Thursday, October 3, 2013

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Tanya McKinnon

Tanya McKinnon has been a literary agent since 1998. She began her career in publishing as the youngest person to become a full editor and collective member of South End Press. While there she helped conceive and edited NYT bestseller Cornel West’s Breaking Bread. After receiving an M.A. in cultural anthropology, she returned to publishing in New York, working as a foreign scout where she read and reported on manuscripts for such film clients as MGM, Sally Fields, Howard Braunstein and Bruce Berman, as well as international publishers. As a literary agent she specializes in non-fiction, multicultural fiction, children’s books, and graphic novels. She enjoys working closely with her authors, offering in-depth editorial feedback. In addition to agenting, she teaches in the Publishing Certificate Program at City College.

And now Tanya McKinnon faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

This is always a tough question—like choosing between one’s children!  But there are three that stand out. Octavian Nothing (both volumes, but I consider it one book) by M.T. Anderson, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  I also have a playful side that loves Babymouse, Lunch Lady, and Captain Underpants, but you only asked for three!  

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

TV: The first season of Awkward, every moment of the West Wing, and all three seasons of Slings and Arrows

Movies are like books— how can one choose?! The Matrix, My Brilliant Career, Holiday, How to Train a Dragon, The Way We Were, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. See? I’m not so good at following rules and abiding by limits.

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

A firm understanding of the three-act structure, the desire to work hard, and the habit of only succumbing to discouragement in the privacy of their bathroom.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

I love chapter books, middle grade, and some Y/A. Picture books are a passion, but they’re very hard to sell and I take on very few.  If my personal reading habits are an indicator of what I most like to see, I gravitate toward work with a strong voice and a deeply-felt take on how young people come to understand the world they find themselves in emotionally and, at times, politically.  I love stories of personal growth and emotional resilience, whether they’re realistic or fantastical.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing is working and joking with extremely talented storytellers. Happily, publishing has a great many of them. 

My least favorite thing is telling some perfectly lovely person that their hard work did not yield a sale. However, I’m both an eternal optimist and a fool, so I always add that life is long and the next book might just be “The One.”

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Stay out of debt. Fear credit cards. Try to live with your parents for as long as possible (why, exactly, is this ever a bad thing?!). Try to like yourself, especially when things are going horribly and terribly wrong. Feel love for people often and deeply. Exercise. Make green smoothies. Get a dog. Don’t let the dog chew your laptop charger cord. Don’t procrastinate on the Internet. Doodle lots. Juggle more. Write every day. Tell the people you love just how much you love them, especially when they’re in the middle of doing something atrocious that they’ll later regret, like right after you tell them just how much you love them. Feel fear, it’s healthy, but don’t stop there— push yourself beyond fear to daring. Don’t put things off until tomorrow; honoring your desires is a worthwhile daily goal. And always remember to find beauty in yourself— people respond to our own ideas of ourselves far more than we realize. There. Now go take over the world.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Markus Zusak and Alain de Botton. 

Zusak because the humanity he brought to understanding the inner lives of Germans during World War II was a breathtaking act of literary love. I don’t cry easily and I sobbed like a child the first time I read it. 

And de Botton because when I was young and lit-obsessed in college, I didn’t study philosophy, yet now I’m often drawn to philosophically-driven forms of theory and cultural criticism. It’s part of what I love about work for young people— it’s endlessly revealing of how we think about and understand the world.


  1. Thanks for this interview. I think Tanya McKinnon is a kindred spirit. I'm going to watch Awkward right now.


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