Since taking a job as a receptionist at one of the oldest literary agencies in New York City, K.L. Going has had an impressive output—five novels, including the forthcoming King of the Screwups (Harcourt), and a work of non-fiction she was distinctively qualified to write.
How did you, a novelist, come to author the how-to book Writing and Selling the Young Adult Novel?
Alice Pope [an editor at Writer's Digest Books] approached me about writing it because I do happen to have a unique array of experience. I worked for Curtis Brown Ltd., for five years and was just getting to the point of taking on my own clients when I was launched into being an author myself. Then after I left Curtis Brown, I worked part time managing an independent bookstore, Merritt Books in Cold Spring, N.Y., which, sadly, has since gone out of business.
You had all the bases covered.
And my mother is a librarian! So, really, all the stars aligned. I could approach the subject with personal experience from every angle.
Did you ever consider becoming a librarian yourself?
My B.A. is in sociology [from Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa.] and you would not necessarily think of that being the path to becoming a writer, but sociology is all about trends and about looking at the world as an observer. It’s a great way to learn how to write.
But you didn’t set out, initially, to write?
I had my heart set on joining the Peace Corps. My mother and father really had to convince me to go to college and I only went because when I started actually researching various volunteer programs, I learned that they wanted people with degrees.
Did you wind up joining the Peace Corps?
No, instead I would up working in adult literacy, which I loved. But now when I think about that, I see was always skirting around being a writer, being around books.
Tell us how an adult literacy tutor winds up working in the offices of Curtis Brown.
I worked for several years teaching adults to read, including two and a half years in New Orleans, and when I finished up there I came home (Wallkill, N.Y.) because I needed a break. But I really didn’t know what else I wanted to do so I floundered around in the travel industry for a while working for an airline and as a front desk clerk at a hotel. During all this time I was writing. I had written my first complete novel in high school—a fantasy—but it wasn’t good enough to send out. I bring it with me when I do author appearances to show the kids. It’s 300 pages.
Anyway, I had always been writing, just for fun. My dad is an environmental engineer who at the time had one employee, a young man who worked at our kitchen table and was my age, just starting out in geology. He knew I liked to write and said, ‘Why don’t you talk to my dad?’ His father was Clyde Taylor, an agent at Curtis Brown. One of the things that made Clyde's career was selling the sub rights to [Mario Puzo's] Godfather books. Andrew would often say The Godfather put him through college.
So we can surmise the talk with Mr. Taylor went well?
I did talk to him but I was not confident. I didn’t have an English degree, for starters, but he said that didn’t matter, that ‘what we want are people who are articulate and well read.’ So I did apply. I started as a receptionist but everyone there earns their own way and it wasn’t very long before I was writing reader reports and then moving up to become assistant to [agents] Laura Blake Peterson and Ginger Knowlton.
And it wasn’t very long after reading all those manuscripts that you remembered that 300-pager from high school?
Well, no, that one is unpublishable, but I was gradually getting confidence. I did begin to think maybe my stuff is as good as this, and that one would get accepted. There was a convergence of events because while I was working there and thinking this, I happened to read an article in Newsweek about a group of teens who formed a gay-straight alliance group. This had caused so much strife in their community that there were violent protests. One of the kids was hit over the head with a brick. That article sparked my first teen novel and as soon as I wrote it I knew that writing YA was a perfect fit for me.
Is that the novel that became Fat Kid Rules the World?
No, that novel was called Colors, which was sent out to a small group of editors and got generally good responses, including one from Kathy [Dawson, who later did acquire Fat Kid and all of Going’s subsequent novels], who said she would look at it again with a different ending. But another editor’s comment was that he felt like the characters needed to be ‘larger than life.’ I had gone out of the way to make them very middle America so when he said that it really resonated, and out of thinking about that came Troy [the main character in Fat Kid].
Your forthcoming novel, King of the Screwups, is a lot lighter in tone than your last, Saint Iggy. Is that a conscious choice?
It’s not a conscious decision but you can’t remain in a dark, gritty world all the time. I also never wanted to be a cookie-cutter writer, one who the reader knows what they’re getting before they even open the book. I’m sure I’m a marketer’s nightmare. You’re supposed to write books that all look the same on the shelf. Mine are not even all in the same department.
Liam, your main character, is the son of a supermodel and very into haute couture. Do you have a secret life working in the fashion industry?
Ha! I am one of the least fashionable people you will ever meet. I had to do a lot of research. The idea for the novel originally came from a photograph of Liam Gallagher of Oasis standing in a hotel room that he had just totally trashed. He had destroyed the place but he had such a completely innocent look on his face.
What was it like to write a second novel after your first, Fat Kid, won a Printz Honor?
Absolutely paralyzing. I had such a hard time writing the second book. I second-guessed everything I wrote. And at the time I was still working fulltime [at Curtis Brown] and commuting two hours each way every day from the Hudson River Valley. I was used to thinking that writing a novel you had all the time in the world and all of a sudden people were asking, ‘Where’s the next one?’ I was thinking, ‘What? Another one? So soon?’ I can’t do that.
How did you unfreeze your muse?
I moved in a different direction. Literally, I just needed to do something totally different. This was after 9/11. I was still working at Curtis Brown and seeing a lot of manuscripts that had to do with the fear that event had caused. I had been a fearful child but I was looking for a book that would deal with fear in a more general sense. The Liberation of Gabriel King came out of that. But, just to circle back—I am so grateful for that [Printz] award and not just on a personal ego-type level. Awards like that are so important for writers like me. It’s a really hard business, with so many books competing for space on the bookshelf. The big chains make their decisions not necessarily based of reviews or good buzz. It can come down to one buyer’s opinion. With St. Iggy, the biggest chain did not take it in hardcover even though it got glowing reviews and I had a track record.
Ah. As an agent you would have unique empathy for your authors. Have you ever regretted your decision to quit?
I tried to do both for a while but finally decided I couldn’t. The best part of working there was getting to know the authors Ginger [Knowlton] represented, people like Ellen Wittlinger, Linda Sue Park and Jean Craighead George. In fact, one of my best days ever was after selling my own book I got a file and it was right behind Jean Craighead George’s in the filing cabinet. Jean Craighead George! I had been reading her books since I was a little girl and now there was right next to her in the filing cabinet. That was a thrill.
King of the Screwups by K.L. Going. Harcourt, $17 ISBN 978-0-15-206258-3