A Cafe Chat with Literary Agent Alice Fugate, by Kristen Strocchia

Are you getting ready to submit your work to agents or editors? We have an exciting opportunity coming up in the new year. It’s called “Submission Shine”—an online, deep-dive critique intensive opportunity in which you can meet one-on-one with a literary agent to delve into multiple projects or one longer project, including your novel, picture book manuscripts or dummies, or several pieces in your illustrator portfolio. Find out more about the “Submission Shine” virtual critique event here.

Today on the EasternPennPoints blog, we are featuring an interview with Alice Fugate, one of the literary agents lined up to take part in the Submission Shine critique event. Join our assistant regional advisor, Kristen Strocchia, as she and Alice take a trip through our virtual PORTAL café!

A Café Chat with Literary Agent Alice Fugate, by Kristen Strocchia

Kristen: Welcome to our virtual portal café. Ready to hop into some books and eat with the characters? I’d like some raspberry cordial with Anne Shirley and a vanity cake with Laura Ingalls. How about you?

Alice: I absolutely want to be at a Redwall Abbey feast. Any season, any of the characters! I’d like to have their candied chestnuts, strawberry cordial, and the famous deeper-n-ever-n-turnip-n-tater-beetroot pie (which I have actually made myself on a few occasions!).

Kristen: Ooh, that does sound wonderful! Okay, have snacks, will travel. First stop, picture books. A fresh feel is one of those hard-to-define items on many editors’ and agents’ wish lists. If we could jump into one or two of your favorite picture books, what kinds of things would we find that give you that fresh feeling? 

Alice: You are correct—we all seem to trade around these vague terms that describe what we want but are difficult to define! One of my favorite picture books is Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez. The picture book biography is a great concept, but in my opinion is hard to pull off in a way that is both kid friendly and satisfying to the adults giving and buying them. This one identified an important historical figure who loved reptiles and had tea parties with a Komodo dragon at the London Zoo. While in her black dress and pearls! What is more kid friendly than that?! I’m not sure if that’s “fresh” but it gets close to it—taking a trend like the picture book biography but really honing in on something whimsical and unique in someone’s life that appeals to kids. That can be hard to find and hard to do, but I am all for pulling out humorous, charming, whimsical details from history—and there are a lot!—to provide kid readers with something they’ll want to read again and again.

A recent favorite is also Wild Honey from the Moon by Kenneth Kraegel, which in many ways is something of an old-fashioned picture book, but something I appreciated about it that I think touches on what could play into a fresh story is the inclusion of the absurd. We see this in some of the best humorous kids’ books. In Honey, the mouse travels to the moon—via umbrella, I believe—and meets with some bees there. We know there are no bees on the moon—it would be absurd for them to be there and for a mouse to travel and visit them—via umbrella! A touch of the absurd, when executed well, can go a long way to make a story magical and funny and delightful—often because it adds an element of surprise, of the unexpected. If you think of somewhat absurdist movies, maybe like some of Wes Anderson’s films, that use of sudden, surprising humor and absurd scenarios to tell a story and make people laugh, that might give another idea of how one could add that element to a picture book in a kid-friendly, silly, fun way. Like telling a story from the perspective of an unassuming inanimate object. The Day the Crayons Quit is a brilliant example here. Come to think of it, a lady scientist who has tea parties with Komodo dragons is also unexpected, so perhaps “fresh” could be defined as “unexpected.” 

Kristen: That’s such a great visual too—a scientist in a black dress and pearls having tea with a Komodo dragon. When considering author-illustrators, what kind of story balance do you like to see between the text and the art? 

Alice: Well, when it’s an author-illustrator, it’s possible the creator can do a little more with the illustrations since both elements of the story exist in their head. There is perhaps an easier path to creating a really strong wordless picture book, for instance. But I think in general, whether I’m considering an author-illustrator or just an author’s text, I think I’d err on the side of less is more. This is partly because it’s easier to sell than something that’s longer and wordier (and I sympathize with how tough this can be—I’m very wordy and long-winded myself! As evidenced by these answers here). Of course there has to be enough text to tell the story, so I usually give my authors grace if they’re getting a little over the customary word limit parameters, especially if the language is like a big meal where you savor every bite. And some stories simply require more words than others. If it’s longer though, it has to be worth the extra space it’ll take up, so the author needs to be tough about this. Are the words doing something that the illustrations can do for it? Or do we, the readers (especially the agent and editor reading something before pictures—I know I’ve strayed from the author-illustrator example a bit), need those verbal cues to know what’s going on? One can also rely too much on the illustrations. An older picture book that has a lot of words is The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by her husband (I know, adorable), David Small. It’s an epistolary picture book. I don’t know if that could really be pulled off today because of the word count (admittedly I don’t know exactly how many words it has, but it looks wordy, and in picture books, it is a lot about the optics), but it’s a good example of a book where the extra words didn’t feel extra but rather fit the purpose and atmosphere of the story. The Day the Crayons Quit is also epistolary. Not sure how the word counts compare, but I have a feeling Crayons is a tad shorter. 

May I just take this opportunity to say that I have enormous respect for picture book authors because of their constraints and subsequent wordsmithing—it’s like poetry! 

Kristen: And how lovely to jump into such a short art form with the littles in our lives, right? Let’s move on up to a good MG. What’s the number-one tip or cautionary tale you have when crafting a big journey for such a young protagonist? 

Alice: The character has to change. This may seem obvious, but it can sometimes be hard to pull off or can be forgotten in all the excitement of the plot. It’s rare that a book about someone who doesn’t change works. Even the seemingly unchangeable Scrooge changes at the end of A Christmas Carol. I think a character is less interesting, less compelling, and less realistic if, after this whole journey we’ve been on together, the character hasn’t changed somehow. And how much more true is that for a young protagonist? We’re always changing when we’re young—physically, of course, which does effect the nonphysical, but also cognitively, emotionally, spiritually, etc. A writing professor of mine in college would critique my short stories and tell me that I needed to paint my character into a corner (be meaner to them, basically) and then find a way to get them out. Pretty much all characters need to feel like they’ve been painted into a corner—and how could they not be different after they’ve found their way out?

Kristen: Love that “painted into a corner” advice. Next up, YA. Hypothetically, let’s say you receive a manuscript straight from your manuscript wish list—a YA romance that involves a love SQUARE, a historical YA that takes place during one of the dictatorships in Chile or Argentina, nature writing that is whimsical and celebratory, or a walking/running story NOT set in New York City—what issues might cause you to pass on the project? 

Alice: I suppose an obvious one would be that the writing isn’t strong, but let’s say it is good writing. Some red flags would be if I don’t like the voice, and therefore it isn’t capturing me (YA novels are often the kinds of books that you just inhale; I love that and want my YAs to totally reel me in), or I don’t care about the character (I don’t necessarily have to like the character but I do need to care about them to some extent or be compelled by them somehow), or for some reason I am having a hard time envisioning where and how to sell the book, which I understand is a little subjective and market dependent, and that could be a case where I am simply not the right fit for that project.

Kristen: That’s really helpful insight. Okay, one more question before a special suprise. I know when I started on the path to publishing, I often felt like Lucy Pevensie blindly making her way through the wardrobe and stumbling into a very surprising wood. Which character’s journey—from any age category—feels the most like your quest as an agent? 

Alice: I love that analogy! The character who comes to mind is Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma. (Before anyone panics, I’ll explain this and how it’s more of a cautionary tale.) She deals with matchmaking, and part of my job involves matchmaking clients with editors. But beyond that she has to learn to rearrange and readjust expectations, pivot and try again, make the most of things, learn what really matters and who is the best choice for someone, and for herself, and she has to learn to let people be who they are. Don’t worry, I don’t (and I hope my clients would say the same) take over a client’s life and try to make them into something they don’t need to or want to be, like Emma with Harriet Smith, but I actually think that’s a good cautionary tale for people in talent management. We are not here to make Pygmalions, but rather to act more like a Gandalf—looking for the right person for the job, seeing the potential in someone, and then pushing them out their door and onto the road. Not micromanaging them into something they’re not, but rather helping to bring out something in them that they didn’t know they had. I should remember the cautionary Emma as much as the aspirational Gandalf to keep me grounded and humble! I will say that when I first started out in publishing/agenting, and at various particularly crazy moments since, I’ve felt like Alice stumbling through the looking glass or down the rabbit hole into a bizarre world, trying to make sense out of madness. There’s a lot of fun in that space too, though, not just minor chaos! “We’re all mad here . . .”

Kristen: Haha, yes! I suppose we are! Okay, ready for that special surprise? As a bonus, you’ve been granted a special dispensation to mix-n-match the retelling of your dreams.

Alice: Wow! That is magical indeed!

Kristen: We just have to pop a few detail threads into this magical loom, so . . . 

Who’s your all-time favorite character? Oh gosh. I think these days I’d have to say Harriet Vane from the Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels. She’s complex, intelligent, fiercely independent (almost to her own detriment at times), has personal and professional integrity, is brutally honest (except when convincing herself she’s not in love with Peter when she is, of course), loves a challenge, and she struggles for many books to reconcile her head with her heart, which I find to be a compelling conflict in a character.

Favorite setting? From a book? These are tough questions! Probably something woodsy that makes me think of The Hobbit or Redwall or something bursting with whimsy and flowers like Beatrix Potter’s landscapes or Wonderland. And someone please take me to a gardened city a la Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky! But, gosh, Tasha Tudor’s Corgiville Fair sure was fun. And I do love the setting of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler. (Let me just say, though, that I love traveling all over the world in books, so I’d be very happy to be taken somewhere new, especially to parts of the world I don’t know as well and that aren’t quite so British feeling. I happened to read a lot of those kinds of books as a kid but have so enjoyed traveling to India, Mexico, the Middle East, France, the Pacific Northwest, New England, and of course my home region of the American South in books I’ve read as I’ve gotten older.) In short, this is somehow harder than the character question. 

A fairy tale you’d love to see reworked? I’m sure if I had my childhood collections of fairy tales in front of me, I could pick out something more original, but I’ll just pick an old favorite or two. I’ve already read a great retelling of this one (East by Edith Pattou), but I’d love another retelling of the Norse fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which I believe is considered to be the same fairy tale type as Beauty and the Beast. Or perhaps Cinderella, which I’ve taken a new shine to over the last couple years. Every spring I seem to get the itch to watch the live action Lily James version. Maybe the retelling would be from the perspective of the stepsisters or even from their POV after Cinderella marries the prince. Oh! Or maybe a retelling of a George MacDonald fairy tale. The Light Princess or The Golden Key or Cross Purposes. Too hard to choose here . . .

Would that be romance or another genre? Not straight romance—either a comedy of manners with romance in it or a historical adventure story with romance. Flexible.

Is there a theme you’re craving in your in-box? I think I’ll harken back to Harriet Vane and Emma Woodhouse and request a story where the MC struggles to reconcile their head with their heart in a way that’s both emotionally honest and intellectually satisfying. 

Alice: I don’t think my answers would make for a very cohesive retelling . . . reads to me more like the game Make a Monster, but hey, maybe some elements would work 🙂 

Kristen: Thank you for hanging out with me today! It’s been so much fun diving into these books with you.  

Alice: Thank you so much for having me! This was a blast.

Alice Fugate joined The Joy Harris Literary Agency in 2021. Originally from Atlanta, GA, she graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis, TN with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing. Prior to joining JHLA, she was an associate agent at Trident Media Group, where she worked for two and half years. Alice works primarily in the children’s book space, across all formats and genres, fiction and nonfiction, with a strong focus on picture books and middle grade. She also enjoys working on select adult projects, including stories about the American South, historical fiction, and works that explore faith, religion, music, world cultures, or nature (these topics are great for kids’ books too!). She’s drawn to literary or well-written commercial projects that have a classic but fresh feel with distinctive, surprising voices from diverse backgrounds. In children’s books, she loves animal fables, fairy tale retellings, comedies of manners, light fantasy, magical realism, adventure tales, heartfelt contemporary, and narrative nonfiction. She’s not the best fit for stories involving aliens, outer space, paranormal romance, gross or slapstick humor, or novels told in verse. In everything, Alice looks for wit and whimsy.

Critique Intensive Information

Submission Shine

Online Critique Intensive

January 19-21, 2023

So, you have a handful of manuscripts or illustration styles ready to query. Which one should you lead with? Is your other work strong enough to hook an agent if they request to see more? And what will an agent think about the variety of work you bring? Whether you have multiple submission-ready picture book manuscripts, write across age categories, have a variety of illustration pieces and illustrated works, or a combination of all of the above, Submission Shine is an opportunity to talk with one agent about FOUR submission-ready works AND your writing/illustrating career as a whole. Plus you can receive additional feedback from a peer critique group of other Submission Shine participants.

Registration includes: 

  • Four 20-minute Zoom critiques with one faculty member of your choice
  • One additional 20-minute Zoom meeting with your same faculty member to be used as either a career consultation or an opportunity to pitch additional work
  • Five peer cohort critique group meetings
  • Access to the webinar “Take Charge of Your Writerly Adventure” with Christine Carron of goodjelly.com 

NOTE: Novelists may choose to submit consecutive 10-page samples of the same manuscript for each subsequent Zoom critique (so it is possible to have up to 40 pages of the same manuscript critiqued over the course of the 4 sessions).

Scholarships available!

For more information and to register, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/submission-shine-online-critique-intensive/.

This entry was posted in Cafe Chat, Events, General, Interviews, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.