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An Interview with Rachel E Pollock upon receiving an offer of representation.

09/01/2014

Rachel E Pollock (labricoleuse on QT) has signed with agent Jonathan Lyons of Curtis Brown, Ltd..

Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you’ve found representation? What inspired you to write it?
I'll give you my query's quick synopsis with the spoilers stripped out, sure:

October 23, 1998: A terrible fire consumes Decadence, Boston’s most infamous goth/fetish club. What deadly chain of events led to its destruction? The answer lies among the tangled relationships of six friends and lovers. Fluora, the aloof bartender, can’t decide whom to trust when her boyfriend leaves her for another woman. Shy, sensitive Prue wonders whether she’ll ever be more than a frustrated retail clerk after depression forces her to drop out of college, and the cynical riot grrrl, Rasa, can’t cope with the crushing grief of her girlfriend's untimely death. A night full of bad decisions lands Fluora in bed with Nolly, an old friend; while Rasa finds herself involved in a dangerous liaison with the club’s most flamboyant deviant, the enigmatic Hype. Prue still bears the scars of her own troubled history with Hype, but she just might consider dating again when the charming promoter, Rhys, asks her out. As their interpersonal dramas play out against the backdrop of Decadence, they all find themselves sucked into a downward spiral that will ultimately lead to infernal catastrophe.

There are a couple of spoilers that i stripped out because i don't want them out there on the internet before the book's even sold, but that does bring up a point that i do believe in, which is to go ahead and give away all your big reveals in the query or requested synopsis. Like, yeah, you want to create a holy-crap moment when a reader hits your first big OMG plot twist, but save that for the readers. The agents want to know all the big spoilers from the get-go. They'll see how well you pulled it off if they request your manuscript.

As for what inspired me to write it, i'll give you a direct quote from my query:

"From 1993-2004, I worked as one of the most successful gothic/industrial DJs in the country—I wrote this novel to capture the exquisite bedlam of a subculture for which I once provided the soundtrack."

See, something that had struck me in the intervening years since i wrote the first draft and then stopped working in nightlife milieux was the dearth of any fiction that accurately depicted what went on in goth clubs at the turn of the millennium. That whole subculture was so vital and so fascinating, or at least i thought so at the time. And as the goth scene grew and expanded and transformed, it began to overlap into other nightlife cultures—goth nights at fetish clubs, goth nights at gay bars, goth nights in drag-show venues. And it struck me that no one had written that world from the inside in long-form fiction, except as convenient set-dressing.

Sure, you can find a whole host of novels in which there are random characters who are “the goth one,” though they are usually characters who are still in high school, and the generic goth club has practically become a cliche setting for genre pulp and paranormal YA. But it’s as if the whole subculture, in literary terms, exists only as a backdrop against which OTHER dramas play out.

Vampires fight werewolves…in a goth club!

A sadistic serial killer stalks sexy artist chicks…in a goth club!

A misunderstood teen discovers she has magic powers and must battle the forces of darkness…in a goth club!

But the clubs i DJed in for years and years? Well, maybe some LARPers played out games in them in which “vampires” fought “werewolves”, but really, the clubgoers weren’t overwrought teenagers or murdering sickos—they were admittedly-unusual adult people with actual human dramas and problems and loves.

In the cultural soup of a goth club like Manray in Boston or Neo in Chicago, you could find astrophysicists hanging out with high school dropouts, and they might be discussing Nietzsche or they might be telling fart jokes. You’d meet people of every conceivable sexual orientation and gender identity, and ranging in age from late teens to retirees. People of many different cultural and ethnic and religious backgrounds mixed freely in those places, and folks who’d grown up dirt-poor became the friend or lover of someone with significant wealth.

And where was THAT in a novel? Because if that’s not a pretty amazing playground for fiction, i don’t know what is. Sure, i’m down for reading a paranormal romance in a goth club, or a schlock horror pulp in a goth club. But i wanted to write about the reality of those places. So, yeah. There you go.
How long have you been writing?
I think the first book i wrote (and illustrated) was called "Boo Boo and the Haunted Staircase." My cat was the intrepid protagonist. I was seven. I've journaled fairly regularly since adolescence, and written...gosh, loads of stuff. Short form work, poetry, essays, blogs, textbooks, you name it. I parse the world through the lens of words.
How long have you been working on this book?
I finished the first draft in 2002 i think, but i knew that it was deeply flawed, and i had NO CLUE how to fix it. So i put it aside, and i wrote a bunch of other stuff, and i didn't really think much about it other than off and on, i'd maybe open the file, read a bit, and decide i wasn't ready to finish it yet.

Then (and i realize this may sound really bizarre) on October 27, 2013, i learned that Lou Reed had died. In fact, i found out in the middle of my lunch break due to the paroxysm of Facebook-feed grief that celebrity deaths inspire, and I was stunned, not only by his passing but also by how affected i was by it. I felt completely submerged in some strange, cold sea. I didn't know him, not remotely, but my god, i spun his music every week in nightclubs for more than a decade of my life. I saw his face regularly on the t-shirts of my friends. I'd seen him play live once, a birthday gift from a lover i lost touch with a decade ago now.

And in the days following Lou's death, the recollection of the novel bubbled up to the surface, as if his music had somehow soundtracked its writing, which i suppose you could make a decent case that it had, along with hundreds of other bands. So in November of 2013, i reopened the file for the first time in, no lie, eight years, and i reread it. And i remembered how much i'd loved and hated those characters, how vital and vibrant their storylines were. And the more i reread it, the more i began to feel like i needed to whip it into shape, into something i wanted to share with others.

So the initial draft? That was about a year of my life, all told plus sporadic tweakings now and then, but the massive revisions to prep for querying was November 2013 - May 2014.
Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
I did give up on it for a long time. I knew it had problems, but i knew i didn't know enough about writing to fix them, so i just put it aside. Once i decided it was time to really hammer it into shape, i felt fairly driven. I didn't struggle much with staying on course once i put my mind to doing it. I did create a sort of Carrot-on-a-Stick motivator, though, except instead of a carrot, it was a bottle of wine.

See, every week i attend a wine tasting at a local bottle shop, at which they pour five wines, and if you buy anything on the tasting roster that day, you get a 10% discount. Back when i first started my revisions, they poured a wine called Tabula Rasa, and I loved it. Because i loved it, and because it was on sale, and because the phrase “tabula rasa” figures symbolically in my book, i bought my Carrot-On-a-Stick—a bottle that i’d put away and only open when revisions were complete.

I kept that bottle in my kitchen cupboard for four months. Then, when i finished the revisions, i opened it up and celebrated, and it was fantastic! I mean, fine, it was just a couple glasses of wine, but it was more than that, too. It was a ritual of achievement, a treat. And as a motivator, it worked. Like, no, i didn’t wake up every day and go, “Must keep revising so i can drink that Tabula Rasa.” It’s not like it was 2000-year-old wine found in a pharaoh tomb, or a cask of burgundy hoisted up from some 18th century shipwreck or something, and it’s not like i didn’t drink OTHER wines in the interim. It wasn’t a teetotally type of situation. Really, the wine’s no better or worse than any other similarly-priced red i bought and drank before or since. But it was special because i designated it as such, and that’s how it really worked for me.
Is this your first book?
Nope. It's the first one i've tried to get published though. And i guess other than "Boo Boo and the Haunted Staircase," it might be technically my first adult book, since i did write it and then walk away from it. But I wrote five other books between the first draft and the major overhaul of it, and got a masters degree, so it's pretty much like a whole new book at this point. Its bones were good though, so maybe i should call it my first book. I dunno.
Do you have any formal writing training?
I did an MFA in creative writing with the University of New Orleans Low-Residency Program, and before i went for the MFA, i took a few summer-school writing classes, yes. I don't think you need to have formal writing training to succeed as a writer, but i do think it gives you some benefits that are harder-won otherwise, like a coterie of fellow writers to consult with, and a concrete impetus to establish a writing routine that works, and a really thick skin when it comes to critiques. And i definitely think because of the amount of critiques i myself wrote while doing the graduate program, i got pretty good at objectively looking at my own work and fixing things that weren't working, things i wouldn't have seen before all the workshops in grad school.
Do you follow a writing "routine" or schedule?
I'll tell you what: that's the best thing i got out of graduate school. I did a low-residency program, because I didn't want to abandon my "day job" career for three years to do an MFA, and financially speaking, it was just the only option for me. So, i wound up working full time AND carrying a full-time graduate course load. Pretty much, when you do that, you either get your writing routine down to a science or you don't survive. While i was in grad school, i'd write every morning for an hour, and do critiques in the evening for an hour, and i blocked off either Saturday or Sunday to put in a big chunk of writing time as well.

Now that i'm not in grad school, i don't hit it that hard on a regular basis, but i know i'm capable of sustaining that kind of work schedule if i need to, and i credit that to how i was able to totally overhaul my book in seven months while working full-time. And when i do get a chunk of time off to devote to writing, i'm pretty good at using it well instead of just falling down a Tweethole or staring at vines of puking cats or whatever.
Did you have beta readers for your book?
I did. I have a group of friends and fellow writers who have been kind enough to read it in several incarnations. Some of them have offered constructive criticism, some of them have done copy edits for spelling/grammar/punctuation, and some have just been much-appreciated enthusiasts for the work. One of them even wrote a little piece of fanfiction inspired by it, which i found to be absolutely the highest compliment she could have given me.
Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
I'm on my sixth long-form work at this point (five novels, one creative nonfiction masters thesis). The novels were all totally from the hip, though when i began the MAJOR revisions that i did on the novel i've gotten representation for, I wrote out an outline, took stock of what was wrong with it, outlined how i needed to rewrite it to fix it, then went from that for the revisions. And, i wrote my masters thesis from an outline. So i think I do a bit of both, and i think the next novel i start from scratch, i'll at least have a rough outline, even if i still allow stuff to develop organically.
How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
I started querying for this book at the beginning of June (2014). I wanted to have the revisions finished, and i wanted to have launched my author website as well, so i could include the URL in my queries. This is the first novel i've queried for, though back in undergrad a friend of mine and i wrote a proposal and queried for a nonfiction book idea. We didn't get picked up. I think i don't have a protracted querying experience because I waited until I had a long list of short-form publication credits and a thesis out there, and I waited until I was 100% positive the book was absolutely as good as i could possibly make it on my own. I signed with my agent at the end of August.
About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
I sent out twenty-five. Of those, i had two tell me they weren't taking on new clients anymore, seven flat-out rejections, seven agents request a look at the manuscript (the statistics on this will be different through QT, because some of the agents i queried weren't listed here), two agents respond after i had my first offer on the table with regrets-but-i-can't-throw-my-hat-in, and the rest were total radio silence.

Based on research and what other writer friends tell me, that sounds like a really high interest rate, but i chalk it up to how carefully i targeted my agent list and how specifically i tailored each query.
On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
I used not only QT but also the 2014 Guide to Literary Agents to do my research. I narrowed it down to my top twenty-five before querying at all. I looked at whether they repped fiction, specifically adult literary fiction, and then whether they stated that they were seeking diverse voices, specifically in terms of characters of color (I have a diverse ensemble cast of characters), and also LGBTQ themes, as several of my characters fall all over the map on the gender spectrum and sexuality spectrum. If an agent also mentioned that they represented quirky/edgy books, or novels with dark themes or pop cultural elements, they went on my list. And i also queried agents who represented authors who have published books that in some way resembled mine, or that i just personally loved in the same way that i love my own characters.
What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Write the best book you can. Then sit on it for a few months or even years, enough time to stop feeling so Charybdis about it. Then reread it once you've forgotten how much you cared, and see if you still think it's the best book you can write. Rewrite it anyway. Do your homework and really study who might want to rep you, then think about exactly how to present your book to them in such a way that they can't help but want to read it. And then expect that most of them still won't care, or even respond. Oh, and follow expected conventions with your query, like putting your title in ALL CAPS, and following every single submission guideline to the exact letter. Stalk every agent, because you might find (as i did, in fact) an interview that says something like, "I really hate when people send a manuscript in Courier New," and you can then be the refreshing person who submits in Times New Roman. Or whatev.
Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Sure! Though bear in mind that, like in my prior quotes, I've stripped out spoilers because I don't want those out there before the book's sold. But, here's the basic query skeleton:
[Salutation]

Because [well-research personal hook appeal], I hope you will be interested in my literary adult novel, THE DECADENCE PAPERS.

October 23, 1998: A terrible fire consumes Decadence, Boston’s most infamous goth/fetish club. What deadly chain of events led to its destruction? The answer lies among the tangled relationships of six friends and lovers. Fluora, the aloof bartender, can’t decide whom to trust when her boyfriend leaves her for another woman. Shy, sensitive Prue wonders whether she’ll ever be more than a frustrated retail clerk after depression forces her to drop out of college, and the cynical riot grrrl, Rasa, can’t cope with the crushing grief of her girlfriend's untimely death. A night full of bad decisions lands Fluora in bed with Nolly, an old friend; while Rasa finds herself involved in a dangerous liaison with the club’s most flamboyant deviant, the enigmatic Hype. Prue still bears the scars of her own troubled history with Hype, but she just might consider dating again when the charming promoter, Rhys, asks her out. As their interpersonal dramas play out against the backdrop of Decadence, they all find themselves sucked into a downward spiral that will ultimately lead to infernal catastrophe. [SPOILERS HAVE BEEN STRIPPED FROM THIS SECTION, WHICH IN THE SENT QUERY WAS ACTUALLY TWO PARAGRAPHS LONG]

My writing has been published in anthologies and journals including Steampunk (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), Fourth Genre, and the Harvard Summer Review. I received my MFA in creative writing from the University of New Orleans in 2013, and I may be found online at http://www.rachelpollock.net/ or on my Goodreads author page: https://www.goodreads.com/LaBricoleuse

From 1993-2004, I worked as one of the most successful gothic/industrial DJs in the country—I wrote this novel to capture the exquisite bedlam of a subculture for which I once provided the soundtrack. When I read Maupin’s Tales of the City, Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, and Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, I loved the way in which those books provided the passwords to the speakeasies of their demimondes. In the same vein, THE DECADENCE PAPERS passes beyond the velvet rope to explore the glittering gloom of dark nightlife’s pre-millennial zenith.

THE DECADENCE PAPERS is complete at 88,000 words; the story-arc fully resolves, yet the conclusion provides room for a sequel. Attached please find [any specific special requests the agent might have asked for, like a synopsis or first X pages]. I would be happy to send the full manuscript for your review.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Rachel E. Pollock