Saturday, July 9, 2011

Query Letter, Take Two

I wrote my first query letter thinking of Paul Cirone, the agent who handled Leif Enger's Peace Like A River. When I started writing it, Cirone's profile said he was still accepting literary fiction, but most interested in nonfiction with some kind of current affairs connection (or something like that). So I tried to pitch my Jesus book in a way that would catch the attention of someone interested in contemporary politics.

In a strange and somewhat moving twist of fate, however, Paul Cirone officially announced he was leaving publishing to become a special education elementary school teacher at about the same time as I finished my book draft. Coming from a long line of teachers, it's hard for me not to admire someone's decision to give up a great career to serve children--but it did mean my query was designed for someone I couldn't send it to anymore.

I'd worked enough on that letter I sent it to several agents anyway. So far, I have several form rejection letters in return. I know that form rejection letters are completely normal, but decided to rewrite the query anyway to get rid of the contemporary connection and emphasize the strength of the imagery in my book instead.

Here's my first stab at the new query angle. Do you want to read the book described here more than the one I described in my last letter?

Dear [Agent name here]:

There’s a place in the desert where the Jordan is as brown with dust as a tear running down a drought-stricken farmer’s face. When Jesus was baptized, he must’ve looked buried under those muddy waters for a moment before rising up, just as a bird swooped down to skim insects off the river’s surface. Who could’ve known then how soon he’d be buried in a tomb? Who would have imagined how many people he’d share bread with before the Passover flatbread became his last?

My 75,000 word literary novel In Search of Vanished Blood tells Jesus’ story from the perspectives of those around him: from close followers and relatives to people he met only once. Andrew, more fisher than preacher, ties knots by day for each new teaching and goes over them by night as carefully as if he were mending his net. Judas’s heart beats faster whenever Jesus hints at the coming end of the world: he can’t wait for the day when legions of angels descend to usher in a new age. After helping Jesus’ men find lodgings in her town, Mary from Magdala insists on following them wherever they go—though she has to pass herself off as some apostle’s sister whenever anyone asks what she’s doing on the road with so many men.

No matter where Jesus and his followers go, danger is never far. Because foreign occupations make local divisions run deeper, it’s hard to know who to trust; because speech can be deadly, Jesus uses parables to at once conceal and reveal unorthodox ideas. Religious audiences will feel closer to familiar Biblical figures who navigate unexpected tensions in my book. Literary audiences will be drawn to the prose style, which mixes the meditative folklore tone of Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire with the charged imagery of classical Urdu poetry. Academic audiences will explore the subtle, intricate shaping of the narrative around Old Testament structures.

My telling of Jesus’ story is unique partly because of my background: not many part-Sikh, part-Jewish writers also hold MFAs from Brigham Young University. I’ve won awards for my plays and essays, had work on Jewish topics published in Shofar and Drash, and had work translated into Punjabi. I’m querying you because [insert evidence I’ve actually read up on them here.]


James Goldberg
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