Questions for Literary Agent Shannon O’Neill

by Carolee Noury

Writers know that it’s a good idea to get to know agents before pitching to and/or querying them. In that spirit, here’s an opportunity to meet Shannon O’Neill, Agent at Lippincot Massie McQuilkin. Shannon will be one of four agents participating in the practice pitch sessions at the 2014 Maryland Writers’ Conference. Shannon is an agent for a New York firm who lives in DC–offering the best of both worlds for our Maryland writers: a “hometown” rep with NYC connections.

D12_201_019Carolee Noury: What’s it like working as an agent in DC? While it’s not remote, it’s also not New York or California.

Shannon O’Neill: DC is full of articulate and driven people. There’s a strong intellectual climate here; it’s a very literate city. I feel fortunate to be based here with so many universities, think tanks, and nonprofits in my backyard. And, oh yeah, the government just so happens to be here too. That means a large pool of interesting people who are experts in their field, and plenty of aspiring writers.

I love that DC is such a livable city. It’s quite beautiful, easy to navigate, and has so many free cultural offerings. The Smithsonian museums are my favorite, especially the National Gallery and the Museum of the American Indian. The free concerts at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage can be pretty great too.

CN: What trends are you seeing in popular science these days?

SO: The narrative is ascendant in most all types of nonfiction these days. It’s not enough to have breakthrough findings or brand-new scientific discoveries to share; you really have to be able to tell a great story and to connect with your readers.

CN: What makes fiction “upmarket? ”

SO: Upmarket, to me, basically means writing that aspires to last beyond the season in which it was published. Beyond being entertaining or well-written, upmarket fiction has staying power. It resonates with a reader on a deeper level. To write in such a way requires a mastery of the craft. Other forms of fiction do not necessarily make the same demand.

Recent examples I love include Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.

CN: What writing book(s) do you wish rookie writers would read before they start writing?

SO: I wish that people would read more, and read more widely before they tackle their own book. There’s no “how to” guide that I’d recommend; instead I’d urge people to read or return to to the classics of literature, or make sure you’ve read every recent book on your subject that’s intended for a general audience if you’re writing nonfiction.

CN: What books are you reading right now?

SO: My most recent reads are Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be, and Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

CN: What’s a typical “a-ha” moment when you know you want to take on someone’s project?

SO: It’s different for every project but for fiction, I’m usually drawn in by the voice or the authority of the writing within the first few pages, or the first chapter.

For nonfiction, a strong platform matters but so does the originality and marketability of the idea. It’s often after a phone call or a meeting that I really feel confident that the writer and I are on the same page and would work well together.

CN: How many hours do you spend working in a typical week?

SO: That’s a really good question–one that I need to work harder on quantifying. Whenever I am reading–the news, book reviews, blogs, articles, literary magazines–I am constantly thinking about whether this person could write a book, or this article deserves to be expanded into something more robust, or the expert cited in a piece might have more findings to share. I need to work harder at unplugging!

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