Catherine and Beth, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your partnership! To start, Catherine, I’d love to know more about your book and why you wrote it.
CATHERINE: Beth I’m so happy and honored you asked! Thank you very much for the #DVpit platform!
My debut novel POTTER’S WHEEL is the story of two friends Layla and Ruby set against the backdrop of an African American church on Chicago’s Southside. The girls find the bonds of their adopted sisterhood strained when Ruby’s mother, Alice, is murdered. In a relentless quest to save Ruby, Layla comes to discover the murky loyalties and dark secrets tying their families together for generations.
I wrote this book because I wanted to show the Southside of Chicago and black families, both of which get such an unfair focus in the media, as two entities, beautiful and complex, loving and fierce, with the ability to protect and do great harm in equal measure. I also wanted to see a literary portrayal of black families in the black church. I grew up in the black church and there are so many unique and wonderful customs and traditions, but it’s also a deeply flawed organization. I hadn’t read a book dealing with these issues, nor had I read many books where black sisterhood was a theme but wasn’t centered around getting a man.
So I wrote one!
Beth, what was it about this manuscript that sealed the deal for you?
BETH: Catherine’s voice is both unique and relatable. I knew that not only was this book amazing, but she would be able to continue to produce high quality writing. What made me really love this book though was the gentleness with which she handled very difficult topics.
Catherine, how did you prepare this manuscript for submission? Do you work with outlines, schedules, or deadlines? Do you have critique partners and beta readers?
CATHERINE: I’m a pantser. If I did an outline, I’d be still talking about an idea for a book instead of how I finished it and got this fabulous agent. For me, it’s better to dive in and learn about my story, my characters and their motivations as I write. I don’t set a deadline or word total for a day. I just write then edit as I go. It’s more natural for me that way.
In terms of critique partners, there aren’t really any writing groups where I live. I also work weird hours so that wasn’t an option. However, I’m an editor and I have friends who are also writers and editors (it’s like a 2 for 1). They were (and still are) an email or phone call away. Shout outs to Andrew Dolbeare, Branden Johnson and Kevin Savoie for being a tremendous help getting my MS in shape!
And how was the #DVpit experience for you, overall? Expectations? Doubts? Disappointments?
CATHERINE: #DVpit was a phenomenal experience for me! It was my third time participating and I was overwhelmed by all the support, retweets and likes. It’s truly awesome witnessing and participating in an event boosting and connecting with other marginalized writers. It can be disappointing when you get a like from an agent and they don’t connect with the story, but that’s the game. The most important advantage of #DVpit is you realize you’re not alone, you have potential and you’re not crazy for wanting to do this. There is a path and there are people on that path or on the sidelines cheering you on!
How was the experience for you, Beth?
BETH: This was my first #DVpit and it was such a gift to find Catherine. So many of the writers that participated were talented and the ones that sent me work were mostly of a high quality. But, it’s a unique blend of quality and personal joy that has to happen for me to accept work. I’m shocked I found someone the first time I participated. I’m so excited for Catherine to start her career with me!
Catherine, did you receive pitch help or tips? Any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to future participants?
CATHERINE: My beta reader Kevin Savoie, who’d participated in these events before he was agented, helped me craft my pitches. I can be longwinded (big surprise) so he helped me trim down the unnecessary details and give the barebones of my comp titles, the characters and the stakes.
My words of wisdom are first, craft the pitch on the part of the story that speaks to you. Your passion is visible even in only 280 characters! Secondly, the comp title(s) don’t have to exactly match your book. Look for general themes in your comps to see if they fit. Lastly, I know this has been said a million times, but I’m going to make it a million and one, PLEASE have your manuscript finished and polished before you pitch. If you get a full manuscript request and it’s unfinished, you’re wasting the agent’s time and you’re shooting yourself in the foot via reputation.
And Beth, do you have any advice for querying authors and/or for anyone planning to participate in a future #DVpit?
BETH: Just the usual advice, I suppose. Boil down your plot to the most interesting aspects, have great comps and for goodness sake make sure your manuscript is publisher ready. Yes, agents are willing to do some editing, but you shouldn’t rely on that!
Tell us about The Call, Catherine!
CATHERINE: I was so used to rejection, I first thought Beth’s email was another rejection so when I read it, I almost screamed at work! I’d been practicing “The Call” in my head for almost a year but speaking on the phone with Beth was still a surreal moment. We connected from the first few minutes on the phone once my heart got to beating to a normal rhythm. Beth quelled my anxiety in terms of the type of book I wrote as it seemed to me YA is so big, I didn’t think an adult upmarket fiction book with black people not dealing with slavery or police brutality would be viable in today’s market. Her confidence in the ability to find my book a home, to guide me in my career to becoming a full-time writer, is what sold me. I also have some weird ideas for my next story and she seemed amped for that as well. I eventually ended up with three offers, Beth, another agent and an indie publishing house. I went with Beth because she came across as sincere, earnest and passionate. Ultimately, Ladderbird Literary Agency felt like home.
Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!
CATHERINE: “BIG LITTLE LIES & TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE meets Southside CHI. Murder, secrets and racial disparity affect 3 generations of a black family inside & outside the walls of a Southside CHI church #DVPit #A #LiteraryThriller #OWN #POC”
Beth, what was it about this pitch that caught your attention?
BETH: Well, I’ll be honest, I’ll look at anything set in Southside Chicago and she comped Big Little Lies, so I was all in. Big Little Lies is one of my favorite books from the last few years.
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?
BETH: I have so many things I’d love to see right now! More Adult mysteries, especially of the cosy variety if they’re well written and have unforgettable characters. Or a good Thriller/Crime set in a foreign environment!
And literary. Literary is my true love, so if you have something beautiful, complex, dark that tackles some deep fundamental element of humanity in an accessible way—I want it. Shouldn’t be that hard, right?
I’m also dying for more nonfiction, especially narrative, memoir or business, but they have to have great platforms.
Warm congratulations to Catherine and Beth for finding each other! I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Follow them on Twitter so you can do the same!
Catherine Adel West (@cawest329) was born and raised in Chicago, IL where she currently resides. She graduated with both her Bachelors and Masters of Science in Journalism from the University of Illinois - Urbana. Her work is published in Black Fox Literary Magazine, Five2One, Better than Starbucks, Doors Ajar, 805 Lit + Art, The Helix Magazine and Lunch Ticket. In between writing and traveling, Catherine works as an editor.
Beth Marshea (@Ladderbirdlit) is the owner/agent at Ladderbird Literary Agency. She is focused on brining diverse voices into the world that illuminate and transform. She believes is helping authors through all aspects of their career.