Meet Noah Ballard, an agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., who will be at the Pennwriters 30th Annual Conference, in Pittsburgh, May 19 – 21, 2017.
If you could meet anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be and what would you say to them?
I would have loved to have met the essayist David Rakoff, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 47. He’s one of my favorite writers and cultural critics. I discovered his work because he’d written an essay about surviving Hodgkin’s disease in his early 20s—an experience we share. I’d ask him—after a career that included dozens of articles, three collections of essays, a novel in poetry, several screenplays and appearances in many films and television shows, numerous awards and an entire “This American Life” episode dedicated to his legacy—if he ever got over feeling like a fraud, which he often wrote about.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Learn another language, you moron. Why didn’t you pay attention in French?
What is your favorite resource for writers?
Your local bookstore. So many writers I meet with answer the question “Who are you reading?” with canonical American literature. But to be a good literary citizen (and invest in your own work) you have to be reading what’s being published now. It’s like being a filmmaker who doesn’t see new movies or a musician who doesn’t listen to current songs. How can you expect to be in conversation with other artists if you’re not engaging with their work? While the act of writing is a solitary one, the endeavor of publishing does not exist in a vacuum.
What has been the most satisfying aspect of your literary career?
Beyond the inherent heartbreak of trying to put quality writing and underserved voices into the world, my job has allowed me to travel the country (and the world) meeting fascinating people with remarkable stories. Not all of them are meant for the confines of traditional trade publishing, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t learn something from every pitch, every workshop, every conference, every hotel bar conversation, every dinner with new colleagues. Learning how to listen has given me a greater sense of purpose, and I try to help every writer I encounter as much as I can regardless of their commercial viability.
What is your favorite tip for writers?
“Short of a small range of physical acts—a fight, a murder, love-making—dialogue is the most vigorous and inter-action of which characters in a novel are capable. Speech is what the characters do to each other.” –Elizabeth Bowen, Notes on Writing a Novel
Which is to say, don’t use your dialogue wastefully. If you want to explore the banalities by which humans communicate with each other, write a play.
What makes you hit the “delete” key the moment you see it in your inbox?
I automatically delete queries: that aren’t specifically addressed to me; that are written in the voice of a character; that admit the manuscript isn’t complete (for fiction only); that are intentionally disrespectful. Your goal is not to shock me with your query, but to get me to read your sample pages. And in those pages, novels that begin with a dead body, a sweeping panorama of an exotic locale, a first person introduction (“Hi reader, my name is…), a character waking up, commentary on the weather or a dump of expository information are not interesting to me.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want to have with you?
Now that I’ve quit smoking, probably just some sunglasses, a beach chair and the copy of Infinite Jest that has, until my being stranded on the island, dwelled on my bookcase merely as hipster ephemera. That will probably last me a while.
To register, click here: 2017 Pennwriters Conference Registration.