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An Interview with Michelle Ruiz Keil upon receiving an offer of representation.

07/10/2017

Michelle Ruiz Keil (michelleruizkeil on QT) has signed with agent Hannah Fergesen of KT Literary.

Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
All of Us With Wings is a fabulist coming of age story set in post-punk San Francisco. I am a lover of fairy tales, a reader tarot cards, and have been known to talk to the animals--all things that inspired my book. Also, like my protagonist, I am a mixed-race Chicana who ran away to San Francisco at seventeen with monsters at my heels. I wanted to tell a story about found family, about kids raising kids, about friends raising each other, and what it means to rise from the ashes of childhood trauma empowered and intact.
How long have you been writing?
I've always written, but my early passion was for theater. I started out as an actor, moved to playwrighting and directing and ran a community performance space. When my kids were small it got harder and harder to make that work. I started my novel by accident when an advisor at my kids' school asked me to team-teach a NANOWRIMO class for some teenagers seven years ago. That was the turning point for me. I have been writing fiction ever since.
How long have you been working on this book?
Umm...remember that NANOWRIMO project I mentioned? So yeah, 7 years!
Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
I often questioned whether I would ever finish the book and definitely worried I would never get an agent, but I never once considered giving up. I am a bit of a hedonist and writing is deeply pleasurable for me. This book has been my haven for so long. Finishing it was actually really sad!
Do you have any formal writing training?
Yes and no. My acting training has been the single most valuable tool for this project. I have a strong sense of story structure from analyzing plays and a feel for dialogue which took me pretty far, but at a certain point, I needed more. I began to apply to residencies and workshops and the ones I attended were immensely helpful in filling the gaps. My favorites were the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and a Hedgebrook master class with Ruth Ozeki.
Do you follow a writing "routine" or schedule?
Not really. Now that my kids are older, I can sometimes indulge in my proclivity for binge-writing. Give me enough iced coffee and I can go for hours and hours. Otherwise, I fit it in where I can.
How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Well, it HAS been seven years...so at least five? When I started out I figured that, because my protagonist was seventeen, my book was YA. As I learned more, I wasn't sure. This category confusion led to many, many dead ends and rewrites. When I finally embraced the book as adult literary fantasy, the story opened up.
Did you have beta readers for your book?
Yes, and they were lifesavers! Many have become great friends. I also worked with two developmental editors and I would love to recommend them here if that's ok. The first is the brilliant Molly Schulman. She was both encouraging and super insightful, a dream to work with. Her feedback led to a huge reworking and polishing of the book. The second person I worked with was Tehlor Kaye Mejia. Tehlor is a talented YA writer (with an amazing book coming out in 2019!). I first approached her for query advice and to get her take on my category confusion, but she helped with so much more and has since become a critique partner. If you can afford it, outside editorial help is amazing. Also, many editors are writers themselves. I love the idea of supporting this freelance creative economy, especially when it comes to working with women like Molly and Tehlor.
Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
I wish I was an outliner, but I'm not. Not at first. However, I am a total nerd when it comes to story structure. Once I have a draft, I decide what general shape my story has taken. I look to the tarot, which describes a classic journey of the soul, to the Hero's Journey, and most recently to a fabulous book by Kim Hudson called The Virgin's Promise.
How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
In the first six years of my writing journey, I sent out five queries solely to agents I'd met at conferences or workshops. Last year, I began querying in earnest.
About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
50 when I thought my book was YA. Seven as adult literary fantasy.
On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Anyone who liked magical realism and promoted own voices authors.
Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
I did. For agents I was really interested in, I often listened to an audiobook or read a novel from one of their clients before I queried. I think I went a bit overboard with the preparation. It was a way to feel I had more control over the process. As I progressed and became more used to putting myself and my work out into the world, I still personalized every query but put less work into each individual lead, trusting my writing to speak for itself.
What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Get to know yourself as a writer before you get to know the market. I wish I'd left off learning about the criteria for YA books till I was finished with a draft or two of the manuscript that became All of Us with Wings. I tried so hard to make the story fit, like smooshing a big stepsister's foot into that tiny size five glass slipper, rather than just writing the story I needed to write and then figuring out where it belonged. As it happens, I wear a 91/2 and prefer combat boots. So does my book!
Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Sure! I had actually just sent out a batch of queries (my strategy was to send out a batch of 5 and wait for feedback), but I learned KT Literary had a window where they were offering a two-day turnaround on queries sent by own voices writers. That was too good to pass up and since Hannah was already on my to-query list, I sent it out and I'm so glad I did!

Dear Ms. Fergesen,

Thanks to your blog, I am now familiar with the term "mythpunk" which is a great descriptor for my novel. Thank you, too, for introducing me to Catherynne M. Valente's work. I just finished “Radiance” and it was amazing

All of Us With Wings is adult literary fantasy complete at 93,000 words. A postpunk mashup of European fairytale, indigenous folklore and Mexican myth, All of Us With Wings would appeal to fans of Haruki Murakami, Helen Oyeyemi and Francesca Lia Block.

Seventeen-year-old Xochi is adrift in San Francisco, alone and grieving her grandmother's death. Everything changes when she meets tween genius Pallas and her pagan rockstar family. Two months into her job as Pallas's live-in companion, Xochi would do anything to preserve the fairytale she's fallen into. Then, on the night of the vernal equinox, a riot-grrl ritual summons the Waterbabies, a pair of ancient children bound to avenge the wrongs of Xochi's childhood. No one close to Xochi is safe.

Unaware of the Waterbabies' existence, Xochi struggles to balance Pallas's needs with her own desires, but her new housemates are hard to resist. She is especially drawn to Pallas's father. Kindred in his love of motorcycles and poetry, he also shares Xochi's half-Mexican heritage and troubled past. When Pallas finds out about Xochi and her dad and the Waterbabies' quest leads to Xochi's runaway stripper mom, her childhood and chosen families collide. To save the new life she's made, Xochi must rescue the mother who abandoned her, own her complicated feelings for Pallas's father, and find a way to send the Waterbabies home before the San Francisco fog quenches their fierce magic.

Like my protagonist, I am a mixed-race Chicana who left home at seventeen and fell in love with San Francisco. I have been a Member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, attended Litquake's Litcamp, and Ruth Ozeki's Hedgebrook master class. My play, “Pure Gold Baby”, was produced twice in Portland, Oregon. I am also a member of Willamette Writers.

I was recently a finalist in the Pitch America contest for Latinx authors and a few other agents are reading the manuscript. I am excited and heartened by KT Literary's support of #ownvoices writers. Thank you so much for your consideration.

Best,

Michelle Ruiz Keil