Jon Clinch’s first novel, Finn—the secret history of Huckleberry Finn’s father—was named an American Library Association Notable Book and was chosen as one of the year’s best books by the Washington Post, theChicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor. It won the Philadelphia Athenaeum Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Sargent First Novel Prize.
His second novel, Kings of the Earth—a powerful tale of life, death, and family in rural America, based on a true story—was named a best book of the year by theWashington Post and led the 2010 Summer Reading List at O, The Oprah Magazine. For this segment of our Author Interview Series, we asked Jon what inspired his writing, how he found an agent, as well as a host of other questions. Here’s what he said:
WHAT INSPIRES AND INFLUENCES YOUR WRITING THE MOST?
I’m definitely inspired by what’s gone before — the writers and the books that I deeply admire. It’s a varied lot, going back to Melville and Faulkner, passing through Nabokov and Hawkes and Gardner, and continuing through more-current writers like Mark Helprin and Paul Theroux and Alistair MacLeod. Real craftsmen, one and all, with more to do than just tell a story. (John Hawkes once said, in fact, that plot is the enemy of the modern novel. I wouldn’t go that far, but there it is.)
DO YOU HAVE AN AGENT? IF SO, HOW DID YOU FIND HIM/HER?
If you intend to sell a manuscript to any but the smallest of houses, you need representation. That’s a sign of how dramatically the industry has changed over the last fifteen or twenty years. Once upon a time, writers could send manuscripts directly to most any house. Readers on staff went through the slush pile, hoping to uncover something great. All of that died with the ascension of the literary agent.
Now that agents man the gates, it’s important to remember that they are above all else salesmen who work on commission — a type of creature that tends to be very, very conservative. A commission salesman will always be drawn toward selling what’s popular at the moment, because that’s where the reliable money is. Combine this sales pressure on the front end with the globalization of publishing on the back end, and the result is a machine that’s built to manufacture an uninterrupted stream of indistinguishable best-sellers.
Back to the question, though: I found my first agent through a friend who hooked me up. I found my second agent through my credentials as the author of FINN. Right now I’m unrepresented as far as New York publishing goes — but I don’t happen to have a manuscript to sell, since most of my recent work has been screenwriting. I connected with my screenwriting agent via both a personal connection and my publishing credits — plus the strength of the work itself, of course. It always comes down to that. If you have something an agent believes he or she can sell, you’re in.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT THE PUBLISHING PROCESS?
The hierarchical nature of it. I had naïvely assumed that every book was born equal, until the editor who bought FINN told me the facts of life. “We publish probably five levels of books, from A to E,” he said. “You should be very relieved that you’re an A.”
What this means is that most books get sent out into the marketplace without anything useful in the way of marketing and sales support, and as a result most of them meet an early death. This is why so many writers make their actual livings elsewhere.
DO YOU MARKET YOURSELF? WHAT (SPECIFICALLY) DO YOU DO TO BUILD/MAINTAIN YOUR READERSHIP?
I was in advertising for thirty years, and I find it very taxing and uncomfortable to promote myself. This is too bad, since most writers — from do-it-yourselfers to those published by major houses — are expected to shoulder increasing amounts of the marketing work.
That said, I do have an email list to which I send newsletters from time to time — rarely more than once a year. And I’m on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, of course, although I really don’t use those venues to promote my work. I just talk about stuff that interests me. I have a great many writer friends, and most of them seem to feel the same way. Truth is, I’m only too willing to block those who go over to the dark side and start promoting all the time. I suspect I’m not alone.
BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCES IN THE INDUSTRY, WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER WRITERS?
As the Boy Scouts say, “Be Prepared.” Learn as much as you can about the business, because it is indeed a business. Write with a target audience in mind. Keep a first novel to something between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Be prepared to write five or six novels before you begin to know what you’re doing. Don’t copy what’s hot today, but don’t be oblivious to it either. Write in one of the genres if you want to self-publish, since genre readers are more open-minded about unknown authors than are readers of more literary stuff.