Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
I’ve been anticipating this week since April of last year. This Mother’s Day week brings the release of The Waiting: The True Story of a Lost Child, a Lifetime of Longing and a Miracle for a Mother Who Never Gave Up, a nonfiction story that has already brought joy and tears to most everyone who hears about it. Millions more will be introduced to it Friday, May 9, when the book’s subjects and the author will appear on The Today Show. (Note: The day of the airing is always subject to change.)
Several individuals have asked me how I came to represent The Waiting. And for those of who aren’t familiar with the story, I think you’ll find the way I worked with the author to create the manuscript instructive. Not every book follows a standard path to being published. The Waiting is a case in point.
Last spring, I received an email query from a woman I didn’t know, Cathy LaGrow. She summarized the book she was writing, with these words:
In 1928, sixteen-year-old Minka was working full-time on her family dairy farm in South Dakota. One day while on a walk in the woods, she was raped by a transient and became pregnant. Determined to keep the story a secret, her parents sent her out of town to have the baby. Minka gave birth the following spring, cuddled her daughter for five weeks and then released her for adoption. Years later, she married a troubled World War II pilot and started a family. But she never stopped longing for word of her lost child.
For nearly eight decades, Minka kept hidden a black and white photograph of her first baby. She often pulled the picture out and quietly prayed over it. On May 22, 2006, her daughter’s seventy-seventh birthday, Minka had a special request. God, I’d like to see her before I die. I don’t want to bother her, or interrupt her life. I just want to see her.
Six weeks later, Minka’s phone rang. A woman named Ruth Lee was on the line–she was Minka’s long-lost daughter. Mother and daughter were reunited within weeks.
I sat up a little straighter as I read the query. The story sounded so touching.
I contacted Cathy and found out that she is Minka’s granddaughter (the daughter of Minka’s second child) and the friend of several of our agency’s clients. I asked to see the manuscript.
As I read it, I realized that Cathy was “in the weeds” with the story. There was so much to tell of her family’s history and so much occurred in Minka’s long life, that Cathy didn’t know what to include and what to leave out.
I offered to represent her but suggested that she work with a collaborator to help her sift through the wealth of material, to structure the story with an arc, and to employ more novel techniques in the telling. Cathy, who is a good writer on her own, realized she needed that sort of help for this book and agreed.
I knew I needed to move rapidly to place the book and to get it published because Minka was 101. Her reunion with Ruth had been videotaped, but how much more wonderful if Minka remained healthy enough to appear in person with her long-lost daughter on TV talk shows.
So I phoned Cindy Coloma, one of my clients who is a best-selling novelist as well as a collaborator, mere days after she had given birth. I expressed hope that she would agree to collaborate with Cathy and explained that they would need to start to work on the proposal right away. The thought of giving up a precious newborn was vivid to Cindy as she pictured having to hand over the little guy who was in her arms as we talked. She readily agreed to work with Cathy.
The project was complex from the get-go. I had to be approved to represent the project by Brian Lee, Ruth’s son who had located Minka and master-minded the mother-daughter reunion; meet Minka over the phone; put together all the legal documents that Minka, Ruth, Brian, Cindy and Cathy had to sign, and puzzle out how the finances would work.
Then I pitched The Waiting at ICRS to pretty much every nonfiction editor I met with. Every time I told Minka’s story, when I reached the part of their reunion when Minka utters her first words in 77 years face-to-face to Ruth, all five of us Books & Such agents would get teary-eyed. For those words were so full of mother love and longing: “You’re just as beautiful as I thought you would be.”
The book ended up being published by Tyndale House, where everyone we’ve worked with has loved the
story, believed in it, and understood the importance of a fast writing schedule and a Mother’s Day release. The contract was signed in August 2013, and Cathy and Cindy blitzed their way through the writing, despite the holidays and Cathy’s severe bout with pneumonia. Tyndale set up a photo shoot at Minka’s house for the cover, which is of Minka cradling the photo that she’s treasured for almost 80 years–of her and Ruth the day Minka gave up her baby for adoption.
Here’s a trailer for The Waiting, if you’d like to take a look.
As this blog post shows, sometimes an amazing book comes to an agent as a diamond in the rough. The agent has to bring together a lot of moving pieces for the book to get published. It’s a daunting task because the agent, in a sense, constructs the framework everyone works within to make the book happen until the publisher takes over the process. With so many personalities, it only takes one individual to decide not to be a team player for the framework to fall apart. That never happened with The Waiting.
Does anything in this process surprise you? Are you curious about some aspect of the process you’d like to know about it? In what ways does this case study encourage you?
What happens when a literary agent represents a diamond in the rough? Click to tweet.
Does a manuscript have to be perfect for an agent to represent it? Click to tweet.
A different path to publishing a book. Click to tweet.