Beginning to End follows a book from inception to bookshelf. For our second "season," we're following Hard Mouth, Amanda Goldblatt's debut adventure novel about a woman facing—and sometimes fleeing from—her father's drawn-out battle with cancer. Counterpoint Press published the book in August. We began the series by talking with Goldblatt. Next up: Goldblatt’s agent Caroline Eisenmann of the Frances Goldin Literary Agency.
Literary Twitter can be a scary place. Twitter mobs engage in Twitter pile-ons, at the least hurting writers’ feelings and at the most, threatening to take down titles before they’re officially released. But Caroline Eisenmann, agent at Frances Goldin, argues that Twitter is also a force for good, at least in her professional life.
“There’s a constant joke that Twitter is this hell site, but it’s brought me together with a number of very talented writers,” she told Spine. Eisenmann first encountered now-client Amanda Goldblatt (Hard Mouth, August 2019) via the social media platform. The literary journal NOON published a piece of Goldblatt’s, and she tweeted about it. Eisenmann clicked “Follow.”
“When I’m intrigued by a writer, I often follow them on Twitter as a first exploratory step,” Eisenmann said. “A Twitter follow works to bookmark an author so that I can keep an eye on their work, and it’s also a way of testing the waters before potentially reaching out via an email.”
In the case of Goldblatt, the writer reached out first, taking what Eisenmann said was an exceptional step: asking if she could send a query. “Amanda’s initial note was an incredibly polite and personalized email asking if she could query. That’s a little unusual, only in that most people just go ahead and email about their projects. In retrospect, her approach was indicative of how thoughtful and respectful Amanda is as a client overall.”
Eisenmann welcomed Goldblatt’s query, and dove into her manuscript the weekend after receiving it. Goldblatt’s prose was energetic, her humor startling, her protagonist Denny strange and resonant. Right off, the agent felt what she calls “The Feeling, that buzz in the gut when I know I love something and want to work on it.”
As she always does when considering a manuscript, Eisenmann thought about Hard Mouth’s potential audience. She thought about comparable recent titles, and whether those books achieved success in finding audiences. She tried to identify not only readers who would want to read the book, but also editors who might be interested.
Even if she loves a book, if she can’t figure out which editors she’d send it to, or which readers would buy it, she’ll be more reluctant to take it on. “If I love a book but can’t identify the group of readers for it, or don’t have any immediate ideas about which editors I’d send it to, that’s a serious issue for me representing the work,” she said. Fortunately, she not only loved Goldblatt’s book, but she readily came up with comparables, and easily imagined an audience.
“Amanda’s work is obviously singular, but from a publishing perspective Hard Mouth works in dialogue with a current wave of books that have angular, seething, scathingly honest female narrators; books which don’t flinch from exploring the most grotesque or brutal aspects of those characters. As a result, I felt like I had a very clear sense of who the reader might be for Hard Mouth, even as the book explored grief with an energy and exuberance and honesty that felt new to me.”
Once Eisenmann acquires a title, she puts thoughts of audience aside and guides the author through a series of edits, with the end goal “of trying to make the book more itself, of bringing the author’s vision to its sharpest and fullest realization.” This is a tricky moment for an agent. She knows her new author can write, but can her new author revise?
The biggest changes Eisenmann encouraged happened in the structural arena. The book, in its final form, can be thought of in three sections — Denny at home, Denny away, Denny at home — with readers moving, for the most part, alongside Denny as she learns and changes and makes decisions. But the version Eisenmann received felt less balanced, more front-loaded with flashbacks and decisions already made. Readers didn’t have a proper chance to connect with Denny.
“The editorial work we did together—which she ended up pulling off phenomenally—was to make the book feel like more of a continuous and connected whole, and to make sure that the reader felt invested in Denny and the story from the get-go,” Eisenmann said. Goldblatt handled the work with talent and dedication. Relief! “As agent, you sign a client based on what you’ve seen on the page, but it’s a joy to subsequently discover that they also have a gift for revision.”
Client obtained, manuscript revised, Eisenmann turned to selling. Counterpoint Press and Assistant Editor Jennifer Alton bought the book. Eisenmann didn’t want to steal too much of Alton’s acquisition story, next in the series, but said she and Goldblatt felt lucky where they landed. “Hard Mouth moved Alton in a deep and intense way, and it subsequently became clear that she had a vision for how to edit and publish the book successfully. And of course, Counterpoint has a long and prestigious track record of publishing incredible books in both fiction and nonfiction. That’s the dream, from an agent’s perspective: to land a project with an editor who also has ‘The Feeling,’ at a publisher poised to publish the book exceptionally.”
Next up, Jennifer Alton tells the story of Hard Mouth from the editor’s perspective.
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.