Sunday, November 9, 2008

RichWriters Interview with Michael Mejias of Writers House

What a treat it was for RichWriters to have interviewed Michael Mejias of Writers House. He is a gentleman of Puerto Rican descent that is not only making real headway with the book publishing industry but has been opening doors for other Latinos and people of color for years.



Jeff Rivera:                              So, what is your official title at Writers House, Michael?


Michael Mejias:                        I'm the Front desk Administrator / Director of the Internship Program at Writers House.


 Jeff Rivera:  What does that job entail exactly?


Michael Mejias:                        The general overseeing of day-to-day operations and with regards to the internship program, it is something that I founded close to six years ago. I recruit, train, and supervise all of the interns and, further to that point, place them in their first jobs in publishing.


Jeff Rivera:                              Oh wow, and specifically at the Writers House?


Michael Mejias:                        Specifically at Writers House, correct.


Jeff Rivera:                              That is great. So how did you get started and why Writers House?


Michael Mejias:                        I wish I had some wonderfully yearbook answer for you. But, basically, I had a friend that was working at the agency and she approached me about an opening at Writers House.  I came in, spoke to Al Zuckerman, and since his background was in the theatre too, that's what we talked about. He hired me and eleven years later, I'm talking to you.  


Jeff Rivera:                              Wow that is great! So you had no interest in being an agent?


Michael Mejias:                        No, not all. I wanted to be a playwright. I figured, I'd answer the phones, sign for packages, and write my next play. I remember thinking I didn't want anything taxing.


Jeff Rivera:                              Great.


Michael Mejias:                        The best laid plans, my friend… Me being me, little by little, I just got more and more invested. Things just graduated from there and now I'm beginning to develop projects to agent.


Jeff Rivera:                              I think that is what is interesting about Writers House. Also that people there tend to not leave.


Michael Mejias:                        Exactly. It is a fantastic place to work. Everyone is so gifted. Everyone is so talented. And when you are not, you might as well park chandelier on your head, you'd stand out less.


Jeff Rivera:                              Right. You are right.


Michael Mejias:                        At first, I think you are going to stick out. You're new and feeling your way around, trying not to sound like an ass-clown. But that motivates you to up your game; so, there's nothing wrong with that.


Jeff Rivera:                              Where would you like to see yourself in the next five or ten years?


Michael Mejias:                        What I'd like to be doing and what I am beginning to do now is develop Latino voices. And that comes with particular challenges, but  I'll talk about those a little later.  I want my list to be comprised primarily of Latino and African-American writers, along with some edgy literary fiction by people of all races. Ideally, that would be the entire mark of my list.


Jeff Rivera:                              And when you say your list, meaning in terms of…


Michael Mejias:                        My client list as an agent.


Jeff Rivera:                              Okay, great.


Michael Mejias:                        For many years, I considered myself talent. You know, like I mentioned before, as a playwright and all. Consequently, as a playwright and dramaturg, you become very, very familiar with the development process. And the skills I developed in the theatre help me now with new writers.


Jeff Rivera:                              So if I found a Latino writer and send a piece, because I am very, very impressed by Writers House, but mostly, I am a Latino. Would it be right for me to send it to you?


Michael Mejias:                        Oh, I would absolutely encourage you to do just that.


Jeff Rivera:                              Be careful of what you wish for because…


Michael Mejias:                        I've been at this for 11 years, I have a reading series, I'm a pretty public person. If people want to find me, they can. I know, be careful of what you wish for… Like I said, I get 70 submissions a day. If I get 10 more and those 10 are Latinos, I am fine with it.


Jeff Rivera:                              Is your responsibility reading all of that material?


Michael Mejias:                        Indeed.


Jeff Rivera:                              Every single one of them?


Michael Mejias:                        Every single one.


Jeff Rivera:                              Seventy submissions a day.


Michael Mejias:                        Approximately. Give or take it.


Jeff Rivera:                              My God! So let us talk about this for a second here.


Michael Mejias:                        Sure.


Jeff Rivera:                              What do they need to have in the first few pages that you would not say, "Next?"


Michael Mejias:                        What they have to have in the first few pages, is enough to make me want to read the next few pages, and so on and so forth. There isn't a particular algebra. I wish sometimes that there was, but there isn't. I don't know that I'm liking it until, "Hey, I am halfway through this, and I want to know what happens next." I am always going to make my myself available to whatever story you are telling me. But once I become aware that I am reading, once it becomes a chore, like anything else, you put it down. You put it down, it's not for you.


Jeff Rivera:                              How long before you can tell that this is just not going to work?


Michael Mejias:                        You can begin and the flags are raised almost immediately. Sometimes it is with the characters. Sometimes it is with the structure. Sometimes it is with the style or tone of the piece. But like I mentioned, I stop when I am bored and sometimes that is on page 3 and sometimes it is on page 53.


Jeff Rivera:                              At what point though when you are reading 70 submissions a day, do you find yourself becoming jaded? And if not how do you keep yourself from…?


Michael Mejias:                        The thing is 70 seems like a lot, until you begin to really break it down. First, eliminate all of the submissions that while some talent is evident, isn't sufficiently unique. This will include everyone who just spent three months rewriting HARRY POTTER, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, and LORD OF THE RINGS. Follow that by eliminating all the submissions that have wonderfully unique concepts, but the talent hasn't arrived yet. Right there, that pile of 70 is whittled down to about twenty and that is a manageable pile. Now you have that twenty and is there one that really, really excites you? If not, you pass on it and it starts all over again the next day. If there is one, you pass it on to an agent.


Jeff Rivera:                              Right. Oh my God! So how do you decide which agent will be great for any particular writer?


Michael Mejias:                       I ask. I am always talking with their assistants. I know what that they are looking for. I know what that they are not looking for. If we already have XYZ author, why on do we want a lighter version? Or thirty more like it when we have the original? You like pizza. You don't want to eat it everyday, right? The job becomes to determine if this is the next XYZ author, someone who has a unique twist on things, or just someone who is derivative.


Jeff Rivera:                              So let us talk about writer and author no-no's. Once you signed with Writers House, what will be a no-no? What did you hear an agent is complaining about all the time about particular writers?


Michael Mejias:                        Well, with regards to submissions, is that what you mean?


Jeff Rivera:                              In regard to maybe interaction with them.


Michael Mejias:                        What someone who is submitting to Writers House should know?  Well, always know we are on your side. My job is a lot more interesting and a lot more engaging when everything that I am receiving is fantastic. Trust me, I want it to be. I am not conspiring against writers in general. I want it to be fantastic. Not good. Not great. I want it to be fantastic and knock my socks off so that they have my full-throated support. I want to be able to go up to an agent and say, "You absolutely have to read this. You absolutely have to stop what you are doing." I want to be that inspired by the work that comes in; so, again, we are on your side. 

Another thing to know is that we work for a living. We are working. I know that the writer / agent relationship is regularly depicted on television and in the movies. And in that reality, writers call agents every twenty minutes. Usually, there's very little reason to call that often. We aren't withholding info, conspiring against you, or bad at our jobs. We simply don't know more than what we knew twenty minutes ago when we last spoke to you.

  Jeff Rivera: How do you aspire to work?

   Michael Mejias:                    Ideally, you write the book. I agent the book. It's a partnership and that's certainly what I aspire to do.  It is a partnership and my job is to give you options and to make recommendations. "Oh, okay XYZ publisher has this money on the table, with this editor, and that is why this I like this offer. But  let's take a look at what these other guys are doing over here. It's shorter money, but they are looking longer term and committed to your next book too.  And how about these guys over here, with them, we get those short stories published and that's something you've always wanted to see realized. 

                                                It all depends on what the client wants to do because I'm thinking long term. I am thinking their career; so, it's not take the short money and see you later. You oversell something and it doesn't earn out. You've damaged that career. So, you have to be careful how you go about it. The thing of it is, you present all of these options to your client and you make your recommendation. Does that answer your question?

Jeff Rivera:                              Yes, it does actually. Let me ask you two more questions.


Michael Mejias:                        Sure.


Jeff Rivera:                              I want to ask you…which question I should ask you first. What are you specifically doing to help other Latinos or Latino stories be taught?


Michael Mejias:                        Fantastic, good question. I have a reading series that runs from October through June at the Kettle of Fish and it regularly features new Latino voices. Now, the reading series is something that I founded six years ago and I have presented over 150 writers in that time. I would say about 30% are Latino. In this group, we have Matt de la Pena (BALL DON'T LIE, MEXICAN WHITE BOY – both published by Delacorte Press), Nelly Rosario (SONG OF THE WATER SAINTS – published by Pantheon Books), Lidia Ramirez (I LOVE AMERICA – produced at the American Place Theatre), Pedro Garcia (HANDBALL, FIREHOUSE – both produced at the Nuyorican Poets Café), and Cleyvis Natera (THERE ARE NO MEN IN CLARIDAD).

 Through the series, I've helped get writers agented, get writers published, get writers - whose work were passed on by editors and publishers - a second look.  I've helped them, through this readings series, receive grants and residencies. They have also been invited to writers' conferences. All of this is because they were first viewed at the Kettle of Fish Readings Series.


Jeff Rivera:                              Now, the reading series, is that playwrights or is that…?


Michael Mejias:                        While it borrows from the world of the theater and spoken word, the series is for the fiction and creative non-fiction writers. Or at least that is what I've traditionally feature. I might change that down the line.


Jeff Rivera:                              Wow, that is very good. And it is funny because I am talking to quite a few editors and what not and they will look starving, "Please bring us, please," so I will definitely keep that in mind.


Michael Mejias:                        Absolutely do. Talking to people in the biz about Latino writers can be slightly surreal in that you never really now what to expect. Sometimes, an absurd look overtakes them, like you just confessed to the Kennedy assassination. Sometimes, they'll just tell you how much they like J-Lo. But over the last few years, with our growing Latino middle class, the book industry is realizing it just makes good business sense to aggressively go after Latino dollars. And, of course, that is good for our artists.

If editors want Latino writers, we're/ they're out there.  But you've got to think outside the box. You're better off recruiting at the Bronx Center for the Arts, than the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  Go scout out the Nuyorican Poets Café, instead of pouncing on the one Latino in Columbia 's MFA program.

 I'm mining my theatre connections for novelists. I'm pleased with the number of playwrights who are developing novels – and they're good too!


Jeff Rivera:                              Will they need help?


Michael Mejias:                        Sure. But I'm always confident a writer can find their way through it.


Jeff Rivera:                              Right. One last question to ask you and then I would love to if I could follow up of any questions via an email?


Michael Mejias:                        Of course.


Jeff Rivera:                              My question is this, this question I have been posing and while I have been talking to you today. We see people like Dan Brown, we see people like Danielle Steel, we see people like even Stephanie Meyer or what not who are currently household names. What is it going to take in the industry for a Latino writer in particular to become a household name?


Michael Mejias:                        How about Junot?


Jeff Rivera:                              Junot? He is a Pulitzer.


Michael Mejias:                        I expect that Junot is on his way and will be as house-hold as a writer of literary fiction can be these days. At least I aspire that for him… and us. Because anything one person can do, another person can do. 

I don't think it's too far off. There are certainly enough of us Latinos reading, and then, I think, it would just graduate from there. Think: WAITING TO EXHALE. It started in the African-American communities. Then, the Latinas got on board. By the time the smoke cleared, women of all races were giving me dirty looks on the subway. 

Or Maybe the circumstances and the writer haven't yet surfaced. I mean what has to happen? Let's think about it a bit. Remember, when you're talking about contemporary fiction writers that are house-hold names, you are talking about a very small congress of people – in any color. So, there's that. Then, consider that to be house-hold, you need a big book (Think PRADA) or series (Think ERAGON) and that's pretty rare too. And now we are talking Latino, right? Will it be Juno? Oscar? Someone new? Someone new is even more rarified?

But this is what I think, well, more feel. I feel despite everything I just said, it's right around the corner. I can feel it rushing toward us or maybe it's plummeting toward us, like a safe falling from the sky. And when it arrives, what happens next?  I guess that's the more interesting question. Will we, as Latinos, turn it into our own personal version of the golden calf? Something we'll genuflect in front of or salute upon sight? Will its success be marginalized away by the mainstream like the "Chitlin' Circuit" theatrics that while regularly out-performing the lavish Broadway shows of the late 80's, got no respect? Will it be allowed to stand alone as a mark of Latino achievement? Or better still, will it be, can it be, something that we will all embrace and recognize; not only as Latino achievement, but achievement? Something we will all unanimously include in the pantheon of beautiful things.

Jeff Rivera: What about the issue of Latinos, ethnicity, and literary success?

Michael Mejias: That's the curious thing about it all. If we are talking about the commercial success that Ken Follett, Michael Creighton, or Nora Roberts enjoys, that Neil Gaiman enjoys; I mean, how much is discussed by way of ethnicity? Maybe we should use African-American writers. How about Walter Mosley? He's pretty successful and; yes, his work is regularly viewed through an African-American lens. He's also considered a top-flight mystery writer; so, there is that crossover. Also, it doesn't hurt that he's President Clinton's favorite. But he isn't Creighton big. Like I remarked, that's a pretty small college of writers. So, let's play "What if?" What if Creighton is Latino? He's written the dinosaur book. He's huge. How relevant is his Latino-ness? I don't know. All of that, Jeff, to say, I don't know." I guess we'll just have to wait and see.


Jeff Rivera:                              So you would say basically write a great book, write a great a mainstream book and if you happen to be Latino. Great!


Michael Mejias:                        I think that's one way it can be treated. But what if we are talking about a Puerto Rican Frank McCourt? Then, you can't separate the Latino experience from the success.  Maybe, then, it's about longevity, being able to deliver big book after big book. Again, we can only speculate.

What I'm trying to develop with my writers is a hybrid. I want the Latino experience but with commercial elements like vampires, detectives, rogue spies, etc.  It's a unique combination, a wonderful combination of the urban experience, filtered through something that is going to be more familiar. We know the mythos of the vampire, the detective, and whatnot. If you get the right alchemy; you get the crossover appeal we discussed and excite editors. At least it excites the select editors I'm seriously talking to about this and that's promising.


Jeff Rivera:                              Now, do you ever do online courses of storytelling because I ran across a lot of Latino authors some of which who can write really well but they are not a good storytellers. Some of them cannot do either but they have the passion. Do you have online component for the program that you have?


Michael Mejias:                        No, I do not. I try to get my name out as much I possibly can and people do find me and they tell friends who tell friends, but there is not anything like that right now. I am, however, in the middle of a negotiation with folks who want to feature the reading series on their hub. Once that is up and operational, I will be able to access people via the internet and afford these types of services that you are talking about but that is probably further down the road; probably,  in 2009-2010.



Jeff Rivera:                              It's a shame because a lot of writers, especially writers of color haven't had access to proper guidance and it's frustrating.


Michael Mejias:                        I agree, I understand. The question is how do we deal with this frustration? It's frustrating in that a lot of us Latinos haven't benefited from college, let alone graduate schools and writing programs, so it affects us. It affects us all as we go through the developmental process. The revision process can become over-extended, arduous and everyone gets frustrated. The thing of it is, we all want the same thing: a realized draft.  This has happened to me with writers, they get tired, they see no end in sight, they lose the stamina, and they quit.

You have to put together the lexicon; you have to put together the language with regards to how to communicate to these new writers. Otherwise, you're using terms like inciting incident and they're nodding, but not understanding. Unbeknownst to all parties, that's exactly when things have become undone. 


Jeff Rivera: Thank you so much for your time, Michael. This was great and I hope it will be not only informative but inspirational to everyone as well.