Friday, July 29, 2011

Agent interview with John Cusick

In In-demand YA agent John Cusick from S©ott Treimel NY is visiting YAtopia next week for a MICRO SYNOPSIS contest (you heard it!). But to give you a bit of an idea of the man behind those hip glasses and classy lit tweets, here's 13 questions with John

1) How did you find yourself as both an author and an agent?

I started as an agent’s assistant in October 2007 at Scott Treimel NY, an all-juvenile literary agency. Scott knew I wanted to write, and asked if I’d like to write for young people. I proposed a story about a sixteen-year-old robot, which became GIRL PARTS. After copious edits, Scott represented and Candlewick published in August 2010. The two jobs— agenting and writing— balance me out. One is exothermic, intense, and critical, the other introspective and private. I like having this Jeckel and Hyde life, the introvert writer and the skull-busting agent ;)
2) Scott Treimel NY literary agency has a rather unique submissions process, would you tell us a bit about it and why the agency went that way instead of traditional email submissions?  

We decided to go electronic with the advent of the e-readers, and because we were sick of hauling printed manuscripts around. Scott and I designed our online submission form hoping to streamline the querying process for ourselves and prospective clients. We require a specific rubric when considering an author for representation, including their publishing history, background, where they’ve submitted before, etc. The form asks for this information specifically. So far we’ve had great feedback about our submission process. It’s simple, environmentally friendly, and removes much of the guess-work of query writing.

3) What is the lure of YA for you?
The codes of conduct, the struggles, the newness of everything: adolescence is so intense! Teenagers have a purity of focus. Whatever their struggle, whether finding a date to prom or defeating a dark wizard, they’re stepping into the world for the first time, discovering who they are in relationship to everything else. From the ages of 12 to 18 our brains draw and redraw a map of the universe with a big arrow labeled YOU ARE HERE. Teenagers become themselves. Combine all this with the very adult problems kids often face (drugs, abusive parents, dark wizards), and you have very rich ground for stories. And personally, I’m not sure if I ever really left high school. I still pass notes to girls I like.

4) So we know you specialize in YA, but tell us a bit about the genres that get you salivating and you don't represent?

I love sweeping, heart-breaking literary fiction. My favorites in this category are Vladimir Nabokov, Siri Hustvedt, Claire Messud, A.S. Byatt, and Jeffrey Eugenides. In y.a., I sometimes miss the lush description and interweaving motifs you find in adult literary fiction. In my own writing I have a hard time banishing my internal literature professor. He sneaks in every now and then, cleverly disguised in Converse All Stars. But when he starts to get too boisterous and pretentious, I reach for my red pen and strike him out.

5) It's always a good idea when querying for writers to know a bit about the agent's clients. Would you tell us a bit about some of your clients and what attracted you to their work?

There are too many and their merits too multifarious for me to list them exhaustively, and I hate to leave anyone out. I have an arbitrary stack of client books and manuscripts on my desk right now, so I suppose I’ll limit myself to these:

Michael Kinch, The Blending Time — Gritty realism combined with a vaulting imagination. Mike was my first-ever YA client, and I can’t put down his action-packed stuff.

Gail Giles, Dark Song— Laser focused psychological realism with page-turner tension.
Maribeth Boelts, The P.S. Brothers – Maribeth has such tenderness for her characters. I love them all instantly.

Art Slade, The Hunchback Assignments 3: Empire of Ruins— Art is a bottomless well of original ideas, worlds, and characters. He is also an absolute Gentleman.
Ryan Gebhart, Bear Swear—We just signed Ryan and are working with him on this manuscript. Ryan’s middle-grade narrator grabbed me immediately, a recognizable but fresh character with a true voice. I’m excited to be working with him.

I could go on for pages about these writers, let alone the amazing stable of talent over here.

6) Nailing a YA voice isn't as easy as people think. How did you make sure the voice was authentic in GIRL PARTS?

For Girl Parts I had three main characters: a popular jerk, an unpopular jerk, and a robot. David is modeled on my high school friends (and I): lots of profanity, defensive posturing, and delusions of grandeur. David watches a lot of t.v., and so talks the way t.v. has taught him cool, tough guys speak. His speech also changes depending on his audience. With Rose he’s tender, but a little superior. With his friends he’s more aggressive, funny, and uses more slang. Charlie is a taciturn guy. He adores plants, considers himself a botanist, and so speaks in precise, textbook language. He delivers his thoughts in formal, complete sentences. This is partly because Charlie doesn’t trust others and believes most won’t understand him. Rose was the trickiest. As a robot, she comes preprogrammed with basic language skills, and learns slang and more natural speech patterns over time. It was fun having her ape David, then Charlie, and slowly developing her own tender, curious, sing-song lilt. In each case the character’s voice emerged from his environment, what kinds of media he or she consumed, and how he or she wanted to be perceived.

7) How important is research when writing and what can it add to the process? 
I shy from stories requiring extensive research. I invent my small towns, evil companies, weird technology and celebrities because it’s fun, and also because I’d rather be writing than reading. At times I want to bury particular facts in the text for thematic reasons, and in those moments I use Wikipedia. Character names especially lead to this kind of research: Do roses have natural predators? (Coleo Foridae) How do you say cloud in Spanish? (Nuvola) Bird in German? (Vogel). Developing the mechanisms of Rose’s brain had me brushing up on my Freud, Pavlov and Jung. Really, every waking moment is research, absorbing the world, people, how it all fits together. Research is inspiration fodder.

Rapid Fire Questions

Cats or dogs?
Raised with cats. I’d like a dog now.

Aliens or robots?
Guess. (hmmmm *looks at beautiful GIRL PARTS cover* I wonder)

Spring or Fall?
Fall. I have a weakness for scarves and corduroy blazers.

Halloween or Easter?
Halloween. No bad egg smell.

Plot driven or character driven?
Character. All good stories start with character. I think “plot driven” is slang for “character driven plus sex and guns.” Which, you know, I also like.
Hard copy or e-book?
Hard copy 4EVA!

So that's the buzz! Interested? Then check out YAtopia next Thursday for more details.


  1. *sigh* I love Fall too. My favorite season. Wish it would hurry up and get here.

    Thanks for the interview. I'm excited to read Girl Parts.

  2. Love this interview. Awesome questions. ;)

  3. Thank you for your great blog. I spread the word here -

  4. Excellent interview and very timely, as John Cusick is on my list of top agents.

    I'm so glad Sharon Bayliss of The Blue Word recommended your blog. I'm a new follower!