Literary Agent Profile: Theresa Park [in aMagazine: Inside Asian America]
Six years ago, as a brand-new literary agent, Theresa Park was handed a certain letter by her then assistant. It came from the unwanted slush pile (one toss away from the garbage can) of a senior agent in the venerable Sanford J. Greenburger Associates office who had suddenly passed away. That’s how Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook made publishing history, followed by Message in a Bottle (which then became a three-hankie movie starring Kevin Costner and Paul Newman), A Walk to Remember and The Rescue.
In less than a decade, Park has firmly established herself as a major literary force. She regularly handles eight-digit deals – and yes, her Harvard law degree comes in very handy working mega-contracts. She has a penchant for first-time authors, with whom she builds successful long-term careers. Her client list includes thriller writer Margaret Cuthbert, Simple Living-author Janet Luhrs, and renowned scientist Lee Silver. And just out last fall is Sparks’ latest, A Bend in the Road, yet another guaranteed blockbuster.
What do you look for in a manuscript?
A good story, most importantly, but it must be well told. A lot of people think having an incredible story is enough, but the reality is you have to be able to get that story across. Also, what I look for in an author is even more important. I expect professionalism and sophisticated people skills, because publishing is a collaborative business. Although people might still think authors sit in attics writing for 10 hours a day, the reality is that the publishing world demands an ability to work effectively with many other people – the editorial staff, marketing department, doing effective PR in public. And as in any venture, conflicts are inevitable; the ability to resolve those conflicts maturely and effectively is an underestimated skill required of authors.
What do you think of the recent jump in Asian American titles? What do you think accounts for it?
First of all, the growth is great. Asian American authors have been a very underrepresented population forever. I think the growth is an indication of a whole new generation of Asian Americans who are being encouraged and allowed to write about their experiences. The first wave of immigrants were focused on survival, with virtually no time left for art or storytelling. Now their children or their children’s children are being encouraged to be literature majors, to be allowed to not be doctors and lawyers and engineers, to allow their artistry and creativity to flourish.
Any “hot” titles – Asian American or otherwise – we should be on the look out for?
I can’t wait to read Chang-rae Lee’s next book – he’s not talking too much about it, but I’m sure it’s going to be great.
Tell me about your new Korean American discovery.
Janice Lee. I just took her on as client. She’s Korean, but grew up in Hong Kong before coming to the States for school. She’s currently working on a novel. She’s had some short stories published. She’s definitely worth watching.
You just got back from vacation. What did you take with you?
Rose Tremain’s The Way I Found Her – which I liked. The voice of the 13-year-old protagonist was very well done. Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War, a debut thriller. And Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, about the Hmong culture versus the American medical system. You have to read it this book. RUN to the book store and get it!
What books are on your night table right now?
Mostly manuscripts. And Corelli’s Mandolin, because a Korean American agent friend recommended it to me.