02 November 2011

Author/Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette and the pursuit of "amazing stories beautifully told"

Ammi-Joan Paquette
Today’s Q&A features Ammi-Joan Paquette. 
She is the author of NOWHERE GIRL (Walker/ Bloomsbury, Sept. 2011) and a picture book, 
THE TIPTOE GUIDE TO TRACKING FAIRIES (Tanglewood, 2009). In 2009, Joan joined the Erin Murphy Literary Agency as an associate agent and was promoted to agent in fall 2011. She works from her home office in Massachusetts. To learn more about her work, visit her author website or the agency website.

Q: Your debut novel was published last month. Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publishing?

A: As with most authors, the road to publication was definitely a long and scenic one! I’m not going to count the many books and stories I “wrote” when I was young, but I started writing with a serious view toward publication in 2003, after my mom passed away. I was first working on a (non-children’s) memoir about my mother’s death—of all things! It was very intense and filled with emotion but it essentially propelled me into a serious pursuit of the writing craft and the greater online writers’ community. Very quickly I realized that this memoir project had no legs, and shortly thereafter I realized that where my heart really lay was in writing for children. (My daughters were of pre-elementary school age at this time.) My first picture book was published in 2009, and it took until 2010 before I would sell the novel that became NOWHERE GIRL.—And interestingly, while there aren’t any autobiographical elements within the story, the story does center about the death of the main character’s mother, and coming to terms with the grief and moving on from this event. So it’s an especially significant and meaningful debut for me.

Q: What has been happening with the release of your book? Launch party? Signings? What type or promotional activity is taking place, and how much of that is done by your publisher, how much by you? 

A: I think that with the exception of a very few big-budget, big-name authors and projects, the bulk of promotional activity these days is launched by authors themselves rather than their publishers. With all that I have going on with my separate careers, I haven’t been able to do nearly as much promotion or events as I would like. I had a wonderful book launch the week after release, and have been able to attend several book festivals and bookstore fundraiser events, a couple of group signings, etc. Mostly I tend to rely on serendipity to propel me into these—the idea of launching a cold event, one brand-new author sitting alone in a bookstore, is always a little off-putting. But by teaming up with others, or making myself available for preexisting events, or otherwise seizing opportunities as they arise, I’ve been able to strike a nice balance of getting myself out there without having to devote a prohibitive amount of organizational time. Also, this helps me feel like I’m maximizing the productivity of the time I do spend.

Q: Were you a writer first, or agent first... and how did you get into agenting?

A: The writing came first, and I signed with Erin Murphy as my agent in 2008. When my then-day job was downsized in 2009, I began considering other employment options, which led to me eventually joining Erin in the agency and beginning to take on my own clients. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made, and I could not think of a job I could love more than this one!

Q: How do you balance your work as both an author and agent?

A: The two jobs actually feed off each other remarkably well, and they also have a very nice ebb and flow; when deadlines are looming on the writing front, quite often my clients are all busy writing or on submission and things are quietly simmering on the stove. When things get crazy on the agent front, it tends to be at a time when I’m all caught up on my writing and can just set that aside for weeks or longer. When I’m working on a longer writing project, I tend to carve out a certain block of time—a few hours, a few times a week, where I go to Starbucks, ingest my fuel, strap on my writing rocket and blast off. A new plan which I’m just on the verge of trying out is to set aside a chunk of two hours daily—I’m shooting for 7:30-9:30 a.m., just as soon as the kids leave for school—to get some writing out of the way before I dive in.

Invariably, my agent work is my “real work” and the writing tends to take on a back burner feel. After all, keeping my clients and their editors waiting is simply not an option! But I’m thankful that so far the juggle has worked really well, and enabled me to work two jobs that I adore, and which feed each other creatively and I think help me to do a better job at both than I would do at either one of them separately.

Q: As an agent, what are you looking for? What stands out most to you in a query letter or sample pages (in the ones you simply must read)??

A: What stands out most for me is a fresh, unique hook or premise—something that sounds different from anything I’ve seen before. I love a strong voice, projects with a classic feel. I am a sucker for unexpected plot twists, unreliable narrators, stories that change shape as you make your way through them. I find myself drawn recently toward tightly-plotted page-turners, but there always has to be something that goes deeper and lingers longer after the last page is turned. Narrators who are carrying dark secrets, who are emotionally bruised, and yet who still get out there and sock it to the bad guys—characters with depth and complexity and resonance, those are the ones for me. I like books that will matter, that will last, where you turn the last page and want to pick it up and read it again. I have a lot of specific interests, but really I’m just looking for an amazing story beautifully told.

Q: How do you find your clients?  

A: Our agency accepts queries via referral from friends or existing clients, or from writers who have attended a conference we have attended. I also occasionally do online contests or events, and open myself up to queries from those who have been part of this event.

UPDATED (Sept. 17, 2012): Joan has been busy since I interviewed her last fall. She has a new picture book out, called THE TIPTOE GUIDE TO TRACKING MERMAIDS, illustrated by Marie LeTourneau and published by Tanglewood Press last spring. And she's got three more coming soon. (Yeah, I know. Wow.) There's PARADOX, a YA science fiction thriller (Random House, June 28, 2013); a picture book called GHOST IN THE HOUSE (Candlewick, July 9, 2013); and finally, RULES FOR GHOSTING (Walker, July 2013), which she describes as a "middle-grade romp." 

Thanks for the update, Joan!

I'll be following up with Ammi-Joan Paquette when her new YA comes out in June, and hope to interview some of her clients as well. Stay tuned!