I love interviewing debut authors on my blog. This interview is with author John Kenney, a writer well known for contributing to The New Yorker. This is the story of how he got published and how he found his literary agent.
John Kenney has worked as a copywriter in New York City for seventeen years. He has also been a contributor to The New Yorker magazine since 1999. Some of his work appears in a collection of the New Yorker’s humor writing, Disquiet Please! He lives in Brooklyn, New York. His debut novel, TRUTH IN ADVERTISING (S&S, Jan. 2013) was called an “outstanding debut” by Kirkus in a starred review, while Booklist said of it, “It’s a masterful blend of wit and seriousness, stunning in its honesty,” in another starred review.
What is the book’s genre/category?
Please describe what the story/book is about.
An advertising copywriter who’s closing in on his 40th birthday confronts the sham of his life, the family he’s estranged from, and the dying father who abandoned them all. Also there are funny parts.
Where do you write from?
I live in Brooklyn, NY, (though I want to make clear that I do not have a beard, make my own artisinal jams, or wear one of those annoying little pork-pie hats). I write from a coffee shop in SoHo as well as in the main reading room of the New York Public Library. Also, on occasion, I ride a subway line end to end and write, particularly the A train out to Far Rockaway.
Briefly, what led up to this book?
I was writing TV commercials and print ads at an ad agency. But I’d also been contributing humor pieces to the New Yorker and the New York Times and The Los Angeles Times for many years. I’d quit my job and moved to France in ’04 to write my first novel, which was never published. I went back to advertising to make money but continued writing. I reread the first novel, took a very small part of it, and began what became Truth In Advertising.
What was the time frame for writing this book?
I started in the spring of ’09 and had a solid draft 18 months later. I was laid off from my job in April of ’09, near the depth of the financial crisis. There were no jobs in advertising, freelance or full time. I had a three-month-old daughter, my wife wasn’t working, and the lovely people at my former agency canceled my health insurance. What better time to attempt a novel?
How did you find your agent?
My agent is David Kuhn of Kuhn Projects. I found him through a recommendation from my editor at the New Yorker.
(Learn how to find a literary agent.)
What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?
First, the entire thing was a surprise to me. It’s a miracle anyone buys your book. The chances are so slim and the competition so stiff. The numbers are just crazy. I read that something like 200,000 books comes out a year. And yet how many do editors say no to? Probably ten times that. I got very, very lucky to find a home at Simon & Schuster/Touchstone. My editor is Sally Kim. I can’t say enough about her, about how much she helped me, helped shape the book. She’s an old-school editor, a Max Perkins. She’s this ferocious supporter of her writer’s, believes deeply in them and their books. During the editing process I spent hours on the phone, long emails, talking through something. Mind you, she has 15, 20 other books going on at the same time. But never once did I feel rushed. She knew the book intimately. Her imprint is all over it.
Second, I was surprised they agreed to buy me a helicopter.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?
To quote Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid, “prayer.” Honestly, I don’t really have a clue. I worked hard and got lucky. I think there’s certainly a measure of luck to this. But you have to put in the work. There are so many talented, passionate people out there and they all seem to be writing a novel. So persistence is really key. How badly do you want it? What are you willing to do? I sent pieces to the New Yorker for ten years before they accepted one.
On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?
Take my time. I rush too much. It makes for sloppy drafts. I read once that Don Delillo will use a new sheet of paper for each new paragraph. He said that it helps him see just that paragraph. He’ll sit with it all day if he has to. But then, that’s why he’s Don Delillo.
Something about you people would be surprised to know?
Maybe the fact that there is no language that I don’t speak fluently. Which is a lie. I have no idea what might surprise someone who doesn’t know me.
12 Angry Men.
The next book. But probably lunch first.
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