Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Interview: Verna Dreisbach, anthology editor & agent

I've loved horses and writing since I can remember liking anything. As a young child, I wrote about everything and read about and pined for horses before getting my first horse at 14. Soon I was submitting work to equine publications and Horse of Course magazine gave me my first clip. I went on to support myself for several years post-college as a freelancer for equestrian media. Then, about 20 years ago, I stopped -- riding and writing about horses. I had other things to write about and no longer had the time or budget for riding. But more recently I began to think about what horses have meant to me beyond the pleasures of the saddle, and a series of essays emerged, one of which, "It Always Happens One Summer," is included in Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives. The editor of that book, Verna Dreisbach, is also a literary agent, and of course she's a rider and horse owner, too. She recently agreed to answer some of my questions.

LR. You are a busy literary agent, and also a graduate student, mother and horse owner. With all that on your plate, why this collection, and why now?

VD: Surprisingly, the opportunity came to me. I attended the Willamette Writers Conference a few years ago where I met editor Krista Lyons from Seal Press. After talking literary agent/editor business stuff, we started talking freely. I talked about my love of horses and how, because of horses, I found my own passion for writing. Little did I know that Krista was looking for an editor for an anthology about women and horses (later to become Why We Ride). By the end of our conversation, we were both jumping up and down because I had a dream opportunity (anything to do with horses) and she had an editor to the anthology.

LR: You were able to secure a foreword from Jane Smiley – quite a coup. How did that come about?

VD: I met Jane Smiley at the East of Eden Writers Conference a few years ago. I asked her if she’d be interested in participating in a written interview for a newsletter for the young writers organization I founded and we started a correspondence then. Since we both obviously have a love of horses, it was just a simple question and she happily agreed to write the foreword. I am so grateful to her and I have no doubt that part of the success of the book has to do with her contribution.

LR: Did any of the contributor pieces surprise you? Make you cry?

VD: I’m a softie for those father/daughter stories. I felt the loss and cried over "Owning Clydes" (Kate St. Vincent Vogl), felt the pain in "Getting Back on the Horse" (Kara Gall), and felt the jealousy at the fun Michele Scott and her dad had in her story "The Billy Dal Gang."

LR: What can you tell us about the selection process?

VD: I waited until I had the majority of the stories in hand before reading them. I wanted to keep the experience all within a short period of time so that I could get the full feel for the momentum and diversity of the book – the same way a reader would. I wanted to make sure that each story was unique.

I had innumerable “first horse” stories that didn’t go much deeper than that. For instance, I knew when I came upon Dee Ambrose Stahl’s story, "Painted Christmas Dreams," that this was the "first horse" story I wanted to include in the anthology. Not only was this her first horse, but she didn’t get her first horse until later in life and it was her husband of many years who finally helped make her dream come true. This is an example of where the horse becomes much more than a horse and becomes an integral part of our lives and the lives of the people around us. I stayed on task with my goal but found that near the end, I had to seek out a few stories that were different enough from the others, leading to the inclusion of Jacqueline Winspear’s story, "It’s All in the T – or Perhaps the D" and I’m fortunate to have her contribution in this book as well.

LR: Some writers think that editing a collection is a relatively easy venture. I know it’s not. Can you break it down a little?

VD: If you’re only choosing stories and sticking them together in a book, then sure, that’s easy. I doubt it will bring much success or good reviews, so I’d advise against it. An editor’s job is time consuming. I had to make sure the stories I chose were diverse and unique enough for an entire collection, one that would keep the reader entertained and not feeling as if they’ve read the same story over and over again, 27 times.

There were some contributors who needed minimal editorial advice and some that needed more. I enjoyed the diversity of writers as well as the diversity of stories. I did have two people who refused to make any changes to their stories and subsequently, they were not included. I didn’t feel that they had gone deep enough into their story, the connection between writer-life-horse to make a story that would make enough of an impact on the reader. We can all enjoy our horses, but I was looking for the stories about the horses that helped shape us as women and the way we looked at the people and the world around us.

As you can imagine, my job as an editor is far easier working with writers who are willing to revise and edit their pieces. And, my job as an editor is to work with the writer so that they feel they’ve maintained the scope, purpose and voice of the story intact throughout the revision process, if it’s a major revision.

LR: As a physical object, how do you feel about the finished product? I notice it’s slightly smaller sized than many trade soft covers, includes photos of the writers with their horses, and makes generous use of white space.

VD: I’m very happy with the finished product. I actually like the size, somewhat unique. It also follows the same pattern as the other books in the Seal series, Woman’s Best Friend and Cat Women. Inside, the reader gets the sense that they are reading through either a diary or scrap book, the way the photos are positioned within the text and with the photo corner tabs (also on the cover). I’m very glad that photos of the writers with their horses were included!

LR: What did you enjoy the most about bringing this book to fruition?

VD: The best part was meeting (eventually I hope in person) all of the contributors from the book. I feel like I have 26 new girlfriends that I hope to keep in touch with over the years. I’m thinking about an annual or semi-annual riding trip with all of them. What a great way to stay in touch and keep up our horse riding/writing skills!

LR: Anything you hope not to go through again?

VD: There were a couple of crazy stories - one woman wrote about how she smacked her horse on a regular basis with her riding crop to get it to mind her. I really wonder what she was thinking submitting her story to this anthology? The collection is supposed to be inspirational stories about women and their horses and the only thing I was inspired to do was to call animal control.

LR: I understand you have some readings and other events lined up.

VD: Yes! A number of contributors will be reading at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, WA, on June 5th at 4:00 pm and then the following day, June 6th, in Portland, OR, at Powell’s Books at 7:30 pm. I’m looking forward to it.

LR: Many people who read this blog will want to know more about what kinds of books/authors you are on the lookout for as an agent.

VD: As an agent, I’m looking for something unique and well written. Unfortunately, the majority of submissions are from writers who have not taken the time to perfect their manuscript or hone their craft. I’m also looking for professionals – those who view this industry like any other profession and take it seriously and act accordingly. Also, many writers who query agents are just plain crazy or rude. We get really excited when we see quality writing and a sane person all at one time! Other than that, I’m looking for both fiction and non-fiction authors, especially books with a political, economic or social context.

LR: Do you have another book project of your own in progress?

VD: I would love to do another anthology and I’m not all that particular as to the subject matter. I enjoy working with writers, helping them deepen their stories to share their memories in a way that moves readers. I’m finishing my MA degree this year and I don’t have as much time to write what I’d like. Once I’m done with my degree, I’ll have more freedom, less time constraints to write more – something that’s not necessarily “assigned”.

Note: I am giving away a copy of Why We Ride. If you'd like to enter the random drawing, post a comment here by midnight, Sunday, June 13. Be sure there is a way for me to contact you via email to obtain your U.S. postal address.


BJ said...

Looking forward to seeing this anthology!

Leightongirl said...

It's a fabulous anthology. Thanks for the interview! Very informative about the editorial process.

Andrea said...

This sounds like a wonderful book--I'll have to get my sister a copy for her birthday (she being an unrequited horsewoman).

Dee said...

Thank you, Verna, for your kind words about "Painted Christmas Dreams." You have been a mentor, friend, and support system, and I am proud to have my name associated with yours!

I wish you all the best!

Kate St. Vincent Vogl said...

Great insight on the joys and challenges of being an editor and agent. An honor to be a part of this collection!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I live near Verna, as we discovered when I submitted my manuscript a few years back, but didn't meet her until I went to that same East of Eden conference. There was lots of buzz among the conference attendees about how smart and savvy she seemed, and this interview confirms that. Thanks Lisa, for the great post, and I'll be looking forward to tracking down the book.

Polly Iyer said...

Good for you, Verna. Well done.

Michelle Hutchinson said...

I hope Verna really did call Animal Control on the woman who submitted the story about continually smacking her horse with her crop. Very troubling and sad. : (

redcharlie said...

It is such a small, tiny cyber-world—Verna reps my friend, Bob Yehling who now edits my anthology, The Hummingbird Review. Hope I win the drawing but will be sure to purchase should I not. Nice blog and interview.

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

This book is definitely on my wish-list. I used to devour pony books when I was a kid and years later realised my dream to have a horse of my own. The relationships we have with our equines are special and unique and I'm sure this book will find many happy readers.

Lisa Romeo said...

We have a winner - redcharlie, you get the giveaway copy of Why We Ride. Congrats and thanks everyone else for participating.
- Lisa

redcharlie said...

Thank you, Lisa. Great news and at the right time—yesterday NAVS (Advancing Science without Harming Animals) rejected my poem for their “Art for Animals 2010.”

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this interview. I just found out that I got a book deal for my book Lessons from the Monk I Married and Krista Lyons at Seal press will be the editor on it. So, it was fun to read about this here. Check out my blog by the same title if you have time. I'm writing 365 lessons for the year 2010.