Our second-to-last day at camp began with a great book-making activity led by our teaching artist Nicole Haroutunian. She taught us how to fold sheets of paper into a miniature, hand-sewn books and bind them with thread. Now we each have our own book, made by our very own hands, to take home and fill up with great writing.
Mid-morning, we met with David Klass, author of The Grandmaster. David’s presentation was all about his many projects and his approach to writing, which was great because he has certainly been prolific! David is the author of 19 books, 40 Hollywood screenplays, and has also written for television shows such as Law and Order: Criminal Intent. He told us that writing for books and writing for the screen are incredibly different worlds and require different skills. It was also good to learn that his first book was published by Scribner from a “blind query,” meaning that he wrote a letter without knowing anyone personally or using a connection of some kind.
David began his presentation by sharing two opposing schools of thought for writers, articulated by two great fiction writers: Onthe one hand, we have Earnest Hemingway who said, “The best thing that can happen to you as a writer is the worst thing that can happen to you as a person”; and in opposition, Flannery O’Connor’s point of view: “Anyone who makes it out of childhood has enough experiences to write for a lifetime.” He talked about the pros and cons of these two points of view. It was really interesting to hear him discuss how he relates to these two differing sentiments.
David also explained that he often doesn’t know what his books are going to be about when he begins them and even as he starts to make his way through his drafts. He told us that, for him, writing is about voice and character. Once he builds the character and all the motivations and personality of that person, he allows himself to follow their voice through the book to lead the plot as it occurs. He also gave us some great advice: If there is something about you that is special and others don’t have it, that’s a great subject for a story or novel, no matter what the “something” is.
It was also interesting to hear a little bit about David’s screenwriting career, in particular he discussed the films Kiss The Girls (with Morgan Freeman) and Desperate Measures. He explained that a few of his projects have come about from “spec scripts” — meaning a script that nobody pays you to write, and you don’t know if it will become a movie or not until it’s finished and someone (hopefully!) buys it.
He also shared an important life story: He almost ate a very valuable old Japanese seal in a principal’s office in a remote Japanese island town, the old man dove across couch to take it out of his mouth. It was caught on film.
After saying farewell to David and eating lunch in our nearby park, we packed up and headed out into the world this afternoon to visit Writers House.
Writers House is a literary agency here in Manhattan. It’s a 40-person operation that lives in two brownstones which were owned and lived in by John Jacob Astor. Writers House bought the building and opened for business in 1978. They represent some of the coolest writers around, and many favorites: Neil Gaiman, John Green, Christopher Paolini, Stephanie Meyer, and series like The Babysitter’s Club, Nancy Drew, Dork Diaries, and zillions of other fantastic kids and YA writers (as well as some of the bestselling writers for adults). We met with Susan Cohen, one of their longest-time employees, who represents many of their children’s book authors. Susan began working at the front desk of Writers House in 1980, worked her way up to an assistant, then a junior agent, and eventually to her current position.
Susan gave us the dish on the behind-the-scenes life of a real literary agent. She talked about reading manuscripts, signing on authors, choosing books, and, most importantly, all that must happen for an idea to become a real, published book. We learned that the role of the agent is to work as the liaison between the writer and publisher, advocating for their needs and, of course, making sure the financial agreement between the writer and the publisher is all on paper and a benefit for both. She told us a lot of interesting facts about the important relationship between the writers and the editors, and how the agents’ job is to make sure this relationship is always working well. Susan talked about many of her authors, and gave us some examples of the obstacles that each book had to work through to become a finished product.
We even had a chance to ask her our burning questions and share some of our own book ideas. Susan’s most important piece of advice was that books should accomplish what they set out to do in order to really be successful. This can be interpreted many ways, and gave us all a lot of food for thought. It was pretty cool to hang out in Writers House’s fancy conference room and learn about the biz from a great agent.
Heading back to Symphony Space just before dismissal, this field trip officially ended the second-to-last day of the very last week of Thalia Book Club Camp! It’s hard to believe that tomorrow will be the end of the camp season.