Wearing Two Hats: Editors & Agents Who Write: Editor Irene Vázquez & Agent James McGowan

By Helen Kampion

Spotlight image: Irene Vázquez & Levine Querido Marketing Director Antonio Gonzalez Cerna

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.

Irene Vázquez is an Assistant Editor and Publicist at Levine Querido. They are a published journalist and poet and with a chapbook that debuted in October (Bloof Books, 2022).

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’m a poet with a background in performance (both spoken word poetry and theater). As such, I favor manuscripts (whether picture books or novels) with a strong sense of voice and lyricism. I like to know what a protagonist sounds like, their dialect, their word choices, their turns of phrase, I also love to read aloud during the editing process – I usually can’t do that for an entire novel, but if I’m in a particularly tricky section that I’m trying to parse out, I read it aloud to get a better feel for the language and flow, and that can usually point me towards what in particular isn’t working.

Additionally, in my writing and editing life, I prioritize Southern writers and narratives from marginalized backgrounds that don’t always have equitable access to mainstream publishing spaces.

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

I’m on the younger side, and I’ve had my share of imposter syndrome in both of my career paths. But I’ve been writing and publishing poetry for about a third of my life at this point, so some of that has gone away. With editing, I struggle sometimes to trust my gut. When I was writing my first editorial letter, I felt the temptation to call upon things I’d heard other editors say rather than trust my judgement. But LQ Executive Editor Nick Thomas has encouraged me to “not throw out everything I already knew about books” just because I’m the one who’s now behind the editorial letter. [See a Cynsations interview with Nick Thomas.]

Author Donna Barba Higuera with Nick Thomas and Irene at the 2022 ALA conference.

How has being an editor influenced your own writing?

I write in a different genre that I edit, and that’s intentional, but over the last year, I’ve felt the call towards fiction again – I’m not ruling it out. But editing books has helped me trust the revision process more. I’ve seen books transform over the course of a couple of drafts, and so it’s nice to remember when I’m in the drafting phases of my own work that what matters most in the first draft is voice and concept – everything else, can be tweaked as I go along.

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

When I was just writing, I didn’t often think about how much editors have to collaborate with other departments in order to make a book – jacket designers, interior designers, typesetters, copy editors, the list goes on and on! It’s an extremely collaborative process that I feel lucky as a writer to have insight into, especially a I get ready to launch my first chapbook. One thing that has been difficult is making creative space mentally for my writing – I get up early in the morning and write before work, and that’s largely possible because I’ve tried to return a sense of play to the writing I do – I use fun and form-based prompts to make it feel different from the writing related work I do at my day job.

Bookstore Reading at Unnameable Books

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.

In my writing life I mostly talk to/read other poets and essayists. So I love that editing has given me so much more fiction to read and more fiction friends! Currently, I’m celebrating the launch of my debut poetry chapbook, Take Me To The Water (Bloof Books, Oct. 2022) and editing my first solo acquisition, The Free People’s Village [by Sim Kern] (Levine Querido, Fall 2023).

James McGowan is a Literary Agent at Bookends Literary Agency. He represents books for young readers, as well as, adult nonfiction and mystery/suspense novels. His debut picture book Good Night, Oppy!, illustrated by Graham Carter, launched from Astra Books for Young Readers in 2021.

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?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from being a writer is how hard it is to be on submission. I get all of the anxiety, the impatience, the insecurities… I try to extend to all of my clients patience and compassion when they’re on submission because I know what they’re going through. I’m grateful to have had that experience as an author all these years because I believe it makes me a better agent for my clients.

It also taught me that two of the most important qualities I can find in a client are optimism and patience. It’s hard to do this job if you don’t have those two things, and even harder if your business partner (clients) don’t have them, either. It leads to all sorts of different challenges while on submission or engaging with editors!

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?

This is a great question. For me, self-doubt manifests in lack of productivity. I can go really long lengths without writing. It’s become my process. In that time, I’m likely brainstorming and thinking about what’s next, but it’s not until a project lights me up and I’m super confident that I sit down to write. Then, I am usually very productive and nail down a manuscript in a couple of weeks. And, repeat.

How has being an agent influenced your own writing?

Picking up where I left off with the last question… I think this is all due to my constantly being in conversation with the market. I see what editor responses I get for client’s manuscripts and I try (too hard) to anticipate all of the passes for my own projects. It can be paralyzing in a way. It isn’t until I have that strong idea I am excited about that I can silence those voices a bit. It’s also made my writing much stronger, I think. Those market-voices have also pushed me to strengthen my writing and be sure I’m putting my best work forward.

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.

For me, the biggest surprise has been the support network. I’ve been so grateful for my clients support of my writing, but also my team’s support of my writing. I don’t know that I expected the opposite, but when you publish a book, it’s deeply personal and even a little scary. So when it’s received with enthusiasm, it’s always a relief.

As far as what I’m working on… I have a couple new manuscripts in the works I hope to share with folks, soon. But my career as an agent has always been my number 1 focus. So, I’d love to direct everyone to my website, where you’ll find a ton of exciting upcoming books by my clients that I can’t wait to share:

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.