Interview with Stephen Barr

By Theresa Rizzo

Date:  Feb 2011


Bio: Stephen Barr is an agent with Writers House


  1. Which categories do you currently acquire?  Which category has a special/constant place in your heart?

    Answer: I'm a pretty omnivorous agent, but at the moment, I've got a particular hankering for unexpected memoirs with itchy voices, narrative nonfiction that tackles hard-to-tackle issues, wry and rarely paranormal YA, laugh-until-you-squirt-milk-out-of-your-nose middle grade, sweet and wacky (but still logical) picture books from author/illustrators, and fiction that rewards the reader line-by-line and gets to know at least one character really, really well (recent favorites include Jeff In Venice, The Lazarus Project, Diary of a Bad Year, and Horns, which was awesome). I'm also willing to be a sucker for smart, unconventional thrillers, mysteries that bend reality, ghost stories that blow reality to hell, fictional or not-so-fictional portrayals of abnormal psychology, and humor that's more than just an infinitely repeated gag in sheep's clothing.


  1. What length synopsis do you prefer to see with a partial?  Single spaced or double?


Answer: Anything longer than a (single spaced) page tends to make me antsy, truth be told…if the basic premise of the book (the sort of thing that can fit into a paragraph or two) intrigues me, I much prefer to find out the rest by reading the thing itself, and not a summary or greatest hits collection of scenes!


  1. In terms of submissions, what are you sick to death of and what would you like to see more of?


Answer:  I’m trying not to be sick to death of anything just yet (it sounds like an awful condition!), but I will say that I’m much more interested in personal demons than ACTUAL demons, who seem to be littering the pages of young adult literature (and a fair amount of adult suspense) like confetti.  Personally, I find paranormal touches to be more effective when the reader’s not exactly sure that whatever’s going on is, in fact, paranormal…when there’s an ambiguity that touches upon our everyday fears, as opposed to the much rarer fears of, let’s say, fire-breathing angels, or who knows what.  I like being scared, but I prefer to be scared of what’s real.



  1.  What are the most compelling elements you feel are necessary for a good
     read?   What particularly grabs your attention?

    Answer:  For me, I can’t really get fired up unless a) the writing, line by line, is a joy to read independent of the story it’s telling, and b) the characters feel authentic and interesting and interested in the world around them.  After only the first page, if there’s already a charisma to the language and a character I want to know more about, odds are I’ll make it pretty deep into the manuscript to find out if the potential holds up.



  1. For you, which elements in a fiction submission are terminal problems garnering automatic rejections and which are tempting and fixable meriting a look at a revision if a talented author is willing to accept your advice? 


If there’s an engaging voice, sharp writing, an interesting plot, and at least one character I give two shakes about, then I’m willing to work hours on end to fix just about any other problem, whether it be a fuzzy ending, a wonky structure, or even a parade of iffy scenes.


    1. Voice
    2. Weak Grammar
    3. Common plot
    4. Poor character development
    5. Story is too controversial (ie rape, politics, religion—what else?)
    6. Mediocre / uninspired writing
    7. Excessive use of violence or cursing
    8. Lacking genre –specific requirements like, suspense/sexual tension/ world-building
    9. Pacing is off—plot is too slow
    10. Story starts in wrong spot
    11. Ending is unsatisfactory
    12. Other


  1. Does meeting an author face-to-face at a conference make a difference in your response time, the submission process, or the rejection process (ie. Form letter vs a few sentences of advice)?


Answer:  Ultimately, I’d say the difference between my sending a form letter and something more substantial lies in my connection to the manuscript—if there was a glimmer somewhere, an idea that seemed to be worthy of exploration, and I felt that I had something truly constructive to say, and that I wouldn’t be averse to seeing a revision, then I’ll break from the form letter, absolutely.  If my brain fails to click with anything particular in a submission, though, then I’m probably not even the right person to be giving advice, anyhow.  That being said, forming even the briefest of personal connections face to face with an author inevitably increases the odds that I’ll push myself to look harder for that glimmer if it doesn’t make itself immediately apparent.



  1. Besides the writing, the story and the talent, what are the most important elements you look for in an author, ie. contest wins, cooperativeness, affiliations to writers organizations, knowledge of publishing industry, promotability, etc?


Answer:  After the quality of the submission itself (which is, of course, 99.9% of the dance), I’d say I’m just looking to see if the author is someone I have a chemistry with, which is usually hinted at outside of their manuscript, in their OTHER forms of communication…does their regular ol’ everyday voice (the one they use in a simple e-mail or a simple phone call) put me at ease or put me on edge?  Formality is less important to me than personality.



  1. Do you have any pet peeves?


Answer: I don’t deal well with moodiness (though maybe that counts as a form of moodiness?)



  1. What are you addicted to?


Answer: It used to be rice pudding (no fooling).  I’m still figuring out what my next obsession should be, or if I should just relapse back into rice pudding (have you tried it!?)



  1. What have you always wanted to do?


Answer: Be a dad!



  1. Do you have a favorite quote?


Answer: There’s no king of the hill for me, but I like this one a great deal:


“It is difficult to be confused.” – Zheng Xie