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Success Story Interview - Jeanne Lyet Gassman

An Interview with Jeanne Lyet Gassman (jlgwriter on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Alicia Brooks of Jean V. Naggar 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?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
The working title of my upmarket historical novel is THE DOUBLE SUN. It is a story about a family of downwinders, people who contracted cancer from government-sanctioned radioactive fallout from the atomic bomb tests in Nevada. I'm not a downwinder, but I grew up in a community where there was a large population of them. I didn't learn about downwinders until long after I moved from my hometown, and I was astonished that no one had ever really told this story in a novel. I was even more surprised to learn that their struggle is ongoing. There are still downwinders who have not been recognized by the government and who have received no recognition or compensation. As I dug into the history of the Cold War, atomic bomb tests, and radioactive fallout, I realized I had the makings of an incredible story that needed to be told.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
Most of my life? Actually, I started writing seriously about 30 years ago. I published a lot of short stories and creative nonfiction, but I didn't publish my first novel until 2015.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
Off and on, for about 10 years. I wrote the first chapters and scenes at a residency at Ragdale in 2012. Then I realized I needed to do a lot more research, so I started alternating research trips with writing chunks of the book. We moved across the country in 2017, which was a major disruption. I finished the first draft in 2019.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
Not with this book. I knew the people and the setting so well, and I think I was somewhat possessed by the story I wanted to tell.
QT: Is this your first book?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
No, my first novel, BLOOD OF A STONE, was published by Tuscany Press in 2015. I did not have an agent for that book.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
I've taken hundreds of workshops over the years, and in 2010, I received my MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. The MFA was a life-changing experience. It taught me so much about the craft of writing and how to continue to improve my craft.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
I TRY to. In general, I usually park myself in front of my computer at 10:00 a.m. and work until around 1:00 p.m., when I break for lunch. I try to follow that schedule 5-6 days a week, but there are unexpected crises or demands that can interrupt that plan. Over the years, I've learned not to beat myself up if I can't keep to a routine. I've also discovered that I am most productive when I have deadlines, whether those deadlines or real or self-imposed.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
Four major revisions with lots of small changes along the way. I expect there will be more edits as we prepare for submission.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
Yes. I had a team of six amazing beta readers. Their feedback was invaluable.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
I tend to be more of a plotter than a pantser, but not everything is planned in advance. I usually know the beginning, the major plot points, and how the book ends. Then I figure out the rest of it as I go. I wrote this book out of order, unlike my first novel, which I wrote in sequence from beginning to end. The process of writing scenes as they came to me and then plugging them into the appropriate sections of the novel was liberating. I used a storyboard to keep track of everything. I wrote a one-sentence description of each major scene on an index card and tacked that card up on a bulletin board under the chapter where I thought it belonged. I will probably do it this way again for my next book.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
Less than a week. I queried one agent, made an announcement on social media that I had started querying my new novel, and received a message from another agent that she'd like to see my query. She asked for the full a few hours after receiving my query and made me an offer via a phone call five days later. I queried my first novel for over a year and never received any offers from agents, although I did receive requests for partials and fulls.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
I searched primarily by their genre preferences and their likes shared on places like Manuscript Wish List and Twitter. My first choice was agents who were looking for both upmarket and historical fiction.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
Yes. I personalized both queries.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
Take your time. Don't query before that book and your query are both nailed down and ready. With my first novel, I shot queries out before the book was really the best I could make it. I thought it was finished, but it needed more work, and if I had taken a step back to get more critiques and feedback, I could have spared myself a lot of heartache. By the time it was finally picked up by a small press, I had revised my novel at least three more times. But I had also run through my list of prospective agents, and I was exhausted by the many rejections. For this book, I was cautious. I kept submitting portions to workshops after I had a first draft, and I kept revising based on the feedback I received. I could feel the book improving, both in structure and craft. I took three workshops on writing queries and ran drafts of my query through them for feedback. Then I posted my query on QT for more feedback and revised my query again. I took a final workshop on submitting pages and your query and received really positive feedback on both. Then I knew I was ready.

My second piece of advice is this: Use social media to network and make friends in the industry. I met my agent on social media several years ago. We chatted about things like pets, food, favorite books, etc. But we didn't talk about my novel. However, I did make periodic posts on my social media feed about my progress, my research, and my other publications. I also interacted with other writers by offering advice and resources. My agent was aware of my book and was waiting for me to say it was ready to query. She jumped on the opportunity to read it. The writing community is a small world with lots of kind and supportive people. Literary citizenship matters. If you help other writers, good things will happen for you, too.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Jeanne Lyet Gassman:
Certainly. This is the query I sent to Alicia:

Query Letter:

Dear Alicia,

Thank you for your query request. Since you've indicated on your site that you're seeking book club and historical fiction, I hope my upmarket historical novel, THE DOUBLE SUN (109,000 words), will be of interest to you. From 1951-1992, the United States government detonated 1021 atomic bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas, creating a population of over 38,000 downwinders, people who developed cancer from government-sanctioned radioactive fallout. Based on real events, this is the story of one of American history’s great hidden tragedies as revealed through the lives of an ordinary, but complicated, small-town family.

In 1957, Irene Stoltz trades in her dreams of stardom for a chance to marry Frank Wittman, a meteorologist at the Nevada Test Site. From her own living room window, Irene can watch atomic bomb tests light up the sky. It’s all very thrilling—until it isn’t. After the premature birth of their son Ray and subsequent miscarriages, Irene is convinced those flashy tests are making her sick. But Frank disagrees. When she becomes pregnant again, she keeps her pregnancy a secret and plans to flee with her son to the safety of her hometown, Winslow, Arizona. But Frank refuses to let her take Ray, and she’s forced to leave alone.

The family is finally reunited, but the fractures run deep. Irene and Frank’s marriage remains strained. Ray no longer trusts his mother. Frank doubts the paternity of their daughter, Caroline, and Caroline, who feels neglected, rebels. When Irene confirms they are all downwinders, they must bond together in their fight for survival and justice. The government wants to keep its secrets. But time—for the Wittmans--is running out.

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and narrated from four perspectives, THE DOUBLE SUN addresses similar social issues found in Kate Moore's RADIUM GIRLS: THE DARK STORY OF AMERICA'S SHINING WOMEN and Rebecca Makkai's THE GREAT BELIEVERS. Fans of Kristin Hannah's THE FOUR WINDS will appreciate the Wittmans' grit and determination against impossible odds. Each chapter of THE DOUBLE SUN is prefaced with factual epigraphs that provide a contextual framework for the events that shaped the downwinders’ struggle.

My first novel, BLOOD OF A STONE (Tuscany Press), received an Independent Publishers Book Award in 2015. THE DOUBLE SUN was long-listed for the 2021 First Pages Prize and awarded a grant from the New Mexico Writer's Foundation. I have also received fellowships from Ragdale and the Arizona Commission for the Arts, as well as nominations for a Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. My work has been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including Barrelhouse, Clerestory, Bosque 7, The Manifest-Station, and Dear America: Reflections on Race (Geeky Press).

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you. I have pasted the first page of THE DOUBLE SUN below if you want to take a look.

Best regards,