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Don’t Tell Me Not To Live


Last night, I had the great honor of escorting my friend and client George Hodgman to the National Book Critics Circle Awards; his book Bettyville was a finalist. Ittook place at New School’s beautiful auditorium that looks like the inside of a deco egg. It was a star-studded event. To the left of us, Helen McDonald sans hawk. Directly in front of me Paul Beatty who I’ve loved since his first book of poems. Wendell Berry seemed annoyed to be receiving a lifetime achievement award. Everywhere in attendance proud editors, agents and family members. Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland won in George’s category, autobiography. No complaint there, but still I have to admit that in the moment before the winner’s name is announced, I found myself hoping with the fervor of a small child making a birthday wish. We consoled and celebrated over a long and delicious dinner with friends where much publishing gossip was exchanged. A meal in itself. When I think about reading the first pages George shared with me and sitting with him last night, and all the work in between that went into Bettyville, I feel so fortunate. Publishing doesn’t always fuck you over,

They Say as a Child I Appeared a Little Bit Wild


tumblr_m5agp4ws751rxiaoto1_500Someone recently asked me if I felt anxious about the book coming out because it is so personal. Get to know me. I’m anxious because it might not sell. I’m anxious because the New York Times might say mean things, or worse say nothing at all. I’m anxious because if I fail it’s not only in front of my friends and family, but the publishing profession where I work. I’m anxious because I’m not in therapy and I probably should be. I’m anxious because I don’t feel like myself, meaning I feel a little hopeful and that is just not part of the package.  I’m anxious because it’s all out of my hands now with the exception of boosting Facebook pages and going up and down Fifth avenue in the sandwich boards I’ve made with the Queen of Hearts on both sides.

What makes you anxious about getting your work out there? What’s your worst fear?

Long as I Know How to Love I Know I’ll Stay Alive

08hodgman3-master18051q6c2lxz4l-_sx329_bo1204203200_Congratulations to my dear friend and client GEORGE HODGMAN on his NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE nomination. New York Times Bestseller Bettyville available in paperback  March.

Are you the kind of person who prepares his acceptance speech or wings it?

My Dream It Lingered Near



Three years ago, I started working on a new book. It was going nowhere fast and my husband kept saying that I had to use my blog voice. My what? My sociopath voice? My whiney vaginey voice? My pitted, potted, sometimes besotted voice. My childlike wonder, my hemorrhoidal idyll, my knock knock give a dog a bone. Short story long: my new book is coming out in May, 2016. It wouldn’t exist if not for the four years of writing here, the incredible love and support from our merry band. Even the guy who said he wanted to kill me and Patti Smith with a pitchfork. You gave me the chance to develop my voice, and as we say in these parts, I finished the fucker. Will say more about it soon. Until then, THANK YOU dearest readers of this blog. Love, Betsy

How Bout Me Not Blaming You for Everything


I’m working on the acknowledgments to my new book. I’ve always felt that the acknowledgments are the closest thing to Oscar acceptance speeches that writers get. I’d like to thank my mother, my father, my therapist in Riverdale. I’d like to thank my left foot, Daniel Day Louis, Julia Louise Dreyfus, my hedge fund manager, my hedge hog, my cockapoo. I’d like to thank my pain. I’d like to thank all the people who didn’t believe in me. I’d like to thank the one man who opened a door for me at Grand Central. I’d like to thank my eye surgeon Dr. Craig Sklar. I’d like to thank the woman at his office who did my paperwork. I’d like to thank my personal assistant, my personal trainer, my personal planner, my personal pizza. But most of all I want to thank the Duplass Brothers.

Who do you thank?

I’m Trying To Beat Life Cause I Can’t Cheat Death

Dear Readers of this Blog: I couldn’t be happier than to congratulate Sheri Booker on the publication of her first book Nine Years Under (notice I am not saying “debut” because I think it’s pretentious) about her experiences working in an inner city funeral home, coming of age there, amid the corpses, inside the embalming room, and among the mourners who looked to her, a teenager, for comfort and tissues. There was a lot to learn about death; there was even more to learn about life.

I have copies to give away to the top three funeral stories.  I’ll see if I can get Sheri to judge.

And here’s some great early press: NPR: http://www.npr.org/2013/06/01/187086911/nine-years-in-a-baltimore-funeral-home  Baltimore Sun Interview: http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bs-ae-book-funeral-20130601,0,4451923.story  Washington Post:  http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-05-29/entertainment/39591099_1_funeral-business-viewing-west-baltimor   NPR news http://www.wypr.org/podcast/how-working-deadaffects-your-view-living

Blackbird Singing In The Dead of Night

Fourteen years ago, a slim memoir with a simple but perfect title came into the world and created a storm of media: praise and scorn. A sales rep at Random House had sent a copy to my husband with a handwritten note: Great art? Maybe. Provocative? Definitely. The book was The Kiss. The author Kathryn Harrison, a novelist with three books to her credit at that point, was being taken to task for, among other things, revisiting material from her fiction for this memoir, particularly her incestuous relationship with her father.

I turned away, but not because she was continuing to mine her life for her writing (a ridiculous charge on any level), but because I was insanely jealous. As a young editor working on memoirs, I envied the tidal wave of attention hers was getting. But even more, I was jealous as a writer. She had moved a boulder. She had found prose as stark and terrifying as the incident she was writing about. She found the words, and she hit a nerve. I couldn’t touch it.

Years later, I met Kathryn Harrison when we were both on a publishing  panel. I went home that night and found the copy the rep had sent. Interestingly, I had never sold it off over two moves; it still had the note. I think I read the memoir in one or two sittings. It was actually the mother daughter story that initially captivated me. I read it a second time, more slowly, how did she find the control and composure, how did she level her gaze, how did she pin each sentence down?

I received a reissue of The Kiss this week from the publisher. I thought I’d just read a few pages, but I reread the entire book having been captured by the earliest lines which brilliantly telegraph the entire story, “standing against a sheer face of red rock one thousand feet high; kneeling in a cave dwelling two thousand years old; watching as a million bats stream from the mouth of a Carlsbad Cavern into the purple dusk…” It’s all there like Goya’s Caprichos and Van Gogh’s blackbirds let loose over a tragic land. It’s also worth getting for the afterword by Jane Smiley and the Q&A with Kathryn Harrison if you’re interested in memoir or are writing one.

If you could ask Kathryn Harrison a question, what would it be?

Sooner Or Later It All Gets Real (reprise)

I have a confession to make: I’ve always been afraid of killing someone by accident while driving. I’m sure you’ve had the experience where a person seems to appear out of nowhere as you’re backing out or making a left turn, no matter how many times you look. I’ve never been able to easily shake those  moments, but instead replay them over and over. Do you do this? Is it normal?

When I heard about Darin Strauss’ new memoir, Half a Life, I ran out and got it. Strauss was weeks away from graduating high school when he kills a girl riding a bicycle. It was quickly ascertained that he was not at fault, but that doesn’t alleviate his suffering. I read the book in two sittings, completely mesmerized by the events he describes. The writing is also extremely effective, self-aware of both  his inner life and the potential for a writer’s manipulation through poetic language.

I am wondering why I am so powerfully drawn to this story and to stories like it. I suspect it has something to do with the death of my baby sister and how I, at four, didn’t really understand what happened. It happened very quickly and life was forever changed in our family. While very few people experience what Strauss did, the story strikes me as universal because he is able to capture that particular terror where our lives can be irrevocably changed. Loss of control. Terror. Desire. Permanent loss. Unspeakable regret. The reason why we replay those moments again and again. For Strauss, it happens on the eve of going to college, of what must certainly have felt like the beginning of life, not the end. Which for me made it all the more poignant. All the more unbearable.

What was the last book you heard about that you had to have, and that you ran out and bought (or bought on-line)? What spoke to you that powerfully? And does the book you are working on touch that nerve?

I Knew I Was a Genius

I trashed last night’s post. All wrong. The response to Erin’s post was tremendous and I want to thank everyone who contributed. I have to admit that part of what fueled my desire to write a memoir was a feeling of competition. Any number of books on depression made me crazy because I didn’t feel they captured depression in a “true” way. I hated Darkness Visible. I wanted to stab myself in the heart after reading Girl, Interruped. Noonday Demon won like the National Book Award. Gah! There was one book about depression and therapy I loved, Mockingbird Years, but it was “quiet” and didn’t get much attention. It didn’t tart up depression. It got how deadening it is, how fucked up therapy can be. I felt I had done hard time, six months in the looney bin, a lifetime of seeking treatment, a parade of insane shrinks until I found Dr. Mas who saved my life with the right diagnosis and medication.

I was also tired of the anorexics getting all the attention. I knew my issues with food were less sexy (and I know anorexia is a nightmare), but I also believed that more people suffered from bingeing, yo-yo dieting, and the attendant self-disgust. And that it was probably worse for women for whom self regard and body image go hand in hand. I had tried to write about these things as fiction over the years with many false starts. Then, around my fortieth birthday on a train back from a cheese-filled trip to the south of France, I wrote the following words in my diary: Starting tomorrow. It was the clarion call of my life, it was when I would start living. After that, the thing nearly wrote itself. To use the cliche, I had found my voice. A lot of people have asked me if it was difficult to write. It wasn’t.

What compels you to tell your story whether as memoir or as fiction? What fuels you?

Coming Out of the Dark

[Dear Readers: My colleague Erin Hosier has been knocking out some amazing pieces over on She Writes. I’m including her latest in full here because I think it’s the best piece on memoir that I’ve seen a very long time.]


Dear Erin Hosier,

My name is REDACTED and my memoir is titled Life’s Not Fair. I grew up with a father who idolized Hitler and turned out to be a pedophile. As a child I blocked out memories that he molested me. When I was a teenager the police raided our home because he had child porn on his computer. My mother has paranoid schizophrenia and our father refused to let us see each other for about a decade. At school I was tormented by bullies and at home I lived in poverty and filth. My sister and I ran away from home and spent time in juvenile detention as teenagers. My little brother committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart because he became delusional and thought it would save our father’s life. My little sister died of alcohol poisoning after choking on her own vomit. My siblings were both in their twenties when they died. I have also personally struggled with an addiction to marijuana and alcohol.

I married a man who began using meth, started hallucinating and became physically abusive towards me while I was pregnant. We have two small children together. At that point in my life I spent a lot of my time going to clubs and bars, getting drunk and cheating on my husband with random men. I was under so much stress I had a nervous breakdown and went to a mental hospital for the third time in my life. Our two children were taken by CPS and placed in foster care. Currently I am homeless and trying to get them back from the state. I have had other readers and writer read my story and I was told I have a very unique voice and story. I believe that one day this book will be on the New York Times Best Seller List and that anyone who sends me a rejection letter will one day regret it because this is the kind of story that I can see being made into a movie and making a great deal of money.

There is not another book out there like this one, but I can relate to stories like Glass Castle and Angela’s Ashes.
I really hope you will consider representing me. Would you be willing to review a few sample chapters?



Are you still reading? My editor thought I should cut this letter down because it’s so depressingly raw, that you’d get the gist after the first paragraph and probably get turned off, but I wanted to keep it as is since that is precisely the point of this post.

Because I’ve sold a few memoirs, or maybe just because I’m an agent, I get letters like this every day. You’d think this was an extreme example, but unfortunately it’s not. Last week another query promised its author’s story would be “realer than Precious.” Something about the writer’s tone irritated me (it’s not a contest!) and I deleted the emailed letter unread and finished my bagel. Who was she to say that her experiences were “realer” than anyone else’s, even as she was referencing a fictional character? And then there are the true stories like the one above. A person so victimized by life itself that she probably can’t consider the humor in a title such as “Life’s Not Fair.” But Erin, Mistress of Darkness, why should every book have a silver lining? Why does everything difficult need to be tempered with humor or self-deprecation if we’re talking about pedophilia, suicide, poverty and mental illness? The answer is it doesn’t…unless you want your story to actually be published.

And another thing: I don’t think there’s a person reading this who hasn’t come face to face with at least three of the myriad of horrors the writer mentions above in her query. Life isn’t fair, and thanks to Oprah we all know it. And while I’m sorry we live in a world as cruel and unfair as we do – of course I am, every day – I can not even begin to imagine how I would pitch such a story to editors. It’s not that your life sounds like such a total bummer, it’s that it only manages to get worse. Where is the lesson? Where is the story? Where is the hope? And what is the point?

Publishers are looking for stories that can inspire. That’s just human nature and the American way. We don’t mind if you were forced to bear your father’s child in poverty, just as long as you eventually star in your own tv show, or at least work with other tortured children to try and make things better. But above all, you need to be a better writer than any of the other People With a Horrifying Life Story. And you need to remember what books are for.

Here’s how this query letter can be fixed: If you’re writing your own story, please know the difference between autobiography and memoir. In general, only really famous people like presidents and rappers can get away with telling us the whole story of their lives. That’s an autobiography. But for the most part, memoir is about one aspect of one’s life. That’s how Mary Karr or Augusten Burroughs or Koren Zailckas can get away with writing more than one memoir – they’ve built an audience on voice and trust and for better or worse their sales tracks enable them to do it again, usually focused on another time or set of life circumstances. But that’s what’s key: voice and trust. If readers didn’t respond to the over-the-top coming-of-age story of Augusten being raised by his crazy mother’s crazy shrink in Running With Scissors, they wouldn’t have clamored for his addiction memoir, Dry. And he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to publish it.

A memoir is a personal story, but it’s written for a reader. It’s great if the author experiences some kind of catharsis out of the process of writing her book, but there’s all kinds of writing that can aid in catharsis, and therefore publishing should not be the ultimate point. Personal writing – the kind that heals – need not be made into a movie. A memoir is for the reader, the person who can relate but could never quite put their story into words. It’s for the reader who always wanted to know what “that” would be like. It’s for someone else’s enlightenment but more often their entertainment. Memoirs these days are often centered around an “issue.” That’s not an accident. Large groups of literate people share issues.The key word in that sentence is “share” – it’s not all about the writer, it’s about the community of readers willing to buy a book.

In the best memoir pitches, the author clearly has enough distance from her story to be able to tell it with clarity and humor. The writing doesn’t have to be funny, it just has to understand the necessary balance between lightness and darkness. Unlike in this letter, there has to be a reprieve from the pain every so often. You have to be aware that the reader is not your therapist, even as they are a witness, and that in every tragedy or dark time, there’s hope or goodness or art at the end of the process. A good writer can write about anything – I really believe that. They just can’t write about everything at once.