Nicole and Jennifer, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your partnership! To start, Nicole, I’d love to know more about your book and why you wrote it.
NICOLE: My book is a YA historical fiction novel in the vein of Jane Austen that focuses on a 17-year-old girl who realizes that she cannot be happy with the expectations and plans that have been laid out for her since birth, and she now has to figure out how to navigate her life trying to find happiness that doesn’t seem possible. Meanwhile, she becomes closer to a childhood friend, who also is in search of her own happiness. The two end up realizing that their happiness might just be possible together—which is further complicated by the fact that this friend just happens to be the sister of the man the protagonist is supposed to someday marry.
I wrote this novel because it was a feeling that I was very familiar with at the time—I was still mostly in the closet and suffocating from it. I knew I couldn’t be happy ignoring a huge part of who I was, but I was terrified of what that meant. I had to figure out how to go forward to find my own freedom and happiness, much in the same way my protagonist does. I chose to tell the story in the Regency Era because of how much I love Jane Austen, and I chose historical fiction in general because I love the idea of representing and giving voice to queer girls in history who have been otherwise erased from the narrative. Queer girls did exist then as they do now, I promise you that.
Jennifer, what was it about this manuscript that sealed the deal for you?
JENNIFER: This was one of those wonderful manuscript experiences where I just couldn’t put the book down. I’d been planning to watch a basketball game (OKC Thunder!), but I couldn’t bring myself to set the manuscript aside and pay attention.
Besides capturing the Regency tone beautifully, I really loved how natural the LGBT elements felt—very authentic to both the characters and the time. And I had a few concerns about possible love triangle clichés, but the resolution Nicole crafted was even better than I had hoped. Plus, Nicole’s protagonist, Samantha, is the sort of stubborn and restless yet sensitive and deeply feeling girl you can’t help but love.
Nicole, how did you prepare this manuscript for submission? Do you work with outlines, schedules, or deadlines? Do you have critique partners and beta readers?
NICOLE: I actually completed this novel during my time in Fairleigh Dickinson’s Creative Writing MFA program. Grad school isn’t for everyone (with my 2.4 GPA in undergrad, it’s still a shock that it was even for me!) but it was the absolute best experience I could have asked for. I feel very blessed that I was able to focus my study on YA, particularly LGBT YA, under two of the best mentors anyone could dream of—Donna Freitas and Eliot Schrefer. They both really helped to push me into being the writer that they apparently thought I had the potential to be. I also was able to form friendships with some of the best writing buddies out there, who were there for me throughout the entire process to offer feedback and critiques, and even to take my neurotic phone calls during those (many) times during which I was completely convinced I could not do this. (Spoiler alert: as it turns out, I could. Which also still comes at a shock most days.)
And how was the #DVpit experience for you, overall? Expectations? Doubts? Disappointments?
NICOLE: Full disclosure, I didn’t have any plans to actually participate in #DVpit. I was neck deep in my thesis module for school, and although I had been seriously querying for a bit, I wasn’t entirely sure how felt about Twitter pitching. I can admit when I’m wrong, though, and when I logged on to Twitter the evening of the event to see all these wonderful pitches being shown support all over my feed, I got SO amped up. The pitches were amazing! These stories that were being pitched were all stories I would have KILLED to get my hands on, and to see so much excitement and support over these diverse books and diverse authors was overwhelming. I thought to myself, who cares if this gets me anywhere, I need to be a part of this! So, with like an hour left of the event, I figured what the heck, typed up a pitch and tweeted it, and then went to make dinner. I was NOT expecting the reactions it got, and ended up burning my chicken I was so glued to my feed the rest of the event.
How was the experience for you, Jennifer?
JENNIFER: Absolutely wonderful! I always participate in Twitter contests (as a newer agent, I’m very much looking to grow my list!), but the quality of #DVpit submissions was a cut above. I felt like the entire publishing community rallied behind it—agents and editors who might not usually participate were involved, and it created a level of excitement that brought in more writers, like Nicole. I don’t think I’ve offered on another manuscript from a Twitter contest, but I offered on two from #DVpit. I lost out on one, but I couldn’t be happier to have connected with Nicole.
Nicole, did you receive pitch help? Any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to future participants?
NICOLE: I didn’t get any pitch help, because like I said, I wasn’t actually planning on participating. “Wisdom” is a bit of a stretch, but since you asked, I’d say to future participants: Take a chance! You never know what’ll happen. End result aside, it was inspiring and encouraging to see so many diverse authors/stories being celebrated for an evening. End result included, it introduced me to Jennifer, who wasn’t yet on my radar. And, obviously, remember that a Twitter pitch isn’t necessarily the be all end all—you still have to query—but it’s important to have diverse stories elevated, and #DVpit does just that.
And Jennifer, do you have any advice for querying authors and/or for anyone planning to participate in a future #DVpit?
JENNIFER: First of all, like Nicole said, participate! It’s hard work finding an agent; take advantage of all the opportunities you can to find the right fit. Second, with #DVpit and any other contest where the agent is reaching out to you, remember that it’s a mutual selection process. Do the same research you would when deciding whether to query. Finally, highlight the diversity in your work when you query—it’s important to me and to many agents; make it clear for us.
Tell us about The Call, Nicole!
NICOLE: Oh God, first of all, I’m the type of person who is a constant ball of anxiety, so everyone in my household was under strict orders before the call not to even look at me, and after the call I had to immediately change my clothes because I had been sweating so badly. Which is to say, I was a complete nervous wreck (such is my life.) But! The phone call itself couldn’t have been better. What struck me first and foremost was Jennifer’s enthusiasm for my book—and her well thought out suggestions for revision that completely made sense and felt true to my story and characters. What I realized after I hung up the phone was that, even though this was a call that stemmed from a pitch for and about diverse voices, she never made me feel like this was a “gay book” (even though it totally is) but that it was a book with characters she fell in love with and a story she believed in. I ended the conversation with the feeling that this was going to be a perfect match. Months later, I can happily say it definitely is.
Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!
NICOLE: @LadyNeeko: “last thing she wants is to marry her intended suitor. Last thing she expected was to fall for his sister. LGBT Jane Austen tale #DVpit #YA”
Jennifer, what was it about this pitch that caught your attention?
JENNIFER: I hadn’t been looking for historical books, but I have a soft spot for Jane Austen—I wrote my college thesis on adaptations of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. And I love historical works that reveal under-told sides of the story. Nicole’s pitch let me know right away that she was coming at the Regency themes I love from a slightly different angle.
What else are you looking for these days? Is there anything specific on your wishlist that you’re hoping to find, maybe at the next #DVpit?
JENNIFER: Middle grade, thrillers/suspense, and contemporary romance are the holes in my list right now, and nothing would make me happier than to find diverse books to fill them. Also, while I receive a number of queries for diverse books in young adult, I feel like women’s fiction submissions in general tend to be less diverse. Though I have a few women’s fiction clients, I’d love to add more diversity in that area. And while I’m happy to consider diversity from any writer, I really appreciate works that are #ownvoices.
Warm congratulations to Nicole and Jennifer for finding each other! I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Follow them on Twitter so you can do the same!
Nicole Melleby just completed the Creative Writing MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University with a concentration in Writing for Young Adults. When she's not writing, she's teaching college courses in composition and literature. Follow her on twitter @LadyNeeko.
Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent's assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website: jjohnsonblalock.com.