Wearing Two Hats: Editors & Agents Who Write: Editor Arthur Levine & Agent Joan Paquette

By Helen Kampion

Featured image: Arthur Levine and Levine Querido crew celebrate 100 starred reviews.

Most of us think that agents and editors just do agenting or editing. But what if they are also writers? Does this make a difference how our work is viewed? Evaluated? This three-part series asks agents and editors to share their thoughts and experiences on wearing two hats.

Arthur Levine and  Auggie

Arthur Levine is President and Editor-in-Chief at Levine Querido where his mission is to bring diverse books to all children. A poet and children’s author, his latest book is The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2020).

What lessons have you learned from your own writing that affect your editing? How do these lessons influence your consideration of potential authors?

My experiences as a writer have affected virtually everything about my editing — from technique to communication.

For instance, I know what kind of feedback I personally prefer (in the form of questions and clarifying examples rather than direct rewriting) to reminders of what to be vigilant about. (I think one of my books was affected very negatively by the editor missing where a page turn should go in order to land a joke.).

Extending from this last example, I once had an absolute stance of not showing authors any artwork; following the classic idea that artists create better art when they aren’t being micromanaged, or having their imaginations colonized by others in the name of control. Now I almost always will show authors some preliminary stages and get their feedback, while still keeping independent space for the illustrator.

Another practical thing that has been driven home is that picture book authors really need to be aware of who the Art Director might be on their book, and not just their editor. Given how much the talent of the art director and designer contribute to the realization of a book’s fullest potential, these contributors should absolutely be part of a decision on where to place one’s work.

We all have professional self-doubts. How does self-doubt show up for you as an editor? As a writer? Do you manage them differently?

I believe that self-doubt is a feeling experienced by anyone with some degree of thoughtfulness, sensitivity, or empathy. You have to be a total narcissist to never question yourself, I think. That said, self-doubt absolutely affects my efforts as an author and as an editor, but in different ways.

As an author, self-doubt is pretty destructive; it is the voice that tells me: “Who wants to read this? No one. Hasn’t this story been told a billion times before? You couldn’t engage an audience if you lit yourself on fire.” My response to this sort of self-doubt, I’m sorry to say, is that I stop writing. If getting a story down is like diving into a lake and swimming all the way across…then self-doubt is what tells you: “Don’t go in the water. There’s jellyfish. It’s cold. You’ll get eaten by a shark, or run over by a speedboat.”

As an editor, self-doubt can be a necessary reminder of humility when responding to someone’s writing. “Remember,” this voice tells you as you articulate a comment or a reaction, “you’re just one reader. You don’t know any more than anyone. Your job isn’t to be Right or to Show An Author The Way. Your job is to be aware of what you think and feel as you’re reading (even if it may be ‘wrong’) and to express it clearly for the author to do with what they may.”

Where I, as an editor, have to keep my self-doubt in check is in my job as advocate. Editors – especially those in large corporations have committees, processes, and traditions that act as barriers, obstacle courses through which real creativity and originality have to be shepherded with unflinching persistence. Everyone an editor presents a book to takes their cues from the body language, emotion, etc. of the person speaking. There’s no room to hold doubts in one’s head when trying to build enthusiasm and reserve resources at a corporation, or when you’re on the floor talking to people at a conference.

Fortunately, as a small publisher I don’t have to convince others of anything at early stages in a book’s development. I can wait until the book speaks for itself (at the same time as I’m speaking up for it).

Arthur in his office

How has being an editor influenced your own writing?

Well, again, I think on more vulnerable days it’s kind of convinced me that many other people are more gifted than I am, and more deserving to have trees die for their self-expression. On stronger days I’m inspired by the effect others’ words have on me (I’ve never lost that sense of the magic great authors can perform; I’m still saying to myself, “Wow, how did they Do that??”) and keep it as a high bar to aspire to.

What are the pros and cons of wearing two hats for you? For your publisher?

Pros: I’d say the biggest one is that I never lose track of an author’s point of view
Negs: The biggest negative is that I don’t really have much time to write.

What have you been most surprised to learn as an editor?

I’m not sure this is actually a surprise (and I Am sure many would disagree with me) but the best way to ensure mediocrity is to strive for a replication of a success you (or someone else) has had. The more authentically tied a book is to the author’s specific emotional core, the more it will stand out, and the greater the likelihood of success.

From your experience, what tips would you like to share with early career writers? With early career publishing agents and editors? With anyone considering wearing the two hats that you wear?

I would just say be kind to yourself and honest about your own limitations. There are people like David Levithan and Andrea Pinkney (or LQ’s own Irene Vasquez) who are superheroes; somehow they are able to maintain excellence in both their writing and their editor jobs. But just because I’m not able to match their output doesn’t mean I should give up. I have to accept what I am capable of doing, and try to do the best I can.

What is the biggest surprise of wearing two hats?-What are you working on now that you’d like us to know about? Feel free to answer with either/both hats.

I guess I’m more surprised when I’m able to write something; I’m currently working on a book of poems inspired by an actual project I did for my fourth grade teacher. When I finish a poem I often think I’ll never write another one again. But actually (and I guess this is the surprise) the more I write poems, the more I stimulate the portion of my brain that thinks like a poet — grabbing images and connecting them to feelings as I walk through the world.

As an editor, I am genuinely thrilled about all the books I’m publishing at Levine Querido. To take the example of a book I love, love, love that came out in October, it would be When The Angels Left The Old Country by Sacha Lamb (Levine Querido, 2022). My colleagues describe it as “a queer immigrant fairy tale for fans of Good Omens.”

Joan Paquette is a Senior Agent at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. She writes across genres—picture books, novels, nonfiction—for a total of seventeen books! All From a Walnut, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Abrams, 2022) is her latest book.

What lessons have you learned from your own writing that affect your editing/agenting? How do these lessons influence your consideration of potential clients/authors?

I think that being an author has helped give me a broader lens and understanding of the publishing process as a whole, which has been really helpful in guiding my clients along the ups and downs of the publishing road. Because I’ve been through every step of the journey myself, there is an immediacy and relatability to my experience that I think helps provide reassurance and context. It’s a very specific form of understanding the process, through having been there myself.

We all have professional self-doubts. How does self-doubt show up for you as an agent? As a writer? Do you manage them differently?

Self-doubt I would imagine is a thing most—if not all—creative folks struggle with in one way or another. I would say that in all cases, the best (only?) thing I can ever think of to do is just to keep going: one step at a time, one sentence at a time, one day at a time, one book at a time. It’s not always that easy, of course, but most often I find that the dreading is far worse than the doing—the best cure for me is generally to keep on keeping on. Things often tend to sort themselves out, one way or another, as things move forward.

How has being an agent influenced your own writing?

Time and experience does have a way of tempering and shaping the creative flow, but I know I am more aware of the market than I used to be in my early days as an author. This can be helpful, but it can also be paralyzing if taken too literally or too closely. Ultimately, to do your best work as a writer you have to shut off that logical part of your brain and just write to your passion, write from your heart. So the truth is that in order to do my best work as an author, I have to turn off that agent part of my brain. That’s where the real magic lies, and you can’t dig deep enough to find it if you’re too tangled up in logistics and business and workflow.

What are the pros and cons of wearing two hats for you? For your agency?

I love being able to tap into both sides of the publishing world: the more businessy side and the creative side. I think they complement each other well. That said, being an agent is of course my primary job, and as such it can be hard to discipline myself to carve out that needed time to be creative. It’s hard to put priority on my own work if I know that someone else is waiting for me—so it’s really a balancing act every day, to make sure all that needs to get done is being taken care of, on all fronts, and that nothing is left behind.

Then again, I think that is the same for all of us creatives: there is always something else calling our name, and most of the time it is something important—if not essential, that needs our attention, that needs doing Now.

The trick is to find ways to find a balance that allows both truths to coexist: the passion with the practical. Believing in the vital necessity of both equally is a strong place to start, it seems to me.

From your experience, what tips would you like to share with early career writers? With early career publishing agents and editors? With anyone considering wearing the two hats that you wear?

The best things you can do as a growing author—and this would fit for emerging publishing professionals, as well—is: Read voraciously. Write consistently. Be aware and informed and in tune with the publishing world around you. The more you know, the more you do, the more your creative musculature will flex itself into place around you. The rest is just a matter of time and keeping on keeping on.

What are you working on now that you’d like us to know about?

My newest picture book, All From a Walnut, published this spring (Abrams, 2022). It’s a close-to-my-heart story inspired by events in my family history, and it has been rewarding to see it receive such a warm reception. That aside, I have been working on writing something very different over the past year or so. I’m not in a place to share details just yet, but keep your eyes peeled for more about that coming soon…

Cynsations Notes

Helen Kampion writes poetry, picture books, and middle grade novels. She has published stories in magazines and written non-fiction articles for The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA, where she serves as Treasurer. In addition to an MBA from Boston University, Helen holds an MFA in WCYA from Vermont College.

Her debut picture book bio, co-authored with fellow Vermont College grad, Renee Lyons, is scheduled for launch Fall 2024 by Sleeping Bear Press. She lives with her husband and two cats (her “mews”) in Massachusetts. When she is not scribbling away, you will find her curled up with a book, a cat, and a nice hot cup of tea.