A Week in Culture: Sarah Burnes, Literary Agent


The Culture Diaries

Author’s Note: So as to not turn this into a kind of Caucasian Chalk Circle—that is, play favorites, pit one client against another—I am not going to mention any of my own this week unless they win an award or Lorin tells me to.


6:56 A.M. Alarm goes off, blaring NPR. Sebastian gets up to wake the kids. I turn off the radio and go back to sleep.

7:34 A.M. The Middlest comes up to make sure I am awake. I turn on the radio and listen to the Morning Edition story about the NFL enforcing their own rules.

8:35 A.M. For reasons both Byzantine and boring, I am driving to work today, dropping off the Littlest at kindergarten on the way. We pass by a Wonder Bread truck as we walk to the car.

“Candy!” he shouts.

“No,” I reply. “That’s a bread truck.”

“A candy bread truck?”

9:45 A.M. At the office, I close my door to finish my weekend reading. I’m reading on a Kindle, which is convenient, but I haven’t yet figured out how to transfer my notes and highlights onto a document, so it’s not nearly as useful as it might be. Or as a paper manuscript is. But of course this makes me like this guy.

11:07 A.M. An offer comes in via e-mail! It’s going to be a good week.

1:00 P.M. Lunch with my friend Diane, Executive Director of the New Press. I tell her I think she should publish a book on the legal roots of the foreclosure crisis, and she looks at me quizzically. I realize I’m not explaining myself well and tell her I’ll give it more thought. We gossip about the kids in the sunshine at La Esquina.

2:35 P.M. Early for an appointment, I duck into B&N (there was no nearby independent!) and browse. I buy Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed, having just gobbled up Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry. I also buy the current issue of Vogue, which really I should just subscribe to.

4:48 P.M. I dive back into a proposal I am editing—on paper.

5:57 P.M. Pack up bag. Since it’s Monday, I have all my favorite magazines, including the NYRB.

6:20 P.M. Driving home, I listen to the end of All Things Considered and to Marketplace and shout at this guy who says that there should not be a moratorium on foreclosures. What if it were your paperwork that got lost, pal?

7:14 P.M. My beloved mother-in-law and the Eldest’s BFF are over for dinner. I make chicken and broccoli from, and even the picky eater eats it.

8:24 P.M. The Littlest and I are reading Charlotte’s Web. They’re at the fair, and Charlotte has just created her magnum opus, her egg sac. My friend Sarah says that when she got married, CW was one of three books she required her husband-to-be to have read.

8:54 P.M. The Middlest reads me a chapter of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights while I flip through New York. After the kids have been convinced to go to bed, I realize the Eldest has stolen my New Yorker, so I read The New York Review of Books (Cathy Schine agrees with me on Jennifer Egan).

10:15 P.M. I read a couple of chapters of Sigrid Nunez’s Salvation City. I loved The Last of Her Kind, but this is a different—if equally accomplished—kind of book. The last one was saturated in envy, but this one seems to be about … love.


8:48 A.M. After drop-off, get on the subway to go to work. Read The New York Times. See, I was right about that paperwork stuff.

9:25 A.M. I get off the subway at the same stop I used when I worked at Knopf. In Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin describes getting off at the very same stop, buying a bagel at the very same underground place, and walking down the street to the (very same) Random House building.

12:15 P.M. Realize Stephanie isn’t here this week. Argue with David about BookScan, and how accurate the numbers are.

12:25 P.M. Publishers Lunch comes in and I quickly fall through the rabbit hole.

12:35 P.M. Running late to lunch, forget my Kindle to read on the way downtown. I play Scrabble instead. There’s nary a vowel to be found in my first seven tiles. Sigh.

1:03 P.M. Lunch with Kathy Pories from Algonquin, editor of Chris’s Mudbound, at Market Table. We talk about bullying, teenage girls, and the collapse of the midlist. We decide it’s true: It does get better.

3:05 P.M. Finish edit on proposal. Catch up on e-mail.

4:55 P.M. Start macro edit of historical novel.

5:47 P.M. Try to finish FreshDirect order for tomorrow. The Middlest needs his calories.

5:55 P.M. Tonight I should go to CLMP’s Spelling Bee which is a great event for a super organization, but we’re out on Thursday and even that is too much for the Eldest. My money is on Jonathan Burnham to reclaim the crown.

6:15 P.M. On the subway home, I upgrade my Scrabble game to “hard,” and the computer is merciless. And it cheats. How else does it get the Q and the Z both games?

7:40 P.M. At dinner (hanger steak with pan sauce, tater tots, salad) I turn on Jack Johnson. This was our dinner music until we turned to … well, we haven’t turned to anything else. This is what we listen to at dinner. (Though Sebastian, New Testament freak that he is, likes to listen to Godspell or this guy while he does the dishes.)

8:20 P.M. Sebastian puts the Littlest to bed while I try once again to finish the FreshDirect order. The Middlest reads to me while the Eldest paces around the kitchen table, talking through her day at school.

“Did you have these experiences?” he asks.

“Which ones?”

“The one [Eldest] is having.”

“Yes,” I say. “But not til high school, when I was fish food. I got chewed up and spit out.”

“Why?” he asks.

“I was a geek,” I say.

“Really?” he asks.

“I could totally see you as a geek,” says the Eldest, pausing in her rotation. “No offense or anything.”

8:28 P.M. The Eldest is teaching the Middlest to waltz.

8:49 P.M. The Middlest goes back to reading One Thousand and One Arabian Nights: “Explain yourself nincompoop, son of a nincompoop!” Heh heh. The Eldest is reading a graphic novel called Malice that she bought for her little brother. He’d rather read this.

9:34 P.M. Settle in with Harper’s. Read Téa Obreht’s very good vampire piece. I didn’t know she was funny! This is delightful.

10:08 P.M. Fall asleep with the Nunez on my lap.


8:20 A.M. The Middlest has hurt his ankle so it’s back into the car to drive him to school. Did I mention it’s fund-raising week on WNYC? I love this station and I don’t want to sound churlish, but I hate fund-raising. Thank God for Alec Baldwin, the actor I hate to love. It’s all your fault, Tina Fey.

8:45 A.M. Driving to the Brooklyn Bridge, listening to Hillary Clinton on Afghanistan: “No peace that sacrifices women’s rights is a peace that we can afford to support.” You go, girl. Looking forward to Kidlit, which I’m hosting tonight. It was started by my friend Gretchen Rubin as part of her Happiness Project; we read young-adult and children’s books, alternating classics, modern classics, and contemporary books.

10:36 A.M. Working through the novel, thinking about what Jonathan Dee said about historical fiction (in a review of Tom McCarthy’s C in Harper’s): “A novel is a document of consciousness, and since consciousness today is not precisely what it was when Woolf wrote, or Flaubert or Cervantes, the search for a form that reflects faithfully what it means to be alive in one’s own time … must constantly refresh its own terms. In this light, the historical novel would seem to offer if not a false testimony exactly, then at best a kind of gloss on existing testimony.” But is this the case? “Explain yourself nincompoop, son of a nincompoop” is immediately accessible, whereas the setting and customs of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights are not. But it is difficult to inhabit another’s mind at any time. Very few writers do as well as Mr. Dee, whose latest novel, The Privileges, I loved. Ruth expressed it better than I ever could.

11:33 A.M. Interrupt work to check Facebook, make a couple of appointments, and scroll through another manuscript, trying to come up with a title. Try, unsuccessfully, to ignore e-mail.

12:34 P.M. Thinking about my book club I scroll through one of Flavorwire’s excellent slide shows. We’re discussing Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, whose cover evolution is really interesting. Published for adults, it must now have a significant teen readership. (As with To Kill A Mockingbird.) How much is this due to the child protagonist? So much to talk about!

1:15 P.M. Lunch with my pal Susanna, who works with Larry Kirshbaum, one of the great publishing opiners. Aperçu of the day: “There is no frigate like a book.”

3:24 P.M. On the way home to get ready, listen to Fresh Air. Terry Gross is talking to a woman I assume is Elizabeth Warren, whom I love. It turns out to be Gretchen Morgenson, and she’s talking about the legal roots and ramifications of the foreclosure crisis. Pension funds suing banks: “It isn’t as dopey as it sounds.”

4:10 P.M. Home with the Eldest, listening to Jose Gonzalez while I cook and she does her homework. I made Julie Sahni’s Fragrant Yoghurt-Braised Chicken on Sunday night, and it’s now sat around long enough to be delicious. I double Smitten’s carrot salad and roast cumin seeds for Madhur Jaffrey’s tomato relish and her cauliflower, which turns out a little soggy. I also make Jamie’s smashed chickpeas which is delicious, if I do say so.

5:01 P.M. Wait, where’s the best-seller list?

5:10 P.M. The Eldest off to dance, I play Middlest’s latest iTunes purchases.
What is this nonsense? Where does he think he lives, the suburbs?

5:29 P.M. There it is. Nice.

7:25 P.M. I love this group; people come early and leave early. We discuss everything but the book. Amy brings a chocolate cake and decorates it with lime-green aliens and a rocket launcher. Nothing like this ever appeared in Ender’s life; he didn’t even like to eat.

8:15 P.M. Sit down to dinner; we still haven’t talked about the book. The topic is college-era Halloween costumes. Jen and two friends wore sheets and carried fans (“Three sheets to the wind”) and Jenn’s boyfriend wore pink sunglasses (he was Pangloss) every year.

9:30 P.M. We finally start talking about the book. No one seems to have liked it as much as I did. Certainly no one loved it as much as Dan did; he read it as a boy when it first came out. He says it was the perfect book for a certain kind of geeky boy. I keep thinking about Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which I read over the summer and which blew my mind. It’s sci-fi, as well, but compelling religious sci-fi, and gets as close as anything I’ve ever read to being able to explain what makes us human.

10:00 P.M. Julia announces that it’s “Quaker midnight,” but no one makes a move. Instead, we go around the table and narrate our anxiety dreams, as I have admitted that the structure of the first Lord of the Rings movie exactly replicates mine (those hooded horsemen!). Some fly, some fall, some turn up at tests without having studied.

11:30 P.M. Everyone gone home, Sebastian and I watch Obama on The Daily Show. Obama holds his own. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? And did he really say that Larry Summers did a “heckuva job”? Ouch! But I’m a pragmatist and I think if he can keep articulating this progressive vision we will all be okay.

12:10 P.M. In bed with The Atlantic, reading their excellent “Brave Thinkers” issue.

Sarah Burnes is a literary agent at the Gernert Company. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of her culture diary.