Interview with Literary Agent Jin Auh, Prior to the 2019 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award Event

October 30, 2019

Jin Auh is a literary agent at The Wylie Agency. While attending the 2019 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award event, she will participate on a panel about the process of publishing a debut novel, alongside her client Ling Ma, whose novel Severance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) won this year’s award.

Severance by Ling MaHow did Severance make its way to you? Did you know prior to finishing the manuscript that you wanted to pursue it? As someone who reads and assesses a high volume of fiction manuscripts, what stood out on the page to you?

I randomly came across an excerpt online of what later became Severance.  The excerpt was given the SLS Graywolf Prize in 2015. Ling Ma’s writing was intelligent and funny, and as a reader, I simply wanted to read the rest of the novel.

When you talk to a writer about their work, before you’ve offered representation, what are you looking for in those early conversations? Can you speak a bit about your working relationship with Ling Ma, and how it evolved? How the process evolved from those initial meetings to shopping the manuscript to editors, and now post-publication?

I don’t think we met in person until 2016, but we had spoken over the phone about her writing – not only the novel-in-progress, but also her previously published stories that I’d read and admired. We talked through her vision for the novel; it was important to make sure anything I said editorially was helpful. I certainly don’t pretend to be an editor and I couldn’t do what they do. Editorial involvement for me as an agent stems from reading all of a writer’s work and knowing the intention behind it.

What qualities, trends, habits do you see a lot of lately? What advice would you offer to writers in response to these observations?

It’s fine, in my opinion, for debut writers to share with agents work that is raw and unfinished.  But there should be, within those pages, a palpable sense of urgency. My advice is for writers to take a step back and see if their work contains that, before sending out, rather than thinking it needs to be perfectly polished.

Tell us about some other projects you’ve been working on, either ones that are upcoming for publication, or that came out in the last year or so.

Two debuts in January 2020 are Little Gods by Meng Jin (Custom House) and The Third Rainbow Girl (non-fiction) by Emma Copley Eisenberg. This Is Chance! by Jon Mooallem and Alex Halberstadt’s Young Heroes of the Soviet Union are works of journalism with elements of memoir, to be published in March 2020. Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s new book of poetry, Seeing the Body, is out in June 2020. And many others, like Louise Erdrich’s latest, The Night Watchman.

In 2012, you attended the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for Justin Torres’ We the Animals. What do you recall from that experience? Is there anything special about the award experience that you’re looking forward to again?

I am not sure if any other prize brings together the writer, editor, and agent for students. I hope it was helpful to the students to hear the behind-the-scenes of a debut novel. Of course, there are multitudes beyond three people – sales, marketing, publicity, reviewers, and booksellers. It felt like a true celebration in the community of the VCU Cabell’s First Novelist Award winner. I’m grateful that this year, VCU chose Severance. Thank you.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award night is Tuesday, November 12 at 7 p.m. Join us for a reading, panel conversation about traditionally publishing a debut novel, and a book signing. Free and open to the public, but please register for the reading with Ling Ma.