Seth Fishman is a native of Midland, Texas (think Friday Night Lights), and a graduate of Princeton University and the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. He spends his days as a literary agent at The Gernert Company and his nights (and mornings) writing. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife. The Well's End is his first novel (that's not in a drawer).
Loren Kleinman (LK): You're a literary agent with The Gernert Company. How has that helped your understanding of the publishing business when publishing your own work? Do you anticipate the demise or the flourish of the literary agent in the coming years? What's your prediction?
Seth Fishman (SF): That's a great question and a complicated one too. First, I'll not deny that working in the business has given me an edge in terms of understanding what's important, what's doable, and how to make those things happen, but the truth of the matter is: writing still comes first. I've written three books before The Well's End, all in drawers. I queried many agents before I landed with my current (and fantastic), Kirby Kim. I've had books rejected by editors, by friends, all the same things that anyone else goes through. That said, I know what I look for as an agent, I know what I believe works, and I certainly took that into account when writing the book. I knew I wanted to write something that was different from what was out there, but I also had an understanding of what would be coming out in the next couple years (which is how long it takes for a book to go from written to bookshelf).
Regarding agents, I believe we'll stick around, even if in the far future we act as literary 'managers.' I just think writers need someone on their side to help and explain and advise. In fact, I'd venture to say that selling a book is the LEAST we do. A good book, any agent should be able to sell that. But it's not easy to find the correct editor, the perfect house. It takes a good foreign rights team to land you deals in other countries. The agency where I work, The Gernert Company, has an in-house marketing team. We have contracts people. We have film connections. The self-published author is a growing success, but I think everyone could use a good pair of eyes watching, advising, editing and helping. And that's what we do. I think big publishers will disappear before agents.
LK: Let's discuss your YA thriller The Well's End, which is due spring 2014 from Penguin Putnam Random House. I read that your protagonist, Mia Kish, was inspired by a 1987 hometown drama where a baby was pulled from a Texas well. Why do some stories stay with us to the point where they drive us to create art?
SF: You're referring to Jessica McClure, who fell down a well as a child in my hometown. I suppose there are a number of dramatic memories I could have pulled from, but what I found fascinating about Baby Jessica was that I always wondered what she was up to. What happened next? This book isn't aiming to address the answer about Jessica herself at all, but rather use that question of 'what next' to create a new character. For me, it gave me grounding, a tone, a mood that I could slip right into when writing. I think it's very much the same for others. Historical fiction, even, takes the bare bone and settles you, but also the author, into a semi-known quantity, which often makes the world-building easier and allows the author to free up their creativity towards something else. I don't mean it's a gimmick, or a cheat, or that authors need to be freed up, but rather, I think that inspiration based on real events tap directly into personal, internal feelings and emotions that can be manipulated easier than normal. No need to preheat the oven, per se.
LK: Your novel tells the story of virus, that when caught, ages its victims in a matter of hours. The end result: death. Talk about your initial ideas behind the novels beginnings. Did you feel age and death were important topics for a young adult (YA) novel? Why? Why not?
SF: This dives right into the root of the creation of this book, actually. If I'm honest, my first idea was simply to write a YA book where poisons played a key role, but that morphed pretty quickly into a virus. Once I knew I wanted to do a virus, it became a game for me to try to come up with a new virus, something different, something interesting. And this virus that ages you, it led directly to all the other things in the book, which, if you read until then end, you'll realize are way more important than the virus. I believe, though, that death is an important topic in any book and for any ages. On a practical level, it raises the stakes in the story, which invests the reader, which gives the author the opportunity to do something more with the text. Why do you think so many people who profess to never read fantasy love Game of Thrones? Because major characters die off all the time. And, regarding YA, I think it's incredibly important not to speak down to teenagers, and that means not to gloss over death. They hear it, they see it, they read it, it's everywhere and they have questions and maybe they have no one to ask them to. Discussing death in books, I believe, provides an outlet for exploration of what might be a taboo conversation piece. In the case of The Well's End, we look aging in the eye, good and bad -- I try to show some advantages too, but it's tough because it's scary and quick and you lose people you care about. Death is real, and if there's one thing I wished when I was younger it was not to just stumble onto things in reality with no signposts. If authors provide some lights, then we're doing a good service.
LK: There is a theme of "darkness" in your work; darkness on both an emotional and physical level. Does darkness really represent the idea of possible self-discovery? How does the darkness show Mia Kish, the protagonist, a reality she must face? Is her survival based on facing a type of darkness?
SF: Yeah, this is a smart question. Another benefit of creating a character based on an event is that the enemies of the said character often slot into place. In this case, it had to be darkness and water and, arguably, tight places. I wanted to imagine Mia fighting these all of her life, and in some ways she's winning: she's a nationally ranked swimmer. You can almost imagine her swimming so fast because she wants to get out of the water first every time. But darkness is trickier for her, and she's not really gotten the knack of overturning that fear. I wanted a protagonist who was human, who tried and failed in some aspects but succeeded in others. In this case, darkness is present the entire time, pushing in on her, forcing her to make decisions and sacrifice (or embrace) her fear. But it means more than that. Darkness is about the absence of light, and though I won't make this a Cliff Notes on the book, I was thinking along those lines in terms of Mia's relationship with the world around her.
LK: Are you afraid of the dark?
SF: I'm not particularly afraid of the dark. I'm afraid of the things that hide in the dark.