We are so delighted to have Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar here to answer a few questions! Jennifer signed with an agent (Michelle Brower) through a #DVpit referral, and has since found a publisher for her literary fiction THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS with Touchstone at Simon & Schuster! Let’s talk about the deal, the book, and the experience since #DVpit.
Jennifer, first of all, congratulations on your book deal! Tell us about your book and why you wrote it.
JENNIFER: Thanks so much for having me, Beth, and thanks for organizing #DVPit!
My novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, is the story of Manhattan-born Nour, who moves with her family back to her parents’ ancestral Syria in 2011 following the death of her father. Her family’s arrival in Homs is quickly followed by the growing unrest of the Syrian civil war. When their home is destroyed by shelling, Nour and her family embark on a dangerous journey to safety along the same route a fabled group of medieval mapmakers took nine hundred years before in their quest to map the world.
I am Syrian American, and I still have family in Syria. It is difficult to describe the feeling of watching a war rip apart the city your father was born in, or waking up to news reports of bombings and holding your breath, anxiously hoping your family is safe. It is easy to feel helpless. Of course my experience living in the US, in relative safety, cannot be compared with my family’s experience living through the war in Syria. But there is a particular sort of pain involved in fearing for your family’s safety and then hearing people like them—people like me—being characterized as dangerous and undesirable in my own country.
I wrote this book because I could not stay silent about these things. I hope that by showing readers what the Syrian people are actually like, my book will increase empathy for Syrians and for refugees. It is my deep hope that readers will no longer see Syrians, Arabs, Muslims, and refugees as dangerous, alien “others,” but families with joys and dreams and heartbreak, artists and musicians and storytellers, kind and gentle fathers, resilient women, young people with aspirations and talents and inner lives every bit as joyously complex as the reader’s own. More importantly, I wanted to present an alternative narrative to the one that has been written for my fellow Syrian Americans and others living in diaspora, and the many thousands more Syrians who may be living in diaspora for generations to come as a result of this conflict. I wanted to create a narrative with enough space for us to tell our own stories, one in which our cultural heritage can help us heal our collective trauma, one in which we can come home again because home is in each other.
How was the #DVpit experience for you? Do you have any tips or words of wisdom to share with future participants?
JENNIFER: It was a wonderful, uplifting, nail-biting experience for me! Wonderful because I met my agent extraordinaire, Michelle Brower, through a #DVPit referral from the awesome Amy Rosenbaum; uplifting because of the other amazing writers I’ve met through #DVPit; and nail-biting because it’s easy to get anxious watching the feed on #DVPit day!
On the day of #DVPit back in April 2016, I was prepared with several different pitches that I had extensively edited beforehand and loaded into TweetDeck, so I felt ready. When requests for materials started to come in pretty early in the day, I was thrilled but also anxious. I stayed calm by looking at all the other writers on the feed pitching their amazing manuscripts and realizing that there was so much talent and promise on that one hashtag. That was probably the best, most intense feeling—that here are all these incredible writers with these incredible stories, and people are listening. People want to read these stories.
My first piece of advice would be: provided your manuscript is polished and ready, don’t be afraid to participate in #DVPit, because you never know what will happen! But do be sure that your manuscript is ready to be sent out immediately—you could get a full request off the first pitch (yes, really!), and you don’t want to make the requesting agent or editor wait for your materials. That means you should have your pitches loaded up and ready to go, but also have your query letter, a polished synopsis, and your full manuscript ready, too.
Also, prepare your pitches ahead of time and read them to someone else for clarity and stakes. Keep abbreviations and skipped words to a minimum—the more readable your pitches, the better. And TweetDeck is a lifesaver, because you can load them up the night before and space them how you want, so even if (God forbid) your Internet connection goes down or something catastrophic happens the day of #DVPit, your tweets will still go out.
We’d love to hear how the whole submission process was for you, from signing with an agent, to editing and polishing, to going out on sub to publishers, to getting news of your book deal. Catch us up on what’s happened since #DVpit!
JENNIFER: First of all, I have to thank my agent, Michelle Brower, and the team at Aevitas Creative Management for an incredibly smooth experience on submission—and also one that was fruitful beyond my wildest dreams. Michelle and I had discussed potential revisions before I signed with her, and her insights were one of the reasons I knew we would be a great team. After I signed following #DVPit, we worked on revising the novel over the summer, and it was a much stronger book for it. I really felt—and still feel—that her suggestions pushed the book farther than I could have taken it on my own, into the kind of novel I had been trying to write all along. I am deeply grateful for that.
We went on submission in the fall, and my time on sub was relatively short, because I ended up signing with the wonderful Trish Todd at Touchstone (Simon & Schuster). I could not be more thrilled to work with Trish!
Tell us about your editor! What was it like speaking to her for the first time? What is your relationship like?
JENNIFER: When I spoke to Trish for the first time, we clicked right away. I could tell that Trish really loved the book and cared about its message, and we shared the same vision for it. And when Michelle told me Trish had offered, I was over the moon! Trish has incredibly keen insight and, like Michelle, absolutely “gets” the novel and what I am trying to accomplish with it. That has been one of the really rewarding things about working with Trish—I know that I have an editor (and a team!) who understands my book, is invested in it, and wants to see it succeed. And Trish and the rest of the Touchstone team are also incredibly kind people, to boot. I could not be more thrilled!
Looking back, is there anything you wish you knew or prepared for when you were first entering #DVpit and getting ready to pitch agents?
JENNIFER: I felt very prepared, but there are certain things I’m glad I did in advance—like having someone else critique and edit my pitches (my husband Matthew—thank you!), loading them into TweetDeck the night before, and above all, having my query letter, synopsis, and polished manuscript all ready to go. So in sum, I guess I’d say this: keep your expectations realistic, but prepare for the best in case it happens. You never know: #DVPit might just be the catalyst that changes your life, the way it changed mine.
In addition, I’ve met some incredible writers through participating in #DVPit. Those of us who signed with agents or editors as a result of #DVPit (shout out to the #DVSquad!) really cheer each other on and celebrate each other’s successes, and getting to be a part of that community has been such a wonderful thing. I am so grateful to have gotten to know these amazing, talented writers, and I can’t wait to hold their books in my hands.
Are there any updates you can share about your book? Pub date, hints about the cover, finalized jacket copy, pre-order links, etc?
JENNIFER: Right now the book is slated to be released in Spring of 2018. I don’t have a cover yet, though I know the Touchstone team will come up with something amazing! As soon as pre-order links are available, I’ll be sure to share them via Twitter and Instagram, as well as my website.
What’s next for you?
JENNIFER: I’ve started working on my next novel, which I will continue this summer in California as a Montalvo Arts Center Lucas Artists Program Literary Arts Fellow. I am so thrilled and honored to have been chosen as an LAP Fellow for 2017-2020, and having the time and space to work on my craft in a creatively-fertile, collaborative environment like the Montalvo Arts Center is such an incredible, humbling gift. I’m excited to pursue this new project and can’t wait to see what the future holds!
Congratulations once again, Jennifer! Thank you for sharing your journey with us, and best of luck with the publication of The Map of Salt and Stars. We’re all excited to see it hit shelves! Readers, you can (and should!) add the book to Goodreads shelf right here!
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (@JenniferZeynab) is a Syrian American writer, a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), and a member of Mensa. She is the author of the forthcoming debut novel The Map of Salt and Stars (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2018). Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Saturday Evening Post, The Normal School, and elsewhere. She is a 2017-2020 Montalvo Arts Center Lucas Artists Program Literary Arts Fellow. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net. She currently resides in south central Pennsylvania, where she is at work on her second novel.