Book Broker—an interview with Victoria Skurnick
Agent: Victoria Skurnick
Preferred genres: literary fiction, suspense/thriller fiction, political nonfiction, historical nonfiction, narrative nonfiction.
Bio: Victoria Skurnick came to LGR Literary after being at the Book-of-the Month Club for almost twenty years. As editor-in-chief, she relished the opportunity to devour every kind of book, from the finest literary fiction to Yiddish for Dogs. Anne Tyler, John LeCarre, Amy Tan, Tom Wolfe, Stephen King, Michael Lewis, Lee Child, Roddy Doyle, Alice Sebold, Tracy Kidder, Julia Child and Susan Elizabeth Phillips are just a few of the authors that make her deaf and blind to anyone around her when she’s reading.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
The two things that stand out in any submission are the quality of the writing and originality. In fiction—actually, in nonfiction as well—good characterization is also key, the ability to bring characters/people to live and in depth. A writer who can engage a reader with their first sentence and every sentence thereafter is almost impossible to turn down.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
Bad, unconsidered writing, a plethora of sloppy mistakes, characters who sound exactly alike in dialogue, and rushed endings all speak to a manuscript that is not ready.
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
A beautifully written novel whose characters come alive on the page but also has a fully realized arc and some kind of relevance.
4) What do you love most about being an agent, and what do you find the most challenging?
I love the independence of being an agent and the sense of discovery when you find a great writer. I also have had the luck to watch a number of my clients become better and better with each book, as opposed to the depressing decline in quality so many authors give in to when they’ve written several books. There is a constant sense of learning with each book I handle, which is most delightful.
Right now, the most challenging aspect of being an agent is the near impossibility of selling new fiction. For whatever reasons, great books that would sell with ease ten or fifteen years ago are now an uphill struggle. An agent probably deals with more rejection than in any other industry—except acting, of course—and it is not fun. Trying to explain to an author why his book is not selling when it’s absolutely wonderful is like visiting a dentist without the use of Novocaine.
5) What typically draws you deep into a manuscript? What common snags are likely to break your narrative immersion?
In fiction, a writer who can set up a fascinating question in the first pages that, if not answered, will drive you crazy always draws me into a book. Fine writing is another plus.
I’m old-fashioned enough to be put off by terrible grammar and sloppy technique. Unfair as it may be, when a writer makes dumb mistakes it reflects on their talent and intelligence. It is very old school of me, I am more than aware, but it casts a question mark over the notion of reading hundreds of pages. A plot that you’ve read hundreds of times before is another snag, though most books are repetitive in many ways.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
What a question! I would put more faith in my individual editors and stay farther away from group decision making. Decision by committee has taken over, and I find it unfortunate.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I read, many years late, the first book the food writer Ruth Reichl wrote and it was terrific. Her writing is personal and funny, including her take on a mother who was downright insane and yet emerged as a fascinating character, albeit making me belatedly grateful for my own, beleaguered mom. For better or worse, I always enjoy food writing, so even the inclusion of a few recipes had me pinned to the pages.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
This is one tough question as I find all my authors pretty exciting. I can answer with three of my authors, and what I’m finding exciting about all three is how much better and deeper their writing is becoming with each new book.
Susan Elia MacNeal, best-selling author of the Maggie Hope series, is venturing out mid-series with a standalone novel entitled MOTHER DAUGHTER TRAITOR SPY, which is the fictionalized story of a mother and daughter who went underground in California right at the start of WWII and pretended to be white supremicists and Nazi adherents, risking their lives, not to mention the high regard of their friends and neighbors. It’s an unbelievable story and absolutely based in fact.
Mariah Fredericks also wrote a historical mystery series, the Jane Prescott books, but has now written THE LINDBERGH NANNY. It is simply splendid and a wonderful addition to Mariah’s literary past, which included YA novels plus the Jane books. In both these cases, Susan and Mariah keep reaching a higher literary level with each of their books, in series and out of series, which is pretty unusual and darned impressive.
The same is true of Jennifer Hillier, whose initial books like CREEP and FREAK were terrific but has upped her formidable game by miles with JAR OF HEARTS, LITTLE SECRETS and the newest addition, THINGS WE DO IN THE DARK. Again, who in our world gets better and better instead of increasingly redundant? Very few!