In Conversation with Alexandra Gottlieb
by Katherine Heath
Alexandra Gottlieb began her publishing career after graduating from Emerson College in Boston with a BA in Visual & Media Arts and a double-minor in Business and Film Photography. Finding her home from the start, Alex has been working at Random House (now Penguin Random House) for almost nine years, witnessing the peak of the e-book business boom, the fight against the DOJ and Amazon, as well as being part of the largest merger acquisition in publishing history. Currently, she oversees sales and distribution for multiple mass national accounts across all juvenile titles for Random House Children's Books. When she's not reading, Alex can be found exploring neighborhoods in New York City, writing children's books, taking photographs, or cuddling with her two Singapuras.
LUMINA blog contributor Katherine Heath recently sat down with her for a conversation about Children’s lit, ghostwriting, snake venom, psychopath tests, and how to break into the publishing industry.
This interview has been edited for time and clarity.
Katiy Heath: First, before we get too deep into talking shop, you just spent several weeks in the Ecuadorian Andes—what was that like?
Alexandra Gottlieb: My mom is a living breathing bestselling story, if only she'd write the book. My dad passed away suddenly about five years ago, right after a cross-country trip they had taken together. She decided to begin a new chapter in her life, and Ecuador was going to be the first page. My mom grew up as an Irish-American youth in pre-revolution Iran, so nothing really seems off the table for her as far as I'm concerned. I went to visit her after two years of being apart (she settled on a remote southern mountain village nestled in the Andes, with the foothills of the Amazon creeping up its backside) and was swept off my feet. The arresting 360-degree landscapes, the plants, the birds, the insects—it was as if I was unconsciously searching for this place my entire life, and when I found it, my heart and soul felt it.
It was a wild trip: my mom's horse had a heart attack and fell into a ravine (with my mom atop), a boa constrictor fell out of a tree and onto my head, I drank coral snake venom from a centenarian in a restaurant-by-day-bordello-by-night, and, in my worst judgment induced by said venom, decided it would be a good idea to traipse into the cloud forest at 10:00pm in search of a cover band doing ballads of the Eagles, their guitars dissipating across the basin valley. To "live entirely differently" is a vague term, but if you've ever lived in a big city for a long period of time, you can understand that a simple break from the norm can sometimes be much more cathartic than we think.
KH: I’ve noticed your connection to nature comes up often in your work.
AG: I have an insanely deep connection with nature. I was raised in the back yards of an Audubon Society Park in Virginia and home-schooled in my earlier years. My mom focused on what I still find to be the most important topics for a developing mind: Earth Science and History. She took me to the Great Falls of the Potomac to teach me about erosion; we visited the Pamunkey Tribe Reservation of the Middle Peninsula where I began learning about the horrific events that took place when the Thirteen Colonies invaded their lands—things I never learned when I returned to public school (and private, following that). I was raised to explore and was taught that true virtue begins with respect for our earth. My grandfather emigrated from Iran to Colorado, mainly because the Garden of the Gods reminded him of the Isfahan Mountains, so I naturally began to understand the healing quality that nature can offer up as comfort, as a tie to memory and as a way to connect with others.
KH: Speaking of your connection to nature and education, you recently collaborated with a big name in the music industry on a children’s picture book. What was that like?
AG: This is something I really wish I could talk about more at length! Discretion is key when ghostwriting (yes—even for a picture book!), but I can absolutely skip to how we met and how we got started:
My writing partner has a huge heart; he has many of his own organizations that help to save everything from rhinos, to war vets, to the wrongfully convicted, and I'd almost say that his day job takes a back seat to all of it. It always gives me hope to see people with absolutely everything at their fingertips utilizing what they have to create positive change, and if there was ever a poster boy for that, my partner would be the guy. We met at a dinner for my husband's work; I was wedged in at the corner of a comically long table of eclectic big names (ranging from Jim Jarmusch to Kelly Cutrone) and felt so small that I believed, in that moment, I might be able to physically shrivel myself up into oblivion. Then, in walks my future literary partner-in-crime. He plops himself down right across from my husband and I, and says, "I've never met you two before, what's your story?" The next thing I know, he's telling me how badly he wants to do a children's book. I threw some ideas out there for conversation's sake, he loved them all, and the rest is history. He has come to be an incredible mentor to me, a friend, and a person that I trust. Having that in any industry is so rare, so I am very grateful for it.
KH: For new writers entering the industry, can you talk more about ghostwriting and what those opportunities can look like?
AG: I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and this was, in fact, my first ghostwriting opportunity. There are many things I learned through the process, but ultimately, the main question you need to ask yourself is this: are you ready to (potentially) watch the book that you wrote soar into fandom, hit the New York Bestseller List, acquire film deals, and get shout-outs by famous celebrities that you have died to meet your entire life and not proclaim to the world, "I WROTE THIS"? If the answer is no, then you may want to reconsider. On the other hand, there is a cheap safety when ghostwriting, a safety that protects the ego in dealing with the initial traumas of seeing your book hit the shelves for the first time. I've spoken with many authors of literary fiction, sci-fi, etc., and the overarching theme is that writing a book is often times both a physical and emotional nightmare. For some, twelve years of dedication and Herculean-like stamina can result in complete and utter failure, and many (most) successful authors have faced this devastation at least once or twice in their careers. But I have always hated the "no pain, no gain" mantra in the art world. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of pain, but that doesn't mean that you're not cut out for writing. I think that ghostwriting can be a great way to build your rapport in the industry, get a handle of the marketplace, and create a name for yourself outside of your personal endeavors.
It is key, however, to ensure that if you do decide to go down the path of ghostwriting, that you are clear about your intentions. Do you see this as a long-term career or are you getting your feet wet? If you're just getting your feet wet, then what kind of projects should you gravitate toward that will allow you to protect your voice (so as not to launch the "author's" notoriety under the false belief that the "colorful narrative and distinguished themes" throughout said novel are the workings of the "author's" own "personal genius"—that's your personal genius!). The easiest way to avoid sharing too much is to work with authors who have already been published, who already have an established voice and structure to their writing. A good ghostwriter is like a chameleon, they are able to meld with the individual whose name is on the cover, and to seamlessly become that voice, weaving in and out of their writing with ease.
Additionally, there are a few caveats to ghostwriting, so writer beware: get an agent. You may think "well, this author has an agent, so they will keep both of us in good shape." That's sweet of you to think, but it's dangerous. A ghostwriter generally gets paid a fee or receives roughly a 70/30 split (between author and writer, respectively), but that's not always how the cookie crumbles, especially if you are working with a smaller house outside of the Big 5 [publishing houses]. You should have an agent to protect whatever terms are agreed upon so that you are secured in various fluctuations post-deal, such as world rights, film rights, audio rights, special markets, subsidiaries, etc. I like to call agents Nerd Lawyers: they can wear a power suit well, but will still geek out with you over the first time they read The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (probably over a nice glass of scotch, too). It might seem like you know your worth, but for every ounce of faith you have in yourself, The Man has two to blur the vision. I'm speaking to an audience that knows the importance of rhetoric, but words that we may think we understand (like pro rata, for example) can take on a new form in a contract. So, AGENT UP, Y'ALL—ghostwriters included!
KH: How important is it for a project to have series potential in the pitch process?
AG: It really depends on the genre, but in terms of a series helping boost potential success in both selling the book to a publisher and to book buyers placing it in-store, Sci-Fi, Fantasy and upmarket male-driven Thrillers definitely benefit. I can't tell you how many authors I've seen who have published an incredible piece of work and went into the market to sustain mediocre sales, but then the second book in the series publishes a year later and all of the sudden sales are exploding. A perfect example is George R.R. Martin. His first two books were not getting the noise that his work is known for. When you give readers, especially in the Fantasy community, a story or a character that they can rely on to grow and change over time, you've got a committed fan base that will stay with the series until the end. Equally (if not more) important, the advance on a series will be much, much higher in all likeliness. Again, I'm speaking to certain parts of the market here, but ultimately, a truly talented editor seeks one key thing in a manuscript—is it felt? A pushed word count, a forced series, an inauthentic voice, these are the makings of a manuscript's murder. So, always follow your heart.
KH: Has your role at Random House helped inform your craft as a writer?
AG: I like to think that my most beneficial lessons working in-house have been taken up in the off-hours of my career—an author dinner, a book launch party, or a reading event—moments where I can see outside the scope of the numbers, sales data, and market trends. When I get to sit in the back of a room and listen to readers ask a question to an author and watch that author open up and offer an intimate view or interpretation about their art, I feel extremely lucky. I worked in film prior to book publishing, and I'm well-connected in the music industry; neither art form allows for such an intimate connection with their fans, their consumers. You can go to a movie or a concert, but rarely do I see Q&A's in either form (and I've been to my fair share) where the artist speaks so candidly about technique, about form, about impetus in the way that a writer does. It’s just more transparent in the book world. Maybe that's because publishing is still very much a tradition at its roots; the function of storytelling and the technique behind it have remained consistent throughout history, whereas other art forms change along with technology, in both form and function. We had the e-book transformation, but it didn't change the way we write, just the way it's delivered.
KH: Tell me more about your current role at Random house.
AG: I still work in Children's Books (spanning Picture Books to Young Adult), but I am, however, writing my first full-length novel, which will be adult literary fiction.
KH: I’m curious to know how you got started. How did you first come onto the literary and publishing scenes?
AG: I really hate when people aren't open about this, so here it is: nepotism. That's right, the most feared word in the industry—and I am, by definition, a product of knowing the right people. I went to Film School at Emerson College in Boston, with a focused study in sound design and a double minor in photography and business (I thank my parents every day for telling me I needed a business minor to supplement my desire to "fart about" with my art). I landed my dream job right after college and moved to New York City with my boyfriend (now husband) working for my dream boss, Martin Scorsese. We were on the final mix of his latest film Shutter Island (based on the mass market Gothic Psychological Thriller by Dennis Lehane) and I couldn't have been more miserable. The hours were awful, the pay was almost non-existent, it was a tried-and-true boys club (with the exception of the real genius behind the scenes, Thelma Schoonmaker) and frankly (and this is key, here) I didn't like working on other people’s shit. If someone had just dropped me a note that your passions don't always translate into a career....
I fell into that pit of despair that many often do when coming out of a liberal arts college with no real-world experience aside from finally learning how to transfer from the C Train to the L Train. I was a bit fearful, to say the least. Regardless, I knew that I had made it this far. And I knew that I came from humble beginnings, and that I did know how to navigate through this world just as good as anyone else. So I did something rare, something I usually roll my eyes at: I made a list. What did I love? What did I hate? What did I need? What could I have done without? This list led me to one known factor: I wanted to work within the realm of "the arts," I had a passion for working with other people, and I loved stories. Stories. Writing. Reading. Books. Book publishing?
My husband worked in Production at Penguin at the time. I would constantly drill him about his job, the day-to-day, and the overall temperature of the workplace. I was well-read, and I had a knack for spotting a great story. I can do this, I thought to myself. At the height of America's historical unemployment peak, I was applying for one of the most sought-after jobs, at the most sought-after publishers, in the most sought-after city in the world. To keep it short: Disney did not intervene with a fairy tale ending. So, I picked up a gig in non-profit as a caretaker to two young women with Cerebral Palsy. I took care of those young women for eight months while still applying for positions at various publishers, each day waking up to an empty inbox and no new voicemails. After a rough day at my job, I came home and finally folded—I knew publishing was an exclusive club in a way, and I needed someone to get my foot in the door. It was then that I called my husband's father, who is a literary agent. He made one phone call and I had an interview at Random House the next week. HR knew I was phoned-in, but after the first round, my soon-to-be colleagues interviewing me had no idea that I was ushered in. So, I was eventually hired on my own merit, and after almost nine years at this incredible company, I couldn't feel more appreciative for that opportunity. I hope the takeaway from this micro novel is this: you are cut out for EVERYTHING if you have the drive, don't be too proud to ask for a helping hand and, above all, if you do get that opportunity, PROVE YOURSELF.
KH: Did working in film influence the way you view stories for print?
AG: The short answer is yes. But the long answer is: not always. Sometimes a story can be hindered if you try to visualize it in the form of a movie. A great example of this is Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings versus Marlon James's Black Leopard, Red Wolf. I envisioned the former as I read it, as a sweeping saga of vignettes that played out beautifully in my mind—the genuine dialogue, the interactions between characters—they combined and seamlessly projected these prosaic yet utterly vivid and raw images that felt as if I was experiencing a real moment meant for none other than a fly on the wall. For me, that pushes the mind to envision the moments being relayed in a way that would play out well as a movie, so I indulge. I’d even mind myself planning out the “could-be-soundtrack” at times. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, however, from an origin-perspective, feels more like a story told years ago, around a village fire. A story of lore is a story of oration; for that purpose, I strive to envision one thing and one thing only: that old woman behind the fire, her eyes aglow, kicking up ash with each furious bellow as she relays the story of her ancestors. In that moment, I feel storytelling is at its purest form.
KH: I think we both agree that contemporary television as a medium has given us new models for nuanced storytelling, offering new spaces for layered narratives and complex ecosystems of characters. Has television impacted the way you look at literary work now?
AG: First, I'd just like to point out that this wonderful paradigm shift we're seeing in television is a direct result of spending more money on writers! TV rested on their laurels for far too long, relying on a star lead or a high-effects budget to reel in numbers at a major network. And, just as the music industry before it, and the art collectors industry before that, the advent of the internet allowed us to peel our eyes away from mass appeal and begin searching for what we wanted to see as an individual. The even more beautiful thing about that shift is that some people didn't find what they were looking for, so they created it themselves. Others caught on, they started streaming on YouTube or Vimeo, and they forced the Big Wigs to pay attention.
We are currently fighting to be creative in an increasingly loud and over-saturated space where fear and hatred are the driving production value. If we truly look at history, breakthroughs in artistic mediums almost always occur at the end of a dark age/at the precipice of major positive change. So, it naturally drives the question: does the precipice of change cause artistic breakthroughs, or do artistic breakthroughs ignite that change? I have said this all of my adult life: there is only one true breed of fortune tellers in this world, and they are all writers. This is the focal point in which I bring everything back to children's books. They shaped us, defined us, and played a part in how we view the world. It might seem like hyperbole, but I'm a true believer that we absorb content in the very same way as an adult. Influence exists only in the ether, so without it being tangible, we can't ascribe it to be the driving force. I choose to go deeper and ask, where does influence have permanence? In books, in film, in TV, in art, in cave drawings, even.
So, even if the mass majority turns a blind eye to how they are ultimately motivated to exist, I fight to remind writers that they are that motivation. TV today is pushing for culture, experience, identity, and relationships in spaces where it's not just content for "diverse viewership." Now, we have an awakening in places like middle America, where those experiences may be foreign, but they are being sought out. I hear white people talking about how they watch Fresh Off the Boat the same way that I'd hear white people talk about loving "ethnic cuisine" back in 2005 (part of you is glad to see cross-cultural exploration, while the other part is cringing a bit). Art makes way for people to say, "Hey, I'm not from this culture, but I'm interested! I want to know more!" I am not making this comparison to poke fun in any way, but to point out that, just like food was and has been a way to bridge communities, storytelling is now taking the front seat to marry people's experiences and desires in a way that brings people together. I just hope, for art's sake, that it does not go down the same path as food. I do not want any "fusion fiction," thank you very much!
KH: We share a love for true crime stories. Recently there has been a surge of public interest on the psycho profiling of characters inspired by real-life criminals, like serial killers. Mindhunter and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes on Netflix both stand out to me here in developing characters through a clinical lens. Do the same rules apply when it comes to developing characters on the page?
AG: All true crime stories need one key ingredient for survival: plausibility. Without that, it's just horror in my opinion. I think the explanation behind its popularity is two-fold: on the one hand, mental health is finally being discussed and advocated for on much larger platforms than in the past. Let's be real with ourselves and understand that in most cases, creating fictional content to follow such a nation-wide "trend" can be seen as partially opportunistic unless the creator falls into the "own-voices" category in some way. Interestingly enough, I feel because of the clinical aspects, shows like Mindhunter have played a paramount role in setting the bar for incredibly well-researched storylines and in-depth Gonzo-style journalistic investigation. They turned the tables on what was once a myopic view of psychopaths, supplemented each turn of events with scientific fact, and turned the entire process into social research in and of itself. Its viewers’ reactions mattered; various viewpoints were being debated across social media and in various subreddit chains. Empathy levels were being judged. It has been said that the easiest way to spot a sociopath is to yawn in their presence. If they don't also yawn, they lack empathy and could very well be a sociopath. Now, we should just ask them what they thought of Mindhunter. I think the standards are being pushed, the research is more accessible, and people are hungry for answers. At the end of the day, there is nothing more exciting, more awe-inspiring, and more terrifying than the human brain.
KH: Speculative fiction, a genre you are into at the moment—why do you think we are seeing such an increase of spec fic work?
AG: My reason for loving speculative fiction is the same as everyone else: I love a good old-fashioned "heads up." [The genre] takes such a wide breadth of knowledge, grasping the vast and repeating patterns of history, understanding the contemporary societal elements at play, and creating a viable (or destructive) world in which our current real-life ethos must have plausibly led us to the moment where the story begins. Speculative fiction is my suspense thriller, as real-life political warnings are seldom shared until it is too late.
There has been an influx of this genre since the election, for reasons all-too clear. A true favorite of mine that surfaced was Omar El Akkad's American War, in which a second Civil War breaks out after a bill is successfully passed banning the use of fossil fuels. I knew right away that this was something I could get into. It also didn't hurt that the author is an Arab-Canadian journalist who majored in computer science and later worked as a staff reporter for various news outlets, covering everything from the War in Afghanistan, to the Arab Spring, to West Coast coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. I knew this was not just a man with ideas. This was a man of math, and of war, and of science, and I had to see inside of his brain.
KH: While we're talking about the future (and assuming we don’t slip into a dystopian age), where do you see the publishing industry in the next five years? Ten Years?
AG: As an industry, book publishing is just as profitable as it has always been. There is one statistic that has remained consistent year-over-year, since the advent of Gutenberg's printing press, and that's readership. The demand for books across a total population has not changed for hundreds of years. The delivery and the various platforms in which we read are proliferating. Short-form content is gaining mass appeal, and markets will always be in flux. I'm not so concerned as to where the publishing industry will be, and more concerned about the priority and desire to read long form literature. Additionally, I would hate to see marketplace demand outweigh the need for fresh new voices. I hope that all publishers continue to invest in debut authors and deliver unique content. This is one of the many reasons I’ve remained loyal to my publisher, as this has been and always will be a top priority for them. I could rant about this for days, but I won't because I'm speaking to an audience of writers. So I will say this: what you do is important, what you write is important, and how you write it is important. Give it all you've got.
Learn more about Alexandra Gottlieb on Instagram.
Katherine Heath is an essayist and journalist from Saint Joseph, Missouri. Her work has previously appeared in The Paragon Journal, Breadcrumbs Magazine, No. 2 Magazine, and others. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. Learn more about her on Instagram and Twitter.