Interview with Author, David Rocklin

December 18, 2009
  •  Strategies for getting and keeping a qualified Agent.

  •  “Taking the Long Way Home” with foreign publication.

Hello, everyone. Let’s welcome our guest today, David Rocklin, the author of “The Luminist.” His debut novel will be published overseas in Italy (Neri Pozza) and Israel (Kinnaret). It is to be submitted for publication in the UK, and is scheduled to make its first appearance here in the United States in 2011 (Hawthorne Books). It’s an elegant novel described by Mohrbooks as: “In the spirit of ‘The Piano Tuner,’ David’s first historical, ‘The Luminist,’ is a beautifully written, page-turner about politics, war, art, and family that will linger in your memory long after you raced towards the last page.”

Q: Welcome, David. Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in Chicago, and moved to Los Angeles in 1990 to pursue writing; I’d felt that I couldn’t write while living where I was originally from. I felt the need to see what I’d experienced up to that point from a greater distance. I have a degree in Literature (we with degrees like to capitalize the word) and went into law. I now mediate employment cases and write – not in that order, I’m happy to say.

Q: A successful attorney with a degree in Literature (notice the capitalization). I can’t imagine balancing time between two challenging careers. How do you manage? Was professional writing always your ultimate ambition?

It’s a challenge, mostly to keep my head on what I’m doing while not writing. The writing seeps into just about every facet of me. I stay up late, a lot. We also have a toddler at home, so I’ve become a bit adept at multi-tasking mentally.

Q: On any scale, I don’t think there’s one of us who can’t appreciate those challenges you describe. Multi-tasking and time-sharing seem a way of life for writers. Tell us about “The Luminist” and what inspired the story?

The Luminist was initially inspired by an installation of Victorian-era photography at the Getty Museum in Southern California. The character of Catherine Colebrook is very loosely suggested by the life and work of  Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the first photographic pioneers. Her pictures of children were especially haunting, at once warmly immediate and bittersweet; those lives are, after all, lost to us now. After the exhibition and a bit of research, I discovered (among other things) that Ms. Cameron experienced the death of one her youngest children, as did so many in colonial Ceylon. It struck me that Ms. Cameron’s stated desire to “arrest beauty,” to select a moment from the thousands comprising her life and hold it apart from mere memory, might have arisen from that grievous loss as much as from scientific curiosity and the will of a strong woman to escape some of the limitations of Victorian life. What followed – research into colonial life in Ceylon, the traditions of Victorian photography, a plunge (inadequate, I’m certain) into the religions, cultures and customs of India – really began there, with photographic relics and writerly imaginings about the woman who made them.

Though the novel deals with matters of history (figures such as Sir John Holland, who is based very loosely on the great Victorian scientist Sir John Herschel, and of course Catherine and her husband and children, again, loosely modeled on Ms. Cameron’s family), as well as the origins of photography (including its genesis from sunprints to glass and beyond) and India herself during the period in question, I have taken broad liberties with each. My apologies for any tampering with these worlds in the interests of fiction.]

Q: I see that the Luminist will soon be hitting book stores in the United States in early 2011, with allowances for marketing and promotion. How did this novel come to be acquired first overseas?

My absolutely incomparable agents (Christy Fletcher and Melissa Chinchillo/Fletcher & Co.) took the novel to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2008, where the rights sold to Italy and Israel. At that point there hadn’t been a sale here in the States, and I’m told that foreign publishers do not as a rule acquire a title before English speaking rights are sold, both for copyright and marketing reasons. So I actually felt very good about those sales, as they represented two publishing houses who thought strongly enough about the novel to take that sort of chance on it. I will always remember that Italy and Israel came through before anyone else.

Q: It’s difficult enough for most writers to navigate the complexities of business here at home, but untangling foreign rules… It seems you’re destined to become literature’s Cinderella Man. The quote by Mohrbooks impressively describes your work as written in the spirit of “The Piano Tuner,” also a powerful historical and debut novel. With how far you’ve traveled on the path to publication, was there ever a reality check? How surprised were you to see your debut novel received so warmly?

I was thrilled and extremely gratified at how the novel was received. My agent  – to whom I had submitted via recommendation of a friend and mentor who in turn had read it and thought highly of it, thankfully – read it in a day, which is about as wonderful a thing as a writer can ever hope to hear. It did take a while for the novel to find a home in the states, having gone out to the US publishers right at the economic meltdown, which has and continues to have a disastrous impact on the publishing industry. But my agents felt so confident and were so irrepressibly bullish, that I frankly sat back, started working on a new one and let the novel find its way. I am very excited to be with Hawthorne. If your readers get a chance to visit their website (www.hawthornebooks.com), I think they’ll find a truly eclectic and praiseworthy body of literature.

I think we all have a way of tying our experiences, our hopes, our memories and emotions wanted and unwanted, to some sort of vessel in order to make sense of them – or to make them resonate even more deeply than they already do. A memory is enhanced, or even informed, by a song or a movie scene. The beginnings of a cherished relationship belong not just to us, but to the city, the apartment window, the favorite restaurant, that served as the paving stones we walked while feeling it grow.

For me, writing – my own, that of others – is and has been that vessel, that vehicle that allows me to see the world. If I can be that, for even one person, I will die happy.

Q: I think you describe, perfectly, the passion we all have for the craft. And your work is, indeed, in the company of impressive titles at Hawthorne. You describe yourself as, “Taking the long way home.” I think we understand the inference – the long journey of a dream about to become realized. Would you describe how your novel found a home with a U.S. publisher? For an author, how involved is the process of translation and editing?

It really came about because my agents simply would not give up. As a writer, you dream of finding agents and editors who feel the way you do, who also burn to get that writing out into people’s hands and hearts. The folks I’ve met thus far – Christy, Melissa, my editor/publisher at Hawthorne – are outstanding at what they do, and a joy to be able to work with. I’m lucky beyond belief.

The translation process should be interesting – right now, I’m in the editorial revision process, and we hope to have something in final form by late summer 2010, after which the process of marketing and promotion will truly begin. The final will also be sent to all foreign territories who have shown interest, and will be sent to the publishers who have acquired it. As I understand it, they will translate and will be in touch with me to go over passages, ideas or words that might not have an equivalent meaning, and we’ll work out the differences. Having spent a bit of time trying unsuccessfully to learn Mandarin, I know some things will literally be lost in translation.

The editorial process is quite involved. The more involved it is, the luckier the author – that means they have an editor who has done what the author did throughout the writing of their work. They’ve immersed themselves in the story, in the words, in the lilt of the language and the melody of the sentences as they run together. It’s a fantastic learning experience, and I know my next novel will be the better for it.

Q: We should all be as fortunate to discover an agent or editor who loves our work and brings that kind of imaginative persistence to the business. So, here’s what every aspiring writer wants to know – How did you hook your literary agent? And please share with us the details and tactics you’ve discovered for getting and keeping a qualified agent?

For “The Luminist,” I was lucky to have a friend and mentor, Susan Taylor Chehak (an extraordinary author – please do pick up one of her several novels) read the book. She was very excited about it and suggested that she let a good friend of hers read it – my agent, as it turned out.

I’ve been down both roads (recommendation, query) in terms of locating and acquiring an agent, having queried a fair number in connection with an earlier novel I’d written that was submitted and not published (probably for the best). It’s a daunting process, but one that a writer can accomplish successfully with just a few tips. First, really try to establish for the agents why it is that you’re querying them, and not the agent next door to them. Show them you know their work, their clients, and that you belong in their stable. An easy bit of research will help – most authors thank their agents on the acknowledgement page of their novel (if they don’t, they really should). Think about writers/books that you believe your own work should be placed in the company of (be realistic, and yes, you do have to pigeonhole your novel a bit). Find the agents’ names, or names that aren’t identified as someone’s wife, boyfriend or mother. Cross reference them using one of the many guides to literary agents, or search them on the web. Now you have targeted an agent, and you know something about them – who and what they represent.

Next, don’t send your book out before it’s really ready to be seen. Have it read, preferably by a good workshop peopled with writers who are passionate, well-read and deeply involved in the writing life themselves. If you don’t have access to anything like that, have it read by at least three people who aren’t your wife or mother (and therefore don’t feel like giving you critical feedback is tantamount to rejecting you). Listen and revise. My grandmother used to say, “if someone calls you an ass, they’re rude. If two people call you an ass, you’re probably an ass.” If you hear similar feedback from more than one person, you may be looking at an issue that needs to be revised no matter how strongly you feel about it, as it’s impacting the reading/reception of your work.

A perfect close. Sage advice that should be stenciled on every computer screen — Grandmothers always seem to know how to reach the core with an impressive economy of words. We should have her here as a guest.

Thanks for coming, David. It’s fascinating to watch the genesis of a talented new author and discover the inspiration behind the writer and his story. There’s something here for everyone. Your transnational experience, your steep path to publication, and your advice for finding and keeping the perfect agent offer keen insight for both the established an aspiring author. We look forward to seeing your title in the bookstores.

David’s Website is currently under construction, but until then, you can follow his progress  on Facebook

David is happy to answer all comments or questions below. And if you need legal advice from lawer, David Rocklin… well, he may have left that hat at the office.

News Flash: Sorry I missed this. David is offering a free copy of “The Luminist” to the first TWENTY-FIVE commenters. Yikes — Happy Holidays from David!