Catherine Cho

Cat ChoInterviewed by Ryan Kim

Catherine Cho is an Associate Agent at Curtis Brown Ltd . She joined Curtis Brown in 2015 and is building her list in fiction and non-fiction. Originally from the US, her background is in law and public affairs. She lived in Hong Kong for several years and worked in the lobbying world in Washington DC before joining Folio Literary Management in New York.

In terms of her list, she is looking for literary and reading group fiction. She particularly enjoys speculative fiction, magical realism, and science fiction and fantasy. In terms of non-fiction, she is looking for narrative memoir and science writing. Some of her favourite authors are Margaret Atwood, Chimamanda Adichie, Karen Russell, Elizabeth Strout, and Robin Hobb.

I feel like every book is being adapted into a movie like “Crazy Rich Asians,” so I wonder if there’s a crossover that writers should be aware about in their query letters.

I think the reasons why loglines work so well is because I think every story has a logline. So whether that’s film, whether that’s a radio drama, whether that’s a book, I think that’s why it’s really important to know that your story has a central conflict or core to it. I was actually just reading this book called Story by Robert McKee, and he’s a screenwriter, but I recommend it to any writer because he basically talks about the elements of story and what makes a story compelling. And I think that’s something that novelists can learn from, and not just novelists but also non-fiction people, anyone who’s a writer. It seems so obvious, but a lot of times we find that writers have a really hard time describing what their book is about in a very succinct way. And that usually is indicative of them not really knowing what the central premise is about. It can be about a lot of things, but those are all themes, but not necessarily something central that’s really compelling.

I mentioned all those movies coming out and they’re mostly by POC, but I wonder if it is a trend or if they are finally getting this recognition because they’re all powerful, amazing writers.

I think it’s everything coming to fruition. I think more people are writing, POC who traditionally wouldn’t have. It’s kind of like a cause and effect thing where if you see more voices or experiences, you will feel more empowered to share, so I think that’s definitely a thing. And I think, not that it’s a trend, but I think there are more POC working in publishing as well, who want to find stories that they relate to and know that there are stories that should reflect a wider human experience.

Is there a discernible difference between white writing or Asian-American writing or black writing? Or is it all just good writing and it just happens to be a POC behind the pen?

I think I can usually tell if a writer is Asian-American. I think just because usually the things they are noticing or observing are things that I would’ve noticed or observed, and I think are a bit different from what a Caucasian American experiences. I think as a writer, it’s all about what you observe and your perspective and I think being able to dictate what you perceive. But I actually don’t get that many submissions from POC.

Is that discouraging or is that how the numbers work?

It is slightly discouraging. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not that well known because I definitely would love to find someone like [Min Jin Lee]. And I would hope that because I’m Asian-American maybe more POC would find me more approachable.

Do you feel any pressure to gear towards POC writers over white writers as you are a POC yourself. Is there any pressure in that sense?

I guess a little bit, just in the sense that I do feel a certain sense of responsibility. I would feel strange if my list was not diverse (laughs). But at the same time, I’m just looking for a good story, I think a story is part of the human experience, it’s what makes us human.

What is the difference between a publishable book and one that is on the cusp of being publishable?

A lot of times, manuscripts are well written, but not compelling. There’s no central theme or narrative momentum. I think that it’s not published because, to be really harsh, who cares about the story? It’s not good enough for a book to have nice writing. A book, at the end of the day, you want to create a place that readers want to escape to. So I think that’s the key difference that I find.

Is it more of a quality issue, I wonder why a lot of [submissions] are rejected.

A lot of it is quality, to be perfectly honest with you. A compelling story with not so great writing, you can get away with. What you often have is writing that’s pretty good, but with a not compelling story and that, you can’t come back from. And also, sometimes I see books where you’re not quite sure where it’ll sit on a bookshelf. And maybe that makes publishers more risk averse, like I don’t know whether “Ulysses” would have been published today, but maybe not. That is something to think about.

So is that just the hard truth of the matter, that people just focus on getting their writing to a really good place?

I think you just keep going. You will find somebody, you just need one person to say yes. It’s kind of like dating in a way, you just need one person to be your partner. It must get so frustrating to have people say no, but there will be someone out there, I truly believe in this. So, A. improve your writing and B. make sure your story is compelling and C. just keep going despite all the rejections and don’t take rejections personally.

Has there been any [query letters] recently that you’ve read and were like this is how you write a query letter or best example of a query letter you’ve read.

Yeah actually, I had a really good query letter today. Firstly, it was not to “dear sir” which is always a really good way to annoy an agent (laughs). It was addressed to me and the person you could tell had a really good idea of what their book was about. It was a historical novel set in Prague, which automatically sounds very appealing, but they had a one sentence description of what their book was about. They tailored it to be like “I’m submitting it to you because I think that with your taste and this and this, you’d find it really interesting.” And then it had a paragraph general description of the plot without introducing too many characters, without making it sound confusing. And it was just very well written, very succinct. And I think sometimes writers get a little too worried about explaining everything, so you just get these messy query letters with a bunch of character names and a bunch of different things. To keep it clean and simple is really an art.

How much of a query letter should be personable?

I think a couple of sentences. You can think of it as like applying to college. You can technically use everything, but it’ll stand out if you use something like “because you’re looking for” something that an agent states in their bio. And that’s exactly what she did actually. I think that shows you’ve done your research.

Is there anything that you want to plug or anything else that’s coming out?

I’m gonna plug, “Ruin’s Wake” by Patrick Edwards. It’s a really cool, Margaret Atwood-esque sci-fi novel that’s coming out in March from Titan Books. It’s inspired by North Korea, but imagines this totalitarian government where the past has been erased, which is scarily happening now. It’s very relevant, I feel. Just the writing is beautiful and it’s entertaining and I have high hopes for it.

I think you are one of two Asian-American agents that I’ve recently found out about, but do you have any words of encouragement for any up and coming writers or agents of color?

Yeah, definitely. I know how difficult it can be to pursue your passion. When I graduated from college I thought, “I can take an unpaid internship in publishing or I can get paid well to do law and be independent.” I think for a lot of POC, especially Asian-Americans who are children of immigrants, that seems like a no brainer. We don’t have the luxury of being like “I’m gonna intern and get my parents to give me an allowance.” Like no, you’re supposed to do better than your parents because your parents sacrificed so much for you and you’re supposed to send them money and all these things. But what I’ve realized and part of the reason that I don’t think it’s being selfish, I think it’s just realizing that actually following your passion, that if you do it, you can be successful. And in a way, you can be more successful doing that rather than going for something that your heart’s not really in. Not that I regret doing law or lobbying, but if I were to look back on that decision I would’ve said, “You know what? Go for the unpaid internship and just make it work somehow. Don’t just choose the safest path.” I think that’s probably the advice I would’ve given. It would’ve been really difficult, but it is worth it.

Ryan Kim is an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia and has had non-fiction published in Ricepaper and fiction in Hidden Chapter.

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