An Interview with … Michael Caligaris

This week we’re chatting with agent Michael Caligaris of Holloway Literary. And we’re talking music, conferences and California.

What drew you to agenting?

Great question! When I lived in the Bay Area, I was a writer who cofounded a literary magazine. Over the years, I went to writer conferences, met agents, and became friends with many published authors and lovers of books. I guess when the opportunity to go down the path of being an agent presented itself I jumped at it. Good writing is what I live for and care about.

How has your experience getting an MFA from Saint Mary’s College shaped you as an agent?

I think it’s definitely helped me spot red flags in writing—common flaws that suggest the manuscript isn’t at the correct stage for an agent’s representation. Most importantly, it made me read, like a lot—especially novels, memoirs, essay collections that were completely outside my realm of interest. Funny enough, those books are what informed me the most.

What’s your fondest memory of the MFA program?

I got to teach a writing workshop to a retirement community in the Bay Area. The course was titled something along the lines of “Documenting Life”, but I can’t remember now. Anyway, I had about 16 students who were just incredible, fascinating, and warm people. The average age was in the 70s, so they’d lived some pretty wild lives!

Oakland_21534You were a cofounder of The East Bay Review and worked for the world’s largest academic science journal, PLOS ONE. What has been the best part of living and working in San Francisco? 

The best part is definitely the food, the culture, and the art scene. Oakland was where I spent a lot of my time, though. I love Oakland more than any other place in the world. And really, both cities are really alive and thriving regardless of the tech boom and flagrant gentrification—you just have to go find it.

What have you found is the most challenging part of working in publishing and living in another part of the country? 

This is probably the obvious answer: the pay. Publishing, and especially nonprofit publishing, will not necessarily make you a millionaire. But that’s not why you do it. The Bay Area rapidly changed during my time there. It went from reasonably expensive to impossibly affordable in about 4 years thanks to the start-up boom, the tech takeover, etc. It’s sad, especially for locals that live out in historic neighborhoods like The Mission. So, yes, making rent for a 450 sq ft studio on a publishing job salary was very challenging.

Any advice for authors looking to submit to you?

Yeah, please proof read many times over.

What does your dream manuscript look like?

I’d say my dream manuscript is 65-80k words. It has a prose style that is tight and minimal in a lot of ways. There involves a death—whether it’s a murder or natural causes I can’t confirm—and the themes of the books revolve around either music or some weird subculture.

You recently attended Michigan Writers Workshop. What was the most unexpected or exciting aspect of taking pitches there?Pitch-StockSnap_8I3JW46YVU

The most unexpected aspect—and this is truly me being honest—was how nervous some of the writers were. I guess I view myself as a pretty laid back and unimportant guy, and I’m just here to talk to people. But I totally understand that for many, this is their life’s work they are pitching! So that’s also the most exciting aspect.

What other conferences are you planning on attending where writers can meet and pitch to you?

I’ll be in Chicago and Nashville this summer for their Writers Workshops.

Any advice for authors who are going to be interacting with agents at conferences?

You usually only have 10 mins to pitch. Edit your pitch down to less than 5 mins and allow the rest of the time for questions or a conversation about your work!

What’s something about you that writers would be surprised to hear?

I’m a lacrosse coach!

What are you reading now? 

I’m guessing this is for books outside my agency queries. I just started Paul Auster’s new novel 4,3,2,1. I adore him, and he may be my favorite living author now that I think about it. The book is of course about New York but is also an immigrant’s tale. I love it so far. I’m also reading some John le Carré short stories on my Kindle. He’s the man.

What are your favorite books? As a kid? As an adult?

I think I was a pretty precocious child. If I’m being honest, my two favorite books as a kid were No One Gets Out of Here Alive (a Jim Morrison biography) and The Great Gatsby. As an adult, my favorite book of all-time is The Sun Also Rises—I even have a tattoo of the bullfighter, Pedro Romero, on my forearm. I’d say a close second is The Canterbury Tales.

Guitars-at-Wentworth-MusicYou’ve previously described yourself as “a guy who plays and loves music,” what are your favorite kinds of music? Bands?

Yeah! I’ve played an instrument for as long as I can remember—starting with banging on pots and pans as a toddler. I started on the guitar when I was 12 and have played ever since. I’m big on buying new gear and guitars, whenever I have the extra money. My favorite kind of music is earnest music. I say that because I like so many different types, and all I’m looking for is genuine songwriting. There’s just so much contrived music out there that tries to cash in on trends and/or the current zeitgeist. So I love Bjork, I love Johnny Cash, and I love David Bowie, and I absolutely love Radiohead because they don’t do those things and never have. But as of late, I also dig stuff coming from Kendrick Lamar, Mastodon, and Father John Misty (who is sort of the post modern answer to contrived music).

How do you combine your love of literature with your love of music?

I think that every writer’s prose style has a certain musicality to it. There’s a rhythm of course, which is a product of combining syntax, cadence, and narrative voice—and in good writing, these factors sort of tie into the themes of the book. For example, you read a pop fiction book such as Fight Club, the sentence structure and voice is so in your face and blunt and has all the makings of a punk rock album. And this ties right into the nihilism, the anarchism, and the masochism that is presented in the book. And clunky writing is a lot like clunky songwriting. Neither sounds good to the ear, and I won’t finish a book or a song if this were the case.


Michael, who has a Creative Writing MFA from St. Mary’s College, is an agent with Holloway Literary.  Learn more about him here and then follow him on Twitter @mikecali31.


An Interview With… Nikki Terpilowski

This week we’re chatting with owner of Holloway Literary and senior agent, Nikki Terpilowski. And we’re talking time management, travel, advice to writers and music.

As a literary agent, business owner, military wife and mother how do you manage to keep a work-life balance?

I try to schedule my time as often as possible. I could probably use a project manager for my life generally. 🙂 Because I work at home, there’s always the temptation to work on weekends and at night, so I try to keep hard and fast rules about when I work, when I’m spending time with my family, when I’m relaxing… exercising… If I don’t, there’s a possibility that tasks and activities fall through the cracks.

In the midst of all your roles, what are some of the ways you manage stress?

I meditate, daily, practice Yin yoga two to three times a week and exercise. Long, hot baths in lavender essential oils and Epsom salts plus a glass of wine or Kava is a weekend indulgence. And lastly, if I’m on the verge of burnout, I veg out and binge TV.

What drew you to becoming a literary agent?

A love of books. I wrote my first book in third grade for a class project. It had a cover, illustrations… everything. I was just hooked. I used to read 7-10 books a week when I was in high school… just  a real bookworm. Being a literary agent seemed like the natural next step for me professionally.

If the perfect manuscript were to land in your inbox tomorrow, what would it look like?

It would be magical realism set in a southern town a la Sarah Addison Allen, a cozy mystery featuring books or food, or maybe a thriller similar to Vince Flynn’s work.

Any advice for authors currently submitting their work to you?

Sure. 1. Send me what I’m interested in reading. 2. Make sure your query reads like butter. 3. You should’ve already studied your craft and written the best possible novel 4. You should’ve already had your manuscript beta read and revised accordingly. After that, hit send!

What are some of your favorite books?

Anything by Charles Frazier, Sarah Addison Allen, Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende… Ellen Crosby.

Outside of reading, what are your favorite things to do?

Traveling, cooking for fun (but who has the time???)

What have been your favorite places to visit?

Napa, Italy, the mountains of NC and VA, New Orleans… Hawaii. I love any city that has lots of history, character and natural beauty.

What are some of the places you haven’t been to but want to see?

The UK

You’ve said before that you’re a “foodie,” and that you’re a big fan of southern food. What are some of your all-time favorites?

I’m generally a low-carber and try to eat more vegetables than not, but southern staples like: fried chicken and biscuits, fried okra, sweet potatoes… that’s not a true reflection of how I eat now though. Now, it’s more like I begin my day with a cup of Siggis, sautéed arugula with toasted pecans for lunch and salmon with mashed cauliflower for dinner. Not very southern, I’m afraid.

What’s your favorite music?

Right now, I’m listening to a lot of Corinne Bailey Rae, Sam Hunt… and the Moana
soundtrack. lol Seriously love that movie and the music.  But Rae and Hunt? Great music and lyrics… and I can listen to it around my kids! And listening to Sam Hunt (and Jason Aldean) ALWAYS makes me crave a cowboy romance. (#MSWL)

Interested in submitting a query to Nikki? Find out more here.


How To Write A First Chapter A Literary Agent Wants To Read

By Michael Caligaris

Naturally, agents have their own subjective preferences when it comes to making a decision on a manuscript query. A broad sense of these preferences can certainly be found on an agent’s submissions interests page. However, there are other preferences that sit outside the realm of genres, tropes, and audiences. For me, when I conduct a review of a manuscript, there are a few technical aspects that I prefer to see. Sometimes these can be a deciding factor in my decision to continue past the first 15 pages.

So, without further ado, I’d like to talk about one of these technical aspects of which I am a huge advocate: Active Openings.

“Active Openings” isn’t necessarily a coined term, but I’ll coin it now. I define this term as a combination of active voice and present action found in the opening of a novel or memoir. Active voice and present action are commonly used literary terms—if you’re having any workshop flashbacks, I sincerely apologize—but used together, in my humble opinion, can perhaps help craft a more focused opening. But even more importantly: ensure that the opening is not weighed down by qualities that can kill it, such as character or plot clutter; overly-verbose narration; abstraction without a defined purpose.Wooden signpost with two opposite arrows over clear blue sky, Passive versus Active messages, Lifestyle change conceptual image

This is an example of the passive voice: The mayor’s car was crashed on April Fool’s Day by John.

This is an example of the active voice: John crashed the mayor’s car on April Fool’s Day.

When I read an opening line of a manuscript, I want immediacy. Many of you already probably know that a passive voice can kill immediacy (and emotional tone).

Allow me to further explain. Take the opening lines from the infamous Russian novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:

“The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o’clock as always. Time to get up.’” (Solzhenitsyn pg 1).

This is an active sentence. If we change this to a passive sentence, the immediacy suddenly changes: “The hammer was banging reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at always. It was time to get up.” With this change I no longer feel that urgency.
The other aspect is present action. I define this as the actions of a character occupying a scene. This differs from context given for a scene, which would be writing along the lines of setting description or expositional backstory. In my example above, Solzhenitsyn does not wait long to enter the character’s actions onto the page. “Time to get up”—the character is getting up by the second sentence, and I also know that a hammer bangs in the distance. That has me hooked and I feel the immediacy in the writing.

 arton5I stress this almost as an overcorrection—many of you writers may already do this—but I’ve read novel after novel that begins with a narrator who waxes poetic—“There are six things to remember about the concept of beauty and grace”—or by choosing to inform the reader of 2 or 3 different past experiences—“I had once gone to the carnival with Lily and she was playing the ring toss until the sun went down”—but, in many cases, neither of these (made-up) examples end up being that integral to the opening scene. Many writers believe they need to weigh the opening down with backstory or vivid setting description or even plot clues (i.e. “Chekov’s Gun”) in order for the reader to really grasp the scope of the book. As a reader, I want to jump right into the story—Where are we? Who’s doing what? And why? I’m sure we’ve all picked up a book, read through an opening that drooled on and on, and said, “Meh. Not for me.” From my view, a manuscript opening that has an active voice rooted in the present action is more enticing than having to read about something that was going on or had been happening before the actual scene takes place.

Of course, there are numerous examples from literature that contradict this. For example, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises begins with:

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton” (Hemingway 1).

This is written from the point of view of a narrator, Jake Barnes, looking back or “retrospectively.” A lot of the success of the novel comes from the opinionated yet humbled older Jake Barnes writing about this earlier era of his life. Your novel or memoir may demand an opening that is similar—and that’s fine! With that said, this is where my subjectivity as an agent comes in: I rather enjoy how Hemingway’s second paragraph begins even more: “I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together, and I always had a suspicion that perhaps Robert Cohn had never been middleweight boxing champion.”

100-famous-novels-with-catchy-first-lines-u2Active openings are becoming more commonplace for contemporary writers.  Here are some examples of first lines:

“The day started before sunrise, on March 21, 1979, when Teacher Gu woke up and found his wife sobbing quietly into her blanket.” – The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

“Our mother performed in starlight.” – Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Please, she whispers, how may I help you?” – Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

“In 1966, the President of Cocoloco Pictures broke the news to us in English” –“Monstress” by Lysley Tenario

I’d like to stress again the active openings is not a rule. Not in any way. Write how you write. I do not disregard a manuscript solely on the basis that it does not have an active opening. However, I think taking this into consideration, or at least asking the question, may help focus your manuscript’s opening—which is really important to us, the agents! Why not start with immediacy and present action? If you’re writing a novel or memoir, you’ll have plenty of time to work in the rest.

Michael, who has a Creative Writing MFA from St. Mary’s College is an agent with Holloway Literary.  Learn more about him here and then follow him on Twitter @mikecali31.