Sign In

An Interview with Erika Somerfeld upon receiving an offer of representation.


Erika Somerfeld (confessionsofaprisoncook on QT) has signed with agent Lane Heymont of The Tobias Literary Agency.

Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Phil would tell me bits and pieces about his time at Otisville Federal prison in the 1990s as the inmate and staff cook and I just could Not believe the stories. I would say, you did NOT have a one-legged cook..! There was Not a Naughty nurse! No Way you had a vain mafia roommate that used commissary mayonnaise to moisture his hands! Then, Phil would make me terrific meals. One day I was watching to the TV channel guide and it was all food shows and also true crime shows.! I even saw the book title in my head.
How long have you been writing?
I have been writing for twenty years- Phil is not a writer but he is a great storyteller.
How long have you been working on this book?
Since October of 2013.
Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Um, yes?! Phil and I would argue (I get kinda bossy when I write, I can live with that) and I'd say, 'Im outta here.' I'd be driving from my place in Calabasas to his in Santa Monica, Ca on a gorgeous Sunday along the water on PCH and think, "What am I doing? I'm delusional." Also, I'm not a felon or a foodie. But then I'd just get back on the writing horse because I felt in my gut it was very good. We stayed on course because we feel Food and Crime are both such popular subjects, very marketable and current. We also saw a lack in the market for our subject matter. I truly felt a passion for this project. I come from a marketing background and have great plans to market it for ancillary rights, which Lane Heymont at the Tobias Literary Agency will also handle. (We promise to send your site some of our proposed promo items- chocolate handcuffs- when we sell it!)
Is this your first book?
Do you have any formal writing training?
Yes I have been a professional publicist for twenty years which requires daily sales-effective writing. I also come from a family of writers. I have had articles published in a variety of lifestyle magazines, instead OK!, Women's Health & Fitness, The Santa Monica Sun, STAR, and others. I also co-wrote a screenplay a while back that was optioned called Running on Faith, and have an on-screen writing credit for a foreign movie called Heaven's Tears.
Do you follow a writing "routine" or schedule?
Phil is retired and I worked, so it was usually the weekends. We also only wrote in the mornings when we both felt the energy of a new day. We also rented a house every 3 months in Palm Springs (our dogs are best friends) and wrote for 10 days at a time, again first thing in the morning.
How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Did you have beta readers for your book?
Yes, it was never easy to get criticism. For Phil the story is very personal, too. But I learned as an entrepreneur to "never to fall in love with your own ideas." You cannot be willful and you have to be open. Still, we kept in about 20% of what was suggested we cut, because we loved the content and believed in it.
Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Our book is told over ten years, and moves chronically from Phil's Italian childhood in Brooklyn and arrest to his 2 years in the Otisville prison and finally the bulk of his time in the non-violent, more lenient "Camp" down the hill. So we had to outline that timeline. We also had to organize the over fifty original recipes found in the book so we had desserts, meats, drinks, and pastas, etc. to be balanced… We used sheets we created to outline the side characters, their ages, what they looked like, their crime, their relationship to Phil, etc…and found that very helpful.
How long have you been querying for this book?
We queried for eight months. We found agents on your great site and also in some books on the subject at Barnes & Noble, books that come out annually to stay current.
About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Around 200. We got back 22 responses with some interest (and about 50 rejections) but it was only Lane Heymont that shared our vision for the project, its marketing and tone, and its future. His passion, experience and great attitude won us over. We sent him a box of "Peanut Butter Prison Bars" from the book in a prison-themed box as a thank you.
On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
They would have to represent either books about food, true crime, narrative non-fiction, pop culture or memoirs.
Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
The only thing we tailored was the paragraph late in the query that says "We know you specialize in (INSERT THEIR GENRE SPECIALTY). There we would write either "Narrative Non-Fiction..Memoirs..Dark Comedy..Pop Culture.." to tailor it to what that agent specialized in. We also used their first name ("Dear Elizabeth..") at the top of the query and used their name again at the bottom to make it more personal.
What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Be ready with back up material. Don't make them wait a month or more (like us!) for backup material they are sure to ask for. In our case, being a non-fiction title, we were expected to have an entire BOOK PROPOSAL ready. A book proposal is a massive undertaking, at least I found it to be. I looked up "How to write a book proposal" online and on YouTube, and it took about three months. It basically acts as the business plan or your book, and it about 40 pages long. In our case I kept the agents waiting, but I did stay in touch with them over those 90 days, sending little articles about food crimes, etc. to keep their interest.
Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Yes, here is the query we used.

Dear ________:

Imagine being sentenced to ten years in prison. How would you survive?

Told with humor and pathos, Confessions of a Prison Cook: A Fusion of Food & Crime is a colorful true-life memoir/cookbook about a former New York banker's 10-year struggle in prison -and newfound hope and purpose- after becoming the inmates' chef.

Nourishing not just fellow cons but his own soul, he survives and even thrives, to cook up stories and recipes with a host of hilarious and hellacious characters that are sugar and spice and everything vice!

It's New York in the 90's. Phil Longo, a former VP of a bank and the kind of likable smart ass we all know and try to love, is the co-owner of a hot downtown billiard club. Motivated by greed for "more," more status, more money- Phil acts as a go-between in a drug deal, and gets set up by the DEA.

He is sent to Otisville Federal prison in upstate New York for a decade. And although he has no prior chef experience- just a strong Italian sense of food, he cons his way into a job as the camp cook –which ends up becoming his newfound passion and redemption.

Sexy, inept nurses and sexist kitchen cops, drunks and monks, Chinese gangsters and one-legged cooks. Food wasn't the sauciest, richest part of his experience. But it does become Phil's lifeline and an olive branch to residents like pet-loving gangster/nemesis Jesus, a self-grooming hit man and a drunk guard who sobriety is measured by the state of her beehive hairdo. Food is his link to loved ones, and when Mom visits and tries to smuggle in Phil's favorite black garlic lasagna down her girdle, madness ensues. Think hungry police dogs like Otisville's snarling, hungry canine-cop, Nancy.

Incarcerated for a decade, Phil learns life is truly stranger than fiction. His former life is gone- his friends, his reputation, but he's gained rich insight into his fellow man and realizes: no one is rotten to the core.

When he's released from Otisville, he makes the transition to a halfway house in Florida - complete with its own crop of misfits. By this time, the world has changed (9/11's happened, everyone's gone veggie, designer coffee's a hot commodity) and Phil struggles but survives this new chapter of his life.

Mafioso pathetics, veggies stuffed down prosthetics.

Why garlic on the inside is gold, how homemade OJ here is sold.

Confessions of a Prison Cook: A Fusion of Food & Crime sprinkles in a history of unbelievable food-related crimes, like Martha Stewart smuggling cafeteria candies out in her dainties, John Gotti's love of 3 Musketeers bars, and corn chowder drowned in angel dust, served to the crew of Titanic. Add on-subject quotes (from Shakespeare to The Sopranos) and dark but fascinating food facts from around the world like stories of the Agro-Mafia, or our true-life killer chocolate tales. Original cheeky recipes like "Killing Two Birds with One Scone," and "SCAMwiches" are inspired by his time in the pokey.

This poignant, dark comedy of how this Banker did time is served hot in under 200 pages.

Bon appetit!

* * *

This title- a cross of Good Fellas and Ratatouille- fuses two hot topics: Food & Crime!

I so hope it might interest you for representation. I understand your agency focuses on MEMOIRS.

This non-fiction tale is delicious, and speaks to what fills all people up, even ones on the way down. We think it would make an amazing television series as well, after attending the recent Hollywood Pitch Festival in L.A. and receiving fabulous feedback from TV producers about our character-driven story.

We look very forward to your valuable comments and hope we can send you our 50 page version and synopsis to consider.


Erika Somerfeld & Philip Longo