The “super-agent” talks about finding success with messy, difficult books, re-thinking how we publish works in translation, and the advice she gives to authors—no hotel porn on book tours.
Photo courtesy Deborah Treisman.
Every year the MacArthur Foundation gives a small number of $500,000 fellowships to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.” In recent years, this so-called “genius grant” has been awarded to, among others, Junot Díaz, Aleksandar Hemon, Edwidge Danticat, and Colson Whitehead. The thing these writers have in common, besides their talent, is that they are represented by the same literary agent: Nicole Aragi. Her client list also includes the likes of Julie Otsuka, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander, and Chris Ware. Whatever the proper collective noun for geniuses is (Google suggests a “bevy” or a “savvy”) Nicole Aragi has proved herself to be unusually adept at finding them.
The success of her authors has made Aragi a hallowed name in literary circles. Writers want to be represented by her, and publishers’ pulses quicken when her name flashes up on their phones. Her website cultivates an air of mystery. It’s a single monochrome page consisting solely of the words “Aragi,” “Nicole Aragi,” and “email@example.com.” You’d get more information from your average bottle of brandy. There are web forums where wannabe bestsellers share rejection slips they’ve received from her assistant. They analyze the meaning of the words, “Sadly, Nicole Aragi has a full client list,” and discuss just how sad the assistant might really be.
In person, Nicole Aragi is an obliging interviewee: straightforward, warm, and quick to laugh. She greeted me barefoot, swearing cheerfully about an email she’d just received. Her Chelsea workspace has a stylish, casual vibe; she is not, she told me, a “shiny-office agent.” At the request of one or two of her authors, forthcoming furnishings are said to include a hammock and a Ping-Pong table. You get the feeling she’d probably beat you. Across the corridor is the apartment she shares with John Freeman, the writer, literary critic, and former Granta editor. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are packed with fiction.
Over cups of English tea on a Wednesday afternoon we talked about finding writers who are producing “risky, sometimes messy” literature, the days when no one would give her a job in publishing, and why in the US “writing by women can still get sidelined.”
– Jonathan Lee for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve become known for the range of literary voices you’ve introduced to readers in the English-speaking world. New York Magazine says you’ve “done more to introduce us to this past decade’s greatest young ethnic writers than any editor or publisher.” I’m curious as to whether that’s something you set out to do.
Nicole Aragi: Not consciously, I don’t think. But there was definitely a moment when I looked at my list and thought, “Oh.” [Laughs] It was clear that I’d built up a list of authors who were in some way straddling cultures, or writing out of a sense of cultural dislocation.
Maybe in literature I was looking for something which reflected, in some way, my own experiences of living between different cultures. I don’t know, but it’s possible. My father was Lebanese and my mother is English. I grew up in Libya and then in Lebanon. We moved around a lot. We were always shifting. I think people read books in order to be entertained, but they also read books to understand themselves. And by reading a book by, for example, Sasha [Aleksandar Hemon], I can learn about myself. I know nothing about Bosnia, really, but I can learn about my own experiences of being a person caught between cultures by reading about the experiences of a Bosnian in America.
After a while, what was once a matter of instinct becomes self-fulfilling. I fell in love with certain books, and then those kinds of books became something I was associated with. People sent me more and more fiction about people caught between cultures. I love crime thrillers, all sorts of books. I’m very catholic in my tastes. But everyone thinks, “This literary culture clash stuff is what Nicole likes.” Those are the manuscripts that arrive on my desk. I joke that the more hyphens there are in an author’s ethnicity, the more likely it is that the book will end up being sent to me. Really all I had in mind at the outset was that I wanted to put out into the world the kind of books that I wanted to find in a bookshop.
Guernica: You once ran a bookshop, right?
Nicole Aragi: Yes, that was my first job in the book world. I was living in London, and I couldn’t get a job in publishing. I kept sending letters to publishing houses begging for work. Often I didn’t get responses. In fact, several of the publishing people who never responded to my letters are people I now work with very closely. I don’t blame them. I had a history degree and no experience. I was too green at the time to see that my lack of experience was a problem.
One day I was in Wimbledon with a friend and we passed a bookshop. I was probably lamenting my lack of job offers in publishing and my friend pointed to the shop. It was for sale and my friend said, “Why don’t you take over?” And I got a loan and did exactly that.
Guernica: Did you enjoy being a bookseller?
Nicole Aragi: Unfortunately, I approached running a bookshop with the same naivety that I’d shown in applying for publishing jobs. I’m one of those people who’s really enthusiastic about things and then can’t understand why the rest of the world isn’t similarly excited. I say, “But it’ll all be so perfect!” and then don’t get it when others aren’t quite so enthused. I ran the bookshop unsuccessfully for a while, and then realized I wasn’t going to be able to pay my rent. I went through the store with a calculator, figuring out what was selling. I realized I needed to reduce the poetry section and cut the plays section. What I needed to do to make money was to increase the gardening section. It was Wimbledon, and gardening books were what sold. But of course selling those books wasn’t what I’d had in mind. I’d thought I was going to sit around all day talking about great books to great customers. To make the bookshop turn a decent profit, which it eventually did, I had to become a kind of accountant.
My work is my life. Some people have family or a variety of other interests. What I love doing is working with books. It’s day and night for me.
Guernica: How did the move into agenting happen?
Nicole Aragi: The friend who’d told me to take over the bookshop came up with more advice. This time my friend said, “You liked selling books you love. So why not become a literary agent, and deal with manuscripts?” Another good idea!
A couple of the authors who used to come into the bookshop and sign books told me I should meet their UK agent, who was Abner Stein. Abner was a great agent, and one of those people who knew everybody. If he decided he wanted to help you, he was an incredibly generous man. He gave me my first opportunities. He put me in touch with people. I became an assistant at an agency thanks to him. I was thirty, and the other assistants were twenty. I felt the age difference quite sharply. I thought I’d better get on with it, and quite quickly I was allowed to start building up a list. It was Gloria Loomis’s agency. She was very supportive and her attitude was, “When you’re ready, you’re ready.”
Guernica: Do you remember who your first client was?
Nicole Aragi: I’m always trying to remember my first. I’ve got a terrible memory. John [Freeman] is my data cloud. Stuff which I need to remember I outsource to him.
Nathan Englander was definitely one of my very earliest clients. He was a superb author to be working with. His story “The Twenty-Seventh Man” is one of those stories which I read and read again, wondering how on earth he made me feel the way he did in so few pages. I have no ambitions to write, but I’m fascinated by how writers can do that, and the compression of a great short story can be amazing. Junot [Díaz] was a very early client too. I feel like Junot’s first story collection was when editors began, for the first time, returning my calls with any speed. But even then, when I first took on Junot’s stories it was difficult to get anyone interested.
Guernica: Could you talk a little bit about how you came to take on Junot as a client, and get him published?
Nicole Aragi: Well Junot first came to me through a magazine contact, actually. Lois Rosenthal at Story magazine. She had a real eye for talent and she was willing to publish people who hadn’t been published before. She sent some stories of Junot’s to a whole bunch of agents, including me, and Junot later said that he selected me from all the agents he met because I was brown. He’s said it at various readings—“She was brown, so…” And I’m always saying, “Oh, Junot, wasn’t it my superior intellect?” Anyway, we clicked and had a drink. I got his writing. We got each other.
At the same time, what helped was that although I was quite new in the business I had some good links among magazine editors. I’d been doing the serial rights for Gloria Loomis’s clients when I was an assistant for her. I remember sending two stories of Junot’s to Bill Buford at The New Yorker, and waiting to hear back. He called me when I was in the middle of trying to sell Junot’s first collection to publishers. He said, “I want to buy both stories.” And then I could call the editors at the publishing houses and mention that The New Yorker had just bought two stories from the collection that they were considering. Something like that happens and you know you’re going to have publishers biting your hand off. It was enormous good luck. A lot of publishing really is about good fortune. When I started out I thought this business was 10 percent luck. Now I think it’s 30 or 40 percent luck.
Guernica: If Junot’s first collection was when you felt editors started returning your calls quickly for the first time, when was it that you felt you were considered a truly top tier agent? When did things get big for you?
Nicole Aragi: I think I placed a number of very good debut novels with publishers in quite quick succession. Editors began to recognize that those authors were doing something interesting and exciting. We sold them for quite a lot of money, in some cases. The books did well even though none of them were obvious bestsellers. I guess the reputation of my agency grew in quite a short period of time because of those novels.
I still believe that book editors are, first and foremost, readers. They want to be entertained and excited. And I was lucky that manuscripts were reaching me that fitted that bill. The writers were trying out risky, sometimes messy, fascinating things. I love risky books, messy books.
Now, when I send out a novel by Colson Whitehead, people know immediately from the prose that it’s Colson Whitehead. If it’s the right reader, they’re excited. It’s easy to be disparaging about the publishing business, and there are lots of things to criticize, but most people in publishing love good books. I got to the stage where I’d had enough interesting, successful debuts that people trusted my judgement.
Guernica: Do you think about the writers on your list as a group, a single body?
Nicole Aragi: It’s really important to me that my authors get on with each other, that we all like each other. Early on, that became a factor as I built up my list. The writing had to be great, of course, but I also wanted to build up a group of people who would support each other and help each other and want to hang out. Last year I turned fifty. The authors on my list threw a surprise party for me. Walking into a room full of everyone you represent: it’s a really scary thing! One of my clients is [the artist and graphic novelist] Chris Ware, and he made me this as a present. [Aragi pulls out a box containing a beautifully made book. On the first page is a personal message signed by authors on her list.] Some of my authors—and I’m going to get a hard time for admitting this—talk about “Team A.” I know it might be cringe-worthy, but there’s a sense in which we try to be one team.
Sometimes I meet a writer and I know that they want to be with what I call a shiny-office agent. A big, formal agency. And that’s not me. I’ve got thirty-five clients on my list. My office space is attached to my home. I like my authors, they’re my friends. They know they can drop in and out, stop by for lunch, stay over and treat my home as their home. I came home recently, thinking no one was here, and there was Sasha Hemon on the sofa watching football and Colum McCann [who is a friend rather than a client] at the table doing some work. Sasha is obsessed with soccer; I’ve had to get extra cable channels for when he comes over. Even when he’s not watching it, he likes it on in the background. He’s very demanding!
So, we’re friends. And then everything else depends on the author. Some of my authors want and need a lot of editing from me, so I do that. They send me their first drafts, I work on those drafts with them. Others want to send me their polished work, work that’s already had input from a number of others. And that’s fine too; that author might have different things he or she needs my help with. It’s a really fluid thing. I try and be the agent a particular author needs me to be. Cringe-worthy, again, but true.
If you take a long view, and look at the careers of most great writers, you see them coming into their own with their fourth or maybe fifth novel. Cormac McCarthy, supposedly, didn’t—until he’d written his fourth or fifth book—make enough money in book sales to pay any taxes. So if you write people off too soon, you potentially miss the next Cormac McCarthy.
Guernica: You never crave some separation between your work life and your personal life?
Nicole Aragi: There are limits, obviously. But on the whole what I love is my work. My work is my life. Some people have family or a variety of other interests. What I love doing is working with books. It’s day and night for me. So I’ve tried to make my work environment pleasant. The best way to do that is to really, really like the people you work with.
Guernica: You mentioned that you had success early on with a series of debut novels. I wonder if you think publishers focus on debuts a little too much. How hard is it, by comparison, to sell third, fourth, or fifth novels?
Nicole Aragi: It’s fairly easy to sell a very good debut novel, where there’s no track record, or a bestseller. Everything in the middle can be a struggle. The publishing industry is quick to decide a particular author is an author who doesn’t sell, or an author who only appeals to a particular readership, or is too literary or too whatever. It’s hard—unfairly hard—to dig a writer out of that spot.
Publishers these days are constantly running P&Ls. They’re all looking at the numbers—how many books has an author already sold? They’re trying to weigh up the risk of publishing that author again. The only time they can’t look at the numbers—because there simply aren’t any numbers—is with a debut novelist. That’s when they have to go on instinct, and are perhaps more inclined to take a risk on something that’s in some way interesting or exciting or feels new.
Guernica: That’s a big problem, no? We may be missing out on great books by writers who take a while to get into their stride.
Nicole Aragi: Absolutely. If you take a long view, and look at the careers of most great writers, you see them coming into their own with their fourth or maybe fifth novel. Cormac McCarthy, supposedly, didn’t—until he’d written his fourth or fifth book—make enough money in book sales to pay any taxes. So if you write people off too soon, you potentially miss the next Cormac McCarthy. That concerns me. It’s a worry I have about the future of the industry. There are a lot of writers being shunted aside now after a couple of books, and we’ll never know what they could have done.
Having said that, it’s not all bad news. I have a lot of writers who I place with small publishers, and sometimes small publishers step in where bigger ones won’t take the risk. They pick up a book because they love it, and do a great job of publishing it—despite budget constraints—and then something happens with that book.
I’ve had my biggest successes with books that haven’t been obvious. I try to always bear that in mind. Books that others have rejected, books that seem too messy to work. You need to be open to things that others might not get, or might be scared of. Publishing is about matchmaking. You have to get it and then find just one other person who gets it. That’s what being an agent boils down to: I find a manuscript and I get it, respond to it deeply, and I look for someone else who’ll get it too. Then the book goes out there in the world and we do what we can to ensure it does well.
Guernica: Do you remember some of the books you “got” as a child? The ones you instantly responded to?
Nicole Aragi: I read and read as a child. With my family moving around a lot, I sought comfort in books, I think. I felt I was always starting a new school. I played the role of the quiet, geeky kid in our family. My brother was far more gregarious. Whenever we set up in a new place he managed to find, within fifteen minutes, a good group of friends. I’d think, “How does he know everybody?” It wasn’t like that for me. Nobody talked to me in class. I read a lot of books.
I remember as a child reading To Kill A Mockingbird. I’d never been outside the Middle East and yet I thought, “I get it, that’s me.” It had nothing to do with my own experiences and yet it had everything to do with them. I loved that book, it was crucial for me. Another important book for me was A Thousand and One Nights. I own it in six different editions.
We think of books in translation too earnestly and then publish them too earnestly, and then we’re surprised when they feel earnest. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Guernica: What is it you love about A Thousand and One Nights?
Nicole Aragi: I just love the storytelling. I love the sense that a number of stories are unspooling in unexpected ways. One of my clients, Rabih Alameddine, wrote a wonderful book called The Hakawati which does that gloriously—story after story after story. It really took me back to reading A Thousand and One Nights in those various editions, various translations, abridged versions and non-abridged versions, and kinky versions and not so kinky versions.
Guernica: There are kinky versions?
Nicole Aragi: Oh yeah. There’s a lot of really good sex in A Thousand and One Nights. It gets pretty wild. For some reason the kinky stuff gets cut out of a lot of the published versions, though. Someone should re-market A Thousand and One Nights for the E.L. James generation.
Guernica: Talking of E.L. James, it feels like a lot of people in the publishing industry are worrying about poor sales for good-quality fiction. That’s nothing new, perhaps, but it does seem like moment-to-moment trends determine more than ever what’s successful. E.L. James sells well, so suddenly there’s loads of erotica on the shelves. Harry Potter sells well, so we get a few years of child-wizards. Scandinavian crime, dragon tattoos, Harvard symbologists. Do you sense a pessimism among publishers about the sales for literary fiction? I wonder if it’s worse back in London—they seem to me to be more pessimistic there.
Nicole Aragi: The situation with book sales in England is, to tell the truth, pretty awful. I think after the Net Book Agreement collapsed, everything moved too fast. There wasn’t a chance to settle into a system that made actual sense. The discounting of books in England is insane. An editor in England said to me once, “I’ve got to go and explain to an author why his new book is selling more than his previous book but he’s earning less.” In England, it was fixed prices on Tuesday and no fixed prices on Wednesday. Decisions were made in a rush and got set in stone. That was disastrous for the industry there.
Here in America, there have never been fixed prices on books, and the negotiation between publishers and booksellers feels to me like it has evolved over a slower period of time. That’s better for everyone, including authors.
Being a writer is tough wherever you are, but good literary books do often find a way through. Nobody really knows what will sell well and, again, it’s often unusual books that break out. Writers have to be writers and then agents and editors have to do their best on that author’s behalf. We pass on to them whatever advice we have. My authors pass on advice to each other, in fact. The more established ones to the newer ones. There’s an element of support. One will say to another, “Don’t eat Doritos on the plane. You’ll be fat when you come back from your book tour.” That’s useful advice.
One of my authors—who’ll remain nameless—reminded me recently that I called him up before his first book tour and said, “Listen, if you watch porn on the hotel TV, people will know. It’ll go down on the bill as three dollars, film. And your publicist will know you’ve been watching porn. And then everyone’ll know.” This author said he’d recently passed on that wisdom to another of my authors. And the other author said, “Hang on, she didn’t tell me that.” Which raised the issue of why I might have thought one of my authors was more likely to watch porn than another…
Nicole Aragi: Yes!
Guernica: One thing we haven’t touched on yet is works in translation. The figures differ a little depending on who you speak to, but works in translation are said to account for about 3 percent of books published in the United States, I think?
Nicole Aragi: Yes. It’s difficult. I don’t know what the solution is. We should have more works available in translation. I think one problem is that I don’t read in other languages, and that most agents don’t either. If you can’t read a book in its original language and form a view on it, then that’s the first barrier. You need to find a reader in that language who you can absolutely trust, but even then, where is the personal response you need in order to know you really love something?
Then there’s resistance on the part of the publishing houses. There’s a belief that readers are far less likely to buy a book that has “translated by” on the cover. The feeling is that readers will see those words and think the book is more difficult, less enjoyable, than something originally written in English. That they’ll think of it as homework rather than reading pleasure. There are exceptions, of course. The Dinner by Herman Koch, for instance, did very well recently. Sometimes situational novels in translation can succeed, I think. People could identify with The Dinner. They thought: what would I do if I realized my son was doing this dreadful thing? There’s enough in that to make people talk about the book, and once people are talking about a book half the battle is won.
There’s a definite tendency to make fiction by women girly. A man can write about family matters and it’s serious fiction about life. But when a female author writes about family, people say, ‘Oh, she’s got domestic subjects to talk about…’ It drives me crazy.
Guernica: I wonder if part of the problem with translated fiction is publishers making assumptions about what readers will like. Assumptions that they’ll see the book as homework, when in fact the bulk of readers might be more willing than we think.
Nicole Aragi: Yes. I do think readers are by and large more open-minded than we give them credit for. But publishers have to spend their lives guessing at what people will want a couple of years from the date the manuscript is sent to them by an agent. It’s not easy, and they get nervous. So I think they do fall back on some assumptions, sometimes. They have to. It’s part of their work.
I represent a Somali writer called Nuruddin Farah. His very early books were published very seriously, with very serious photographs on the cover, and they looked like academic works. The turning point was when a book of his came out with a face on the cover. Something as simple as a picture of a face humanized the work. It changed Nuruddin’s readership in America. We think of books in translation too earnestly and then publish them too earnestly, and then we’re surprised when they feel earnest. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Guernica: What about female writers? You’ve got some notable literary female writers on your list, people like Julie Otsuka. Do they come up against publishers’ assumptions?
Nicole Aragi: I think there’s a definite tendency to make fiction by women girly. A man can write about family matters and it’s serious fiction about life. But when a female author writes about family, people say “Oh, she’s got domestic subjects to talk about…” It drives me crazy.
I’m pleased you mention Julie Otsuka, because for a while now she’s been the hidden success on my list. I think she’s a beautiful, beautiful writer. An intelligent, precise writer. For a long time I wondered why people weren’t taking her more seriously. Publishers, critics. Because people were reading her. She actually had a huge readership. But if an editor would come into the office to talk about my list, I’d often find they hadn’t even heard of Julie. And I’d think, “Seriously?”
Writing by women can still get sidelined in the United States. I’ve been watching this whole saga with Wikipedia unfold. Female authors being moved out of the “American novelists” list and onto a new list entitled “American female novelists.” It’s insane. Totally insane. One of my authors, Edwidge Danticat, was moved onto the “Haitian Women Novelists” category. It makes my eyes roll back in my head. I just think, “What the fuck? This should not be happening.”
Guernica: What should be done about it?
Nicole Aragi: Just fighting like hell for an equality of attitude. If I feel, when someone’s talking to me about my list, that they’re not interested in the women writers, then I go into overdrive. I go crazy. Someone once said to me, “Oh, you only represent men.” And in fact it’s pretty much fifty-fifty. It’s just that they’ve only noticed the men on my list. And that’s their problem.
Guernica: The recent VIDA count results suggest male authors still get more review coverage than their female counterparts. On the face of it, is that odd to you? Given there are so many top female agents and editors, and that the majority of readers in this country are women.
Nicole Aragi: The media’s very male. A lot of the people passing judgement and making decisions about what gets reviewed and acclaimed are male. That’s where a big part of the problem lies, I think. And again, I think assumptions come into it. Ideas about what people want, ideas about what they will take seriously.
Guernica: Do you read widely outside of your list? Is it important to read authors you don’t represent?
Nicole Aragi: I have a rule, actually. I don’t read manuscripts on Sundays. On Sundays I read whatever I want to read. I still have nine million books to get through—the pile by the bed is a scary thing—but I think I become a better reader by reading some books that aren’t by my clients. Lying there and reading something without scribbling in the margin is a wholly different experience. It reminds you, actually, that as a reader, if something isn’t completely working in the plot, you forgive it. On the whole you do. There are times when you think, “Oh please, come on.” But by that stage you’re into it and enjoying it. Whereas as an agent you spend a lot of time worrying that those are the things that are going to make a reader give up on a book. We can over-analyze sometimes. Jonathan [Safran Foer], in Everything Is Illuminated, included lots of anachronisms in the text that were just part of the fun for him. Things that no one else would understand but were in the spirit of that vivacious book. And no one seemed bothered by them, even though they made no sense.
Guernica: How did you come to represent Jonathan? His debut was huge, of course, but I heard that he struggled for a while to get people interested in the manuscript.
Nicole Aragi: He’d had a lot of rejections from agents. No one had shown much interest in the manuscript for Everything Is Illuminated. And then he did sign up with an agent, but she moved away from America and hadn’t managed to sell the book. It had been on submission. So we started afresh. Jonathan and I did some work on the manuscript. There was a historical section right at the beginning and we shifted that back so that the book started with the modern-day voice. I have a reliance on that “Hook people with the first paragraph” thing. Perhaps it’s a cheap instinct, but I have an idea that people in bookshops will do what I do, which is to pick up a few books and read the first paragraph and see what they’re grabbed by.
With Everything Is Illuminated, I had to call up a few editors and say, “You’ve seen this, but you haven’t.” And people went for it. It wasn’t an obvious bestseller, but we got a big advance for Jonathan and the book became big. It’s a funny book, and editors believe humor is hard to sell. But reading is meant to be about pleasure and people responded to the humor and liveliness of the writing.
Guernica: Where do you go from here? I’m wondering if there are things you haven’t achieved that you’d like to. I heard that having an author win a Nobel Prize might be a goal…
Nicole Aragi: At the moment, I take on perhaps one writer a year, if that. But I recently took on a short story writer. I’d just said to myself, “No more short story writers, no more new clients,” and then I read the manuscript and had to have that author on my list. That will always be exciting—discovering new talent—and there are always exceptions to whatever rules you set yourself. You never know who those exceptions will be until you read their writing. So, I continue reading, and hoping to find what excites me, and working with my existing clients to help them achieve what they want to achieve.
And the Nobel Prize. Yes. They’re all tasked with that. They know that one of them has to bring me a Nobel. But also I’d like Duvall, my assistant, to start taking on clients. She’s the first assistant I’ve had who has really wanted to be an agent in her own right, and she’s a great reader. We have tastes that are sufficiently different. Our lists would be distinct; they could complement each other well. I’d like that. At the moment the only agent here is me, and I guess I will retire at some point. The problem is, I really like complaining about being too busy, and I need to be busy in order to complain. I love my work and I want to keep at it.
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