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.