Like our workshop, these faculty interviews focus on youth novels. To read all years’ faculty interviews, see our Directory.
For Kate Farrell, “Nurturing talent is at the heart of editing. That’s what I love.” She’s loved editing for 15 years, and is interested in a wide range of genres. Kate is especially drawn to character and voice. Authors she works with include Mary E. Pearson (The Remnant Chronicles, The Adoration of Jenna Fox), Heather Demetrios (Something Real, I’ll Meet You There), and debut author Emma Mills (First & Then).
Below, Kate’s interview foreshadows the tantalizing discussions we look forward to at this year’s workshop.
I. GENERAL TOPICS
Why did you become an editor; what do you enjoy most about the work? What’s your personal mission?
I was thirty years old before I knew I wanted to be an editor. Even though I’d always loved books and reading more than anything else, if I thought about editors at all I thought they corrected punctuation, which wasn’t the least bit interesting to me. And then the New York Times reviewed Leonard Marcus’s book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. I read the review and went straight to the bookstore to buy the book, then I sat on my couch and read it in one sitting.
It opened my eyes to what an editor, in particular an editor of books for children, could be—a nurturer of talent and a shaper of stories, a person whose job is finding creative people with wonderful ideas and then helping them. I wanted that job so badly I gave up the career I already had and tried to bamboozle my way into editing. And it worked! I’ve been doing it now for fifteen years, and for me nurturing talent is at the heart of it. That’s what I love.
As for a personal mission, I’d like to steal mine from Ursula Nordstrom, whose letters inspired me. Her philosophy was to publish good books for bad children. I want to do that too.
How many middle-grade and YA novels do you edit per year, and what percentage are debut authors? What genres are you soliciting?
I edit 10 to 12 middle-grade and YA novels in a typical year, with two or three of those written by debut authors.
I always think of myself as an editor who likes realistic, contemporary fiction best, but I never say I’m not interested in other genres, because I’m interested in everything. And often my authors bring me places I never thought I’d go, into sweeping epic fantasies or science fiction.
I love novels that are smart and funny, in any genre. I like a bit of romance and I’m all for controversial stuff. As for New Adult, I think it suffers from being poorly defined. If it means books with characters who are older than high school age, then yes, maybe. If it means extra-steamy romance among young office workers, then probably not.
What’s the outlook on YA novel trends—or is YA evolving past trends?
There are always trends, but I think chasing them is a bad idea. Once something is officially a trend it’s hard for a book to stand out in the sea of others that come flooding in. Usually what starts a trend is a book that feels entirely fresh and original.
Name up to three representative novels you’ve edited in the past few years. Which aspects of each novel appealed to you from the manuscript’s first lines?
Here are the opening lines, along with why I loved these books on first reading (and love them still!).
My college essay was titled “School Lunches, TS High and Me” and it was every bit as dreadful as you’d expect. // I watched as Mrs. Wentworth read. There was something strange happening around her lips, a weird sort of twitching motion. I think a frown and a smile were locked in mortal combat.
These lines tell me I'm meeting a character with a wry sense of humor, someone who can make fun of herself and describe awkward situations in exquisite, gleeful detail. This is completely irresistible to me and I want to know everything about her.
The Mitchell’s backyard was packed, full of recent and not-so-recent grads in various stages of party decay. Half the girls looked like wilted flowers with raccoon eyes and smeared lipstick while the guys just got louder, sweatier. Red cups and cans of beer littered the lawn and the glowing embers of cigarettes swooped and fell like carcinogenic fireflies.
The description of this scene is so vivid it has a really visceral effect on me. I can smell this party and feel the energy in the air. I'm there. I can't wait to find out what will happen. I also think the writing is straight-up beautiful. Carcinogenic fireflies, I am powerless to resist you.
Today was the day a thousand dreams would die, and a single dream would be born. // The wind knew. It was the first of June but cold gusts bit at the hilltop citadelle as fiercely as deepest winter, shaking the windows with curses and winding through drafty halls with warning whispers. There was no escaping what was to come.I’ve edited 1,664 pages of this trilogy since I first read these words, and the beginning of it all still enchants me. Mary Pearson sets out to create something rather epic here, and these lines let me know it. They are gorgeously crafted, and pack in drama and mystery and atmosphere. Perhaps most of all I love the ominous build-up and the thrill of anticipation she generates. Opening lines like this make me feel I’m going to get a big story, masterfully told, and I just want to dive in face first.
Queries, Craft, Critiques
Many publishers are closed to unsolicited submissions. Do you consider unsolicited queries; i.e., those without a referral (not a workshop attendee, etc.)? What are your usual response times—to queries and to requested manuscripts?
We do not accept unsolicited submissions or queries. When I started we did, and it’s a bit sad to have closed that door, but the flow of submissions is already overwhelming, so there just isn’t room to add more and have any chance of responding. If I have a query or requested manuscript from a workshop attendee, I aim to respond within four to six weeks. I don’t object to being nudged and reminded if I fall behind.
Are query letters peripheral for you, or are they an important reflection on the author and manuscript? What makes a query irresistible to you—or not?
Query letters are definitely an important reflection on the author and manuscript. If you’re a good writer, I’d hope for you to also be a good letter writer. I like a letter that feels like it’s been written by a real person with a story to tell. I like a bit of personality to come through. It’s great if the writer has thought of me specifically, because of other books I’ve edited, and tells me so. I do not like the letters that are more like business proposals or an audition for the TV show “Shark Tank,” with a bunch of stuff about marketability.
How many pages do you usually read in a manuscript before deciding to continue reading, request a full, or reject the manuscript?
If I’m honest with myself, I’d say I can tell in the first one to five pages if I’m really going to like something, but I often read further because I want to give the manuscript a chance.