Most all MFA programs have at least a few students who have gone on to publish a book.
But in terms of publishing, I'd say there are currently about a dozen, maybe fifteen MFA programs that will genuinely help young writers move toward book-length publication-with agents and editors coming in to meet with the class, establishing connections for down the road. Depending on your own personal goals, such opportunities to work with publishing professionals may or may not be important for you. But you should know what an MFA program can realistically offer before attending.
Beyond those dozen or fifteen schools, there are a number of programs out there where you get two or three years where you can write and teach, and this is obviously very useful for many people. I think many people many people find this experience invaluable-having a couple years to write and enjoying the company of other people who value writing.
What I'm trying to get at is this: there are over one-hundred MFA programs in the country, all of them different. And the differences are significant. If you want to attend an MFA program, start looking at what each school offers. Each year the AWP (Associate Writing Programs) puts out a guide to graduate programs in creative writing (www.awpwriter.org). And when you've narrowed down your selections to four or five programs, find out everything about each school-its graduates, its teachers, the courses you'll be taking. Highly-ranked MFA programs are extremely competitive, so make sure to submit a very strong audition packet of fiction with your application. And let each school know your reasons, specifically, for applying to their school.
But before attending an MFA program you need to have a realistic understanding of what that MFA program is able to offer you-in terms of funding, class offerings, workshops, the prospects for your life as a writer or a teacher of writing after you receive the degree.
At times, I loved my MFA workshops. At times, I hated them. At times, I despised them. The advice I received in them flattered me, frustrated me, infuriated me, stifled me. But I know this: the experience made me a better writer. It took me years after receiving the MFA to publish a book. But I wouldn't have published that book without the training I received in the MFA program.
SM: Who would you recommend as some of the better writers currently producing fiction?
TP: As I mentioned, I read a lot of short stories. I love Updike, and have returned to his stories often. Lorrie Moore, Richard Ford, Robert Olen Butler, Alice Munro, Charles Baxter, Richard Bausch. I would say, as a short story writer, there is a sort of insular geekiness, where you tend to know who is producing the best work in that community, and I enjoy it and want to support it.
As for new relatively new writers, I love the work of George Saunders, Stacey Richter, Aimee Bender, and Adam Johnson.
SM: If you had to say which writer influenced you most, and which book, what would they be? Any other notable influences, artistic or otherwise?
TP: Updike is very important; I read him all the time. I think Richard Ford and Robert Olen Butler both have very traditional, enveloping voices. They both bring a dramatic sense of urgency to their stories and create a strong interiority for each of their characters, and I respond to that. When I was younger, Bret Easton-Ellis and Jay McInerny were big influences. We're talking back in high school. I read Bright Lights, Big City several times. Once I started avidly reading, I read everything I could. These days I'm more picky, but I tend to take recommendations from other writers, or reviewers that I trust.
SM: If you could succinctly summarize the trajectory (thus far!) of your writing life, how different is it from what you imagined, as an earnest but unpublished author? How is it better? Worse? What things would you have changed?
TP: I didn't realize when I was younger how long it would take to write book-length manuscripts, how hard the process really was. I wish I had understood the place of the short story earlier on, what I was getting myself into! I wouldn't change anything, I'd have done the same thing, but maybe it would have been impossible to even predict the ways in which short stories have sort of been marginalized.
As far as how things have changed, I'd say that back in the 80's the industry was not as formalized or competitive; now getting books published is not unlike actors trying to get minor roles in movies. Early on I heard a writer who was teaching an MFA class explain that there are typically six students in a class per year, and that two of them will eventually publish, two of them will teach or be in a related field, and two of them will finish the program and want nothing more to do with it. That's held up fairly consistently in my observations over the years. But the business of writing at the university level has changed considerably. In the mid-80's the MFA programs exploded across the country. In 1995 I attended the AWP Conference in Newport News, Va., and there were about six or seven hundred people there.
These days there are four or five thousand people coming to these conferences.
SM: Lastly: any advice for aspiring writers?
TP: There is no better way to examine the human condition than carefully written fiction. As our nation changes-and our national identity is changing-I think fiction will be an important tool by which we examine those personal changes, both in our actions and in our intentions.
I'd say that there are actually too many good short stories out there right now (not too few); there are just so few places to publish them. There are, I think, about 125 MFA programs in the USA right now, and a beginning writer has to ask: what am I going to do to take the skills I'm learning and individualize them, how am I going to incorporate my talent into a vision that I can express in my fiction? For younger writers, I think it's an exciting time to be creating fiction. No one has written the great book(s) about being a young twenty-something in 2004 or 2005. As the world changes, there are new experiences to write about, which ties into finding your voice and your vision, and creating original work that people will want to read.
For writers just starting out-I'd encourage anyone to start sending stories out. Try magazines; try the small presses; try literary journals; for novelists try to find an agent. Work on your stories all the time; keep them in the mail. Find a couple of writers who have a writing/publishing life that you would like to emulate-someone who is five or six years down the road: talk to them and listen to their advice, they'll understand what you are going through and they may have some useful insight.
When I was an MFA student, I had the opportunity to attend the Squaw Valley Writers Conference three years in a row. The last year I attended, I told one of the new writers, a friend I'd made earlier that year, that my main observation about writing and publishing after attending the conference for three years was this: "The main reason writers don't get published is because they give up-give up writing, give up sending their work out. Just give up." This past summer that same writer called me. I hadn't talked to him in a couple years. He told me he had a first book coming out, and when he was frustrated with the writing, he would often remember that-about giving up. "So guess what," he told me on the phone, "I didn't give up."
That, I believe, is the only way to approach the difficult process of writing fiction. By continually refusing to give up.