“Don’t give up. You never know how close you are.”
CLARISSA N GOENAWAN SIGNS WITH LEADING INTERNATIONAL LITERARY AGENT, ANNA SOLER PONT of PONTAS AGENCY
Congratulations, Clarissa, on becoming agented. Has it sunk in yet?
Not really. Everything is so surreal!
You submitted to quite a few agents during 2015, with lots of requests to read the full which ended in very complimentary passes. Did you ever feel it might never happen?
To be honest, a lot of times. No matter how complimentary a rejection is, it’s still a rejection. I’m glad I have a lot of supportive friends who encouraged me to persevere (a good number of them I met through The Bath Novel Award). Otherwise I would’ve given up much, much earlier. Winning the award definitely helped! The credential made my query stand out, and I received more requests.
Did you have a Plan B?
I did consider going to smaller presses, though I always knew I wanted to have an agent. From what I gathered, going direct is not any easier. Good smaller presses are extremely selective too.
When your first offer of representation came in, were you tempted to grab it?
Probably the same as everyone who had their fair share of rejections. I wondered: Is he/she making a mistake? Is this really an offer, or am I imagining it? I only queried agents I absolutely want to work with, so I was definitely tempted to say yes on the spot. Nevertheless, I thought it was only fair to notify the other agents who were still considering my novel.
Was the format how you thought an offer would look like?
It was a pretty to-the-point email along the lines of ‘I love your book and I’d love to represent you’ whereas I was actually expecting an agent to make “The Call” and ask a number of questions before making an offer.
What responses did you get from other agents who had your full, when you let them know you were considering an offer of representation?
It was the first week of January, so I got a lot of out-of-office emails. Some gave their congratulations and bowed out, others requested more materials.
When the second offer came in, how did you feel?
Pleasantly surprised, but also dreading the fact that eventually I’d have to make a difficult decision.
So then, more offers started to arrive until you had offers from agents in London, New York and Barcelona. How did you decide which agent was for you?
To me, location doesn’t really matter. I’m based in Singapore, anyway. Before querying, I already did my fair share of research so all the offers came from amazing people I want to work with. I talked to them (phone or Skype), asked some questions, and tried to get to know them. I asked for advice from mentors and friends. Some of them knew the agents or their clients. Others shared their personal experience when choosing an agent. I’m so lucky to be surrounded by generous people.
What were the best pieces of advice you received?
1. Insist on having a phone call (I’m a text person, I hate making phone calls – but they’re probably the second best way to gauge the chemistry if you can’t meet the agent in person)
2. Take your time. This is a very important decision. It’s like getting married!
3. Trust your gut / feelings / sixth sense, whatever… This is a rather vague thing, I admit, but it’s true.
The timescale from the first offer to signing with another agent was just over 2 weeks. Did you ever worry any of the agents might change their minds?
Of course! I’m always paranoid until everything is official.
You’ve built a great support network with other Bath Novel Award writers, including 2015 shortlistee Hollie Overton (represented by WME) and 2014 runner up Ian Nettleton (represented by Conville & Walsh). What advice did they give you?
Hollie and Ian told me to listen to what I really feel. I’m so blessed to have them (and other Bath Novel Award people) to talk with during this roller-coaster ride. Otherwise, I’d have gone crazy.
Was it difficult to choose between large and small agencies, and up-and-coming v senior agents?
It’s definitely not easy. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s like comparing an orange to an apple. Both have their own pros and cons. I wouldn’t say that one is better than the other.
What questions did you ask agents during The Call?
I asked how they feel about my novel, what kind of editing they have in mind, and what their submission strategy is. I also made it a point to talk briefly about other works-in-progress.
How does it feel to be repped by an agency with a clients such as Chigozie Obiama and Jonas Jonasson as well as legendary Indonesian writer, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer?
I’m very honoured to be in such good company, if not a little overwhelmed. These are writers I greatly admire. I grew up in Indonesia, and Pram was such an important figure in the Indonesian literary scene.
How did you pitch Rainbirds in your submission letter?
An apathetic young man, his enigmatic sister, and a precocious teenage girl, each with a secret of their own.
Japan 1994: Twenty-four-year-old Ren Ishida’s humdrum life is shaken by his older sister’s murder. Guided by recurring dreams of a little girl, he discovers a painful truth that unearths secrets from his past.
Rainbirds is the first in a series of inter-related novels, with the same cast, but different main characters. Did you know this from the start and how far along are you?
After I finished Rainbirds, I realised there was still so much I wanted to tell about the rest of the characters’ stories. I love the idea that the more of the books you read, the more you learn about each character. I believe there’s no such thing as a ‘bad guy’ or a ‘good guy’. Everyone has a story.
Right now, I’m almost done with the second novel. I’ve got another completed first draft, but half of it needs a drastic rewrite. I also have some rough ideas for another novel.
You signed with Anna Soler-Pontas of The Pontas Agency in Barcelona. What was it about Anna which made you know she was the right agent for you?
It was her vision and enthusiasm for my novel, her warm personality, and her passion for women writers and multicultural voices that won me over. I also really love the diversity of their clients. Their writers come from different parts of the world and write in different languages too.
After receiving more than your fair share of passes from agents, how did it feel to let the other agents know you were passing on them?
It’s so much easier to receive rejections than to send them. These agents are truly amazing, and I’m forever thankful for their offers.
One publisher has already expressed interest in for Rainbirds. How does that feel?
It’s a great start, and I’ve told my agent about it.
How does it feel to know that the very best editors are going to read your work?
I’m so excited, but also very nervous.
Our 2015 judge, Mildred Yuan, picked Rainbirds as her winner, even though she knew she wasn’t the right person to represent a literary novel. Did that feel like a mixed blessing?
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of Robin [Mildred offered representation to our runner up, Robin Falvey for his commercial YA book about young surfers]. I really, really wanted an agent, and I know how much difference it can make to a writer’s career. But when it comes to a match between agent and writer, there’s a lot to say about getting the right fit. I admire Mildred for sticking to her principles, and I’m so thankful for her generosity.
What advice would you have for any writers going through the trials of submitting to agents?
It’s kind of cliché, but don’t give up. You never know how close you are.
Entries for The Bath Novel Award 2017 are invited from 1st December 2016