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Success Story Interview - Erin Popelka

An Interview with Erin Popelka (erinpopelka on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Laura Strachan of Strachan Literary Agency.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Erin Popelka:
My novel follows Linn and Nea, ten years old in 1985, who have to choose whether to have their reproductive organs removed at puberty to prevent cancer—a choice presented by the government—and they choose differently; when Nea is diagnosed with cancer as an adult, Linn has to decide if she'll trade her perfect independence for a family she never thought she wanted.

I was inspired to write this literary novel for adults when I was reading a book about raising a puppy. In the section about spaying and neutering your dog, it mentioned population control, but it also mentioned a cancer benefit. I wondered, "What would happen if we offered this to people?"
QT: How long have you been writing?
Erin Popelka:
I have been writing since childhood, but it became more formal when I decided to major in English in college. I've been seriously committed to the craft for the last twenty years.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Erin Popelka:
I wrote the first draft of this book as part of NaNoWriMo 2015, but had done about ten months of planning in advance of starting the writing process. I finished the book in April 2018.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Erin Popelka:
I have thought of giving up writing from time to time. But when I envision what I'd do instead, and how I'd stay engaged with the world, I keep choosing to write and read and engage with literature. I love how it keeps me empathetic and open to people different from myself. Besides, if I spent less time writing, I'd probably just end up working more at my day job - and who wants to work more?
QT: Is this your first book?
Erin Popelka:
This is my fourth book-length manuscript. I wrote a middle-grade chapter book for my college thesis, a full-length collection of short stories, a novel for adults that didn't make it past the second draft, and now this completed manuscript for adults.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Erin Popelka:
I was an English major in college, and I've taken writing classes and workshops in the years since.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Erin Popelka:
I try to write most mornings. I find that if I wait until later in the day, it's easier to prioritize other obligations over writing.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Erin Popelka:
Many times. My earliest readers saw the fifth draft, beta readers saw a few drafts after that, and a professional editor reviewed the book a few more drafts after that. Once I'd incorporated the professional feedback, I started querying. I did do some revisions based on agent feedback during my query process, and I've done two revisions with my agent.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Erin Popelka:
Yes, and this was so helpful. I made sure to have readers of different ages, sexual orientations, races, and genders. They caught things I missed or didn't see and pointed out moments that were confusing. It was also very interesting to hear their reactions to the premise and the characters.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Erin Popelka:
I had a scene map that showed the characters' emotional progressions. The plot was also loosely outlined.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Erin Popelka:
My first query letter for this book was sent in April 2018, and I signed with Laura Strachan in February 2019.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Erin Popelka:
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Erin Popelka:
I tried to match agent interest areas with some of the key elements of my book. I looked for agents who seemed open to speculative elements, female protagonists, and stories set in the recent past. My main source of that information was recent Publisher's Marketplace sales and comp titles.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Erin Popelka:
Yes. Each of my query letters was personalized. I had 1-2 opening sentences that referenced some of their interest areas, based on recent sales, comments on their Manuscript Wish List pages, or on social media or public interviews.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Erin Popelka:
You're doing great! Keep it up! Query consistently, but don't lose your writing practice alongside the querying. Marketing your work can take as much time as you let it, and make sure you're still writing in the meantime.

Query Letter:

Dear Laura Strachan:

I'm seeking representation for my upmarket novel, ALTERED, complete at 81,000 words. Congratulations on your recent sale of Not When I Wanted it So Much! I was pleased to see your interest in a queer perspective alongside unsettling power dynamics. I think my debut novel, which gives President Nixon's National Cancer Act a disturbing twist, would be a nice fit.

Spring, 1985: the United States government's War on Cancer starts in fourth grade. But for ten-year-old friends Linn and Nea, it's just another student assembly. Linn, an only child who is isolated and lonely because of a neglectful, alcoholic mother, seeks the bonds of family through Nea and her parents. Nea, insecure because she is bullied at school, connects with Linn for unconditional acceptance. At the government-sponsored assembly, they're given a choice: risk deadly cancer or get altered by having their reproductive organs surgically removed at puberty. Linn doesn't want anyone else to endure a childhood like hers and chooses to be altered. Nea's love of family leads her to remain intact.

Linn and Nea's friendship wavers throughout high school and college in a country struggling to find a place for altered people alongside the AIDS epidemic; Don't Ask, Don't Tell; and traditional family values. Linn joins the college Altered Rights Group and cultivates a single, independent lifestyle. Nea marries after graduation and has two children. They're content in their separate adult paths until Nea is diagnosed with breast cancer and asks Linn for the help and support that she doesn't receive from anyone else. Linn must decide if she's willing to trade her perfect independence for a family she never thought she wanted.

ALTERED will appeal to readers who enjoy titles like The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker and An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim.

I am a queer writer whose work is forthcoming or has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and Main Street Rag, among others. I founded a community of readers, Must Read Fiction--which reached nearly 19,000 people in the last month--where I interview authors, celebrate books, and offer free giveaways. I have served as a reader for CALYX: A Journal of Art and Literature for Women since 2008, and I'm thoroughly thawed after spending two austral summers at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

I'd be happy to send along a partial or the full manuscript at your request. Thank you for your time and consideration.