In the months leading up to this year’s Literary Writer’s Conference, we’ll be sitting down with some of our favorite agents to talk about their work, working with writers, and their LWC experience. This week we’re chatting with Sonali Chanchani of Folio Literary Management. She has been with Folio since 2015, and is drawn to upmarket and literary fiction, nonfiction, essay collections, and memoirs.
What is it about LWC that excites you? What are you most looking forward to about this year’s conference?
I’ve never been to LWC before, but I’ve heard wonderful things about it — in particular, that it brings together a smart, dedicated group of writers, invested in mastering their craft and committed to understanding the ins and outs of the industry. Those are exactly the kinds of writers I love working with and look forward to meeting!
The Opening Lines clinic seems particularly useful for writers. What goes on in this type of clinic? What can writers expect, and why is having a strong opening so important?
The Opening Lines clinic is an opportunity for writers to see how agents read their work. What are the opening lines that compel us to keep reading? What is it that makes these lines so compelling?
The simplest reason that first pages are so important: For readers browsing in a bookstore, if they’re not immediately engaged by that opening, they’ll put the book back on the shelf and move on to another title. So what are they looking for in those first few pages? What draws them in and what drives them away? And how should you be thinking about your opening lines to make sure they do the former?
We’ll go through writers’ first pages and talk through why we would (or would not) request more to help answer those questions.
Do you feel it’s important for writers of color to connect with agents who have a similar background?
I think it’s important for a writer of color to connect with someone who understands the value of their voice and story.
Sometimes, that means an agent from a similar background: someone uniquely poised to understand certain facets of their story because they’ve experienced it for themselves. That familiarity can elicit such a strong emotional response to the material — and in a business driven by passion, the depth of that connection is everything because it means an author’s found someone who will give their all to championing their work.
That said, being of a particular background doesn’t mean you have a monopoly on certain feelings or experiences. I find myself connecting with stories by and about people from all walks of life all the time. I also might feel passionately about a project precisely because it introduces me to a new experience or perspective.
Above all else, what you need in an agent is someone who believes in your voice and story, respects your perspective, and will give everything to fight for your work. Sometimes that agent is of the same background as you, sometimes they’re not.
Do you feel that being a woman of color gives you a different perspective or set of intentions?
As someone from a marginalized background, I do have a particular passion for supporting underrepresented writers. I understand how powerful it is to see someone like you represented on the page or read a book that captures the experience of living on the margins — that gives shape to the feelings and sensations you’ve come to believe are all in your own head or you don’t even realize you’re experiencing until you see them articulated on the page.
So certainly, I’m determined to find and support those voices. But ultimately, I think my goals are the same as any other agent: to find great writers and help bring their work to the wider world. I think it’s perhaps just about being keenly aware that many of those writers are being overlooked or passed over, despite the massive audience of readers desperate to see their work.
How does an event like this connect with your daily life as an agent? What are some of your essential takeaways?
I love these conferences because they’re an opportunity to engage with the person behind the story or submission. It sometimes feels like so much of the job takes place over email, but meeting people in person to talk about their work or the business makes it feel personal and meaningful. Events like these are a great opportunity to revitalize relationships with other agents and editors and to start conversations with prospective clients. I always come away from them feeling so energized and excited.