I want to tell you about EJ Koh, not only because it’s publication day for her debut memoir THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS (Tin House) but because the journey of this book was fascinating and long and definitely not the norm.
EJ queried me on Monday, January 26th, 2015. FIFTEEN. Yes, you read that correctly. I read and responded to her query a few days later. (The title in the subject line, “My Mother’s Letter’s to My Younger Self,” caught my eye. Notice that is not the title of the book publishing today.) It was a memoir of EJ’s late teens and early adulthood, after her parents moved back to Korea for work. Her mother wrote her letters, in Korean, and EJ saved some of them, but not all. When I read the manuscript, and the letters, it was as if I could see the act of mothering on the page. EJ had a tough time during such a volatile age, to say the least. There was so much raw emotion on the page. We spoke a few days after I finished reading the complete manuscript and I offered representation and she accepted.
We went through some revisions,to put it mildly. I gave her a line edit and long editorial note in April, and EJ revised it over the following few months. In early July, 2015, I submitted it to 22 editors.
But by mid August, we’d heard back from everyone except one editor and they all said no. I could go back and look at those responses but I don’t want to because that book was so far from the book it would eventually become. Was wrong to send it out then? Nah. As an agent, I can only know what I know. Having 22 editors give us feedback is invaluable, even if it doesn’t result in a sale. Now, I can’t just sent things out to test the waters, because once an editor says no, their whole imprint (sometimes publisher!) if off limits for a resubmission. One editor on that list asked for a revision, though, which is a rare gift as well, and we prepared for more work.
December, 2015, I read another draft. It still wasn’t there. We were working very hard to make a linear story out of EJ’s beautiful prose. EJ is a poet, and I definitely, and oh so eloquently, told her we had to “de-poetize” the manuscript and use fewer adjectives. (Clients, raise your hands if I’ve also told you to take out half your adjectives!!) In June, 2016, I got another draft, and EJ said she’d revised it herself four more times before sending it to me. I was six months pregnant by then and very motivated to get things done before the baby arrived. But the book wasn’t ready yet. It still wasn’t working.
I know you’re thinking OMG HOW MANY DRAFTS OF THIS BOOK ARE YOU GOING TO READ? Well, I tried to count and I hit like 6 or 7 and stopped counting. I know you’re thinking BUT WHY WON’T YOU READ 6 OR 7 DRAFTS OF MY BOOK??? I wish I could. My client list and career were different back then (kid notwithstanding) and I just can’t do that with every book. I wish it were different.
So I sent EJ back to the drawing board in Summer 2016 (I may have said “full rewrite” in an email then) and she worked and worked until May, 2017. I did a full line edit of this new draft in September, 2017 (see the change in my productivity post-kid? lol) and in response to those edits, EJ sent me back the first 6 chapters of the new draft and THIS WAS IT. This was the draft we’d been working toward. The story came out in full relief. There was emotion and beauty in the prose, but also character and action. Remember, this is a memoir, so we couldn’t just change events to make it more interesting. EJ had to do the incredibly hard task of tapping into her former self to really examine her own life. She worked so hard on this book, and it shows.
I got another full manuscript in April, 2017, I sent it out in May—including to the editor who asked for a revision—and we got an offer in June, from Masie Cochran at Tin House books. (Not the editor who asked for a revision.) We were floored. We were thrilled. It had been SUCH a long, hard road.
So, why was this book worth all this work, to me, as an agent, with limited resources and no assistant? Because it just was. When it first came in, I could see it as a book on the shelf. It had universal appeal in that many people have fraught relationships with their parents, and who wouldn’t want to look back on that as an adult, with written proof of those feelings and emotions and events? EJ is Korean-American, and I was fascinated by her mother’s letters, the physical objects of them, and how EJ translated them from Korean. As I mentioned, EJ is a poet but also a scholar. She has an MFA from Columbia in Poetry and Literary Translation, and a PhD from the University of Washington in English Language and Literature. She has her bona fides. Her prose is stunning. More poets should write prose (with good editors), imho. This was her story to tell, a story we don’t always see, and she told it well (in all it’s versions).
THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS is a beautiful gem of a book, inside and out. (Just look at the cover!) It’s an Indie Next Pick for January (which means lots of Indie booksellers like it and will stock it in their stores) and there are so many exciting things coming in EJ’s future. You can hear her speak in nine cities this month, starting with Seattle tonight at Elliott Bay and ending in DC at Politics and Prose (Union Market) on the 24th. Maybe you’ll want to read this review in the Star Tribune or this one in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can buy a copy here, of course. Or maybe you want the audiobook.
Every agent has a story about the book they just couldn’t give up on. I will admit, there were several times in this process where I thought I wouldn’t hear from EJ again, because I had asked for revisions just one too many times. She had every right to say Hmmm, maybe you just don’t get this book. I’m going to find another agent who does. That’s a fair response. But you have to be careful, and I think EJ was, to differentiate between this agent doesn’t get my work and I don’t want to do this hard thing. I approached EJ’s work in the spirit she intended, the beautiful examination of mothers and daughters, the language we and they use, and the lenses we use to look at our past selves. We got each other, and she stuck it out with me, and for that I’m grateful.
Happy pub day, EJ. I can’t wait to read the next one.