Interview with Barbara Rogan, and a Neil Gaiman Pep Talk, before Saint David's Day

Interview! With the amazing Barbara Rogan!

I first met Barbara through the Compuserve Books and Writers Community (thank you, Diana Gabaldon), and recently participated in her Revising Fiction Workshop, which helped me no end when I was trying to finalise the edits for Out of the Water (also, thanks to Matthew, I'm going to revise my query again!). And now, here's Barbara, first as an author, and then as an editor:

As an author...
Which is the most embarrassing song, book, movie or TV show that you love?

I watch those high-end real-estate reality shows, "Selling New York" and the like, which is pure voyeurism: seeing how the 1% live and imagining myself in those houses.

Which of your characters is most like you?

There's some of me in all of them, including (or especially) the villains. I do feel a great affinity with one character from my second book, Café Nevo: Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz a 72-year-old waiter in a Tel Aviv café. Sternholz is always there, sweeping up, eavesdropping, and interfering in his customers' lives... sort of like me with my characters.

Favourite literary character not your own?

Huck Finn, of course. And Elizabeth Bennet, for her attitude.

Would you like to be one of your characters, or do you the writer torture them too much?

No. I prefer at least the illusion of free choice.

What's the weirdest thing you've researched?

How to make Shaker-style furniture, which isn't so weird, except that I have zero affinity for any activity requiring tools. And of course the various methods of killing people, their advantages and disadvantages.

[Oh! I know what book that was for - Rowing in Eden. I loved it!]

As an agent and editor...

Just a note: I'm no longer an agent.

Do you go out looking for new writers, or wait for writers to come to you?

They come to me, as a teacher and editor.

If you don't like a book, how destructive can you be with your criticism? Do you change your approach depending on the author?

I like to think that I am never destructive. I don't only address flaws; I also recognize good writing or story-telling when I see it. But I do ask tough questions, and occasionally they reveal fault lines in a project. If I know a writer is super-sensitive, I'll wrap an extra layer of tact around my notes, or try to, anyway, but the substance doesn't change.

Day-to-day, what is the most challenging aspect of your work?

I started out on the publishing end of things. Being a writer is a lot harder and lonelier. It's a long wait between paydays, too. But I really have no complaints. I love what I do, and I get to make my living doing what I love. I'm very fortunate.

Which author would you most have loved to represent? Which authors did you love and represent?

I was an agent in Israel, where I represented many great writers for Hebrew rights on behalf of their primary agents. I was lucky enough to meet quite a few. Among my favorites were Isaac Bashevis Singer (who took me to lunch in a Jewish deli on the lower East Side), Madeleine L'Engle, and Nadine Gordimer.

[Madeleine L'Engle! I'm jealous!]

Is rejection a personal issue for agents? Is it harder to submit queries as an author or as an agent?

For agents, rejection goes with the territory. For writers, too, but writers take it more personally.

And now a longish question: I recently read an article about the editor Robert Gottlieb. At one point, author Michael Crichton describes working with Gottlieb:

"When I sent Bob a draft of The Andromeda Strain - the first book I did for him - in 1968 he said he would publish it if I would agree to completely rewrite it. I gulped and said OK. He gave me his feelings about what had to happen on the phone, in about twenty minutes. He was very quick. Anyway, I rewrote it completely. He called me up and said, Well, this is good, now you only have to rewrite half of it. Again, he told me what needed to happen - for the book to begin in what was then the middle, and fill in the material from the beginning sometime later on.

Finally we had the manuscript in some kind of shape. I was just completely exhausted. He said to me, Dear boy, you've got this ending backwards. (He's married to an actress, and he has a very theatrical manner. He calls me "dear boy," like an English actor might do.) I don't remember exactly the way it was, but I had it so that one of the characters was supposed to turn on a nuclear device, and there was suspense about whether or not that would happen. Bob said, No, no, the switch has to turn itself on automatically, and the character has to turn it off. He was absolutely right. That was the first time I understood that when there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards."

I've always wondered about editors who take on authors and then expect them to rewrite everything – do they see something in that author that makes the process worthwhile? Would that not work with everyone? How do you feel about that level of editing? Do the lines between author and editor become blurred after a while?

Interesting story, but it reflects more on the past than the present. Very few editors now would take on a book that needed that amount of work. Even then it was unusual. Gottlieb must have thought it a great story, as indeed it was. (I doubt he thought C. was a great writer, or the book wouldn't have needed so much editing.) Notice that Crichton agreed with the changes and learned from them; they weren't shoved down his throat. I don't see an overlapping of functions here, just a zealous editor and a receptive writer.

Thank you very much, Barbara, for visiting on my blog and answering all my disconnected questions!

Parting words on this ROW80 day (I've edited a few more pages and typed up two filler scenes. Yes, it's going s l o w l y) come from Neil Gaiman's Journal:
"It does help, to be a writer, to have the sort of crazed ego that doesn't allow for failure. The best reaction to a rejection slip is a sort of wild-eyed madness, an evil grin, and sitting yourself in front of the keyboard muttering "Okay, you bastards. Try rejecting this!" and then writing something so unbelievably brilliant that all other writers will disembowel themselves with their pens upon reading it, because there's nothing left to write. Because the rejection slips will arrive. And, if the books are published, then you can pretty much guarantee that bad reviews will be as well. And you'll need to learn how to shrug and keep going. Or you stop, and get a real job."

(image found in a Google search)

Tomorrow is Dewi Sant/Saint David's Day. If you're Welsh, wear a leek or daffodil!


Linda G. said…
Great interview! Barbara, I'm totally jealous you got to work with Madeleine L'Engle, too. How cool is that!
Nadja Notariani said…
St. David's Day? Never heard of it...but I have boys who love all things from England's history - especially griffins and coats of arms (hmmm..never typed that before...'coats of arms' sounds so, so wrong??!!). I'll send them off to school with an interesting tidbit to share! I think the boys may protest wearing an oversized onion...haha, but maybe we can conjure up a daffodil at the flower shop! Have a wonderful day, Deniz.
Deniz Bevan said…
Thanks for coming by, Linda!

That sounds like fun, Nadja - I'm planning to wear a daffodil too, if I can find one under all the snow!
Cherie Reich said…
Great interview! And that's an awesome tidbit about Michael Crichton and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN.
Deniz Bevan said…
Thanks Cherie!
I like reading author histories/biographies :-)
Anonymous said…
Great interview. I enjoyed reading about Barbara, what she's done, and who she's worked with, as well as the writerly tidbits. Thanks for introducing me to her.
Deniz Bevan said…
I'm glad you enjoyed the interview, Medeia!
Angela Brown said…
While the interview shed a great deal of light on some things regarding the editor's view, that journal entry by Neil really embodied the audacity of what we do as writers. We dare to dream, dare to share the dream with others, taking a beating along the way with rejections and some bad reviews. But it does take some gumption to do what we do.
Jamie Gibbs said…
Happy St. David's Day to you to! I didn't have time to get a leek, but I've got my Welsh rugby shirt, so that'll count :)
Great interview, Barbara and Deniz! Lovely answers to fantastic questions! And really Barbara....villians?
Talli Roland said…
Happy St David's Day! It's absolutely gorgeous here and the daffs are blooming.

Fantastic interview with Barbara. It's nice to see I'm not the only one who loves property shows.
Deniz Bevan said…
And we have to renew that stockpile of gumption everyday, Angela!

Rugby shirt definitely counts, Jamie~!

Thanks so much, Romance and Talli!
Vicki Tremper said…
Great interview! Gosh that Neil Gaiman is just brilliant, isn't he? I don't quite want to disembowel myself with my pen after reading his work, but I do consider not writing anymore. Until I realize that I just can't stop.

Happy St. David's Day!
nutschell said…
Great interview Deniz! I love that Barbara got to work with the great Madeleine L'Engle!
Excellent interview! I loved reading her answers.
S.P. Bowers said…
Great interview. Happy St. David's Day. I think I do have welsh ancestors.
Barbara Rogan said…
Linda, I actually became quite friendly with her. We had lunch several times and talked on the phone, and she read one of my books and gave me a blurb. The lovely gracious woman.
Deniz Bevan said…
I feel the same way, Vicki!

Thanks Nutschell, Eagle and Sara!

Sooo lucky, Barbara! Thank you so much for answering my questions :-)

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