How I Got My Book Deal Through MSWL: A Conversation Between Marjorie Herrera Lewis, author of When The Men Were Gone and Literary Agent Andrea Somberg

Andrea Somberg: I met Marjorie Herrera Lewis through MSWL, and within minutes of talking to her, I couldn’t wait to read her novel, When the Men Were Gone. It was based on the true story of Tylene Wilson, a woman who became one of the first female football coaches in Texas during World War II, in spite of extreme opposition from the press, the school and her community. It’s a story about the perseverance and personal courage of an incredible woman. When I received in the manuscript, I couldn’t put it down, and I immediately offered Marjorie representation. Within 14 days of going on submission, we sold the book to Morrow/HarperCollins.

Andrea: Marjorie, you and I met through MSWL. How did you come to find out about It?

Marjorie: I found out about MSWL through a fellow aspiring author, but I later discovered that she was not familiar with the 10 Minutes with an Expert program. I found that by browsing the site. At that point, I had just lost an agent to illness (Good news: He later recovered.), so I had just begun sending out a few queries – probably three or four. But once I discovered the 10 Minutes with an Expert, I decided to focus on finding the right agents to have a discussion with about my work. I researched the agents and editors who were scheduled, and I found several that I felt would make a good match for my manuscript, so I scheduled 10 minutes with each. For the agents, I prepared a query letter, and for the editors, I prepared a few pages of the manuscript.

The result was fantastic! I had several requests for submission.

Andrea: That’s wonderful! Obviously, you were doing something right. Do you have any advice for authors when it comes to querying or query letters?

Marjorie: My advice is to do the research. Find agents who you believe will be a good fit, and then research best-practices for query letters. There may be standard requirements for query letters, but not every agent has the same expectation. If you are thorough with your research, you can sift through a lot of different possibilities as you find the ones that are best suited for your work.

Andrea: And you found quite a few agents who were suitable—you had several offers of representation. What types of questions did you ask when it came time to decide who to go with? What made you decide to pull the trigger?

Marjorie: For me, it wasn’t so much the questions I had as it was the tone of the agent. What I liked most about you, Andrea, was when you talked about my manuscript and especially about the lead character, I could hear enthusiasm and affection. That’s all I really wanted to hear. I wanted an agent who focused first on the story and then later on the business. People can say a lot of things, but they reveal what they really think, in my opinion, by the tone of their voice. I heard everything I wanted to hear by the tone of your voice.

Andrea: I’m so happy to hear that! As you know, I really did fall in love with the novel and I guess my enthusiasm was shining through. Once the manuscript started going out to publishers, what was the submission process like? Was it what you expected?

Marjorie: As a debut author, all of this was new to me, so I had no expectations. Intuitively, the process made sense – a list of potential editors and publishing houses. Shortly after you began to send out submissions, I contacted a few successful authors who are good friends of mine. They advised that I give you eighteen months to sell the manuscript, saying that was a reasonable expectation.

With that said, my biggest surprise was that you sold the manuscript in fourteen business days, and to the editor and publishing house I was hoping and praying would buy it! So as expectations go, this was far beyond anything I could have imagined.

Andrea: I was so happy too that the manuscript found such a wonderful home—obviously, the submission process isn’t always as smooth, but I think that that really speaks to the strength of the book. One of the things that I really loved about the novel was how inspiring Tylene’s story was and I thought that her challenges were something that would really resonate with modern-day readers. I also saw this as a perfect novel for book clubs—indeed, there is going to be a great discussion guide included with the book. And so far the response from the market is bearing all of this out. We’ve been seeing a lot of enthusiasm from bookstores and the library market and from the film industry as well—we recently optioned the rights to production company Writ Large. Did you know that Tylene’s story would have such large commercial appeal? What is it that drew you to it and why did you think it would make a good book?

Marjorie: I was drawn to Tylene’s story because, in a way, I lived it, though not as a football coach. In 1986 I was named a Dallas Cowboys beat writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram – the first woman from any news outlet to be assigned to the Cowboys beat. This gave me insight into what I was like for the first woman to step into the football world, akin to crashing a men’s only club. I had challenges, which, remember, were more than forty years after Tylene coached football, so it was not difficult for me to imagine what it must have been like for her.

I did a lot of research – not only of what it must have been like for a woman to have coached football in the 1940s, but of gender norms and expectations of the time. I knew the juxtaposition of a woman of the ‘40s – and make no mistake, Tylene did not shirk her gender expectations of the era – who was also far ahead of her time would make for a fascinating read. Tylene was a strong woman before it was common for women to demonstrate such strength on such a public stage. I fell in love with the idea of memorializing her legacy. Plus, this is a story that has never been told.

Andrea: It’s crazy that so many people have never heard of her—but now they will, thanks to When the Men Were Gone! Marjorie, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today as well as writing such a great book about such an inspiring woman.

When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis can be purchased from IndieboundBarnes & NobleAmazon, Costco, Walmart, Hudson Booksellers and wherever books are sold.