Many Things At Once: Cooking the Books with Russell Galen

Douglas Levy
photo by: Douglas Levy

Russell Galen figured out by the age of 14 that helping authors was his career path. By the late 1970s, he’d secured an apprenticeship with one of the great literary agents of the era. In 1993, he joined two other literary agents to found what is now Scovil, Galen, Gosh Literary. With passions that include science and nature writing, science fiction and fantasy, Russ represents writers including Cory Doctorow, Diana Gabaldon, Terry Goodkind, Steven Gould (his Cooking the Books interview was our first ever), James Rollins, Paolo Bacigalupi, Cassandra Clare, and new novelists including Ken Liu, Charlie Jane Anders, and me*. (See how smooth I was, sticking that last one on the end? SMOOTH.)

Russ’ tastes are legendary, and I was delighted when he agreed to answer questions for Cooking the Books – so delighted that I threw him a curveball, below, about what upcoming releases should be paired with which foods. I suspect we will see more pairing suggestions in the future.

None of the other questions I asked him were easy ones either. I’m not sure where that falls on the brave/stupid scale of how to work with your agent, but his replies are phenomenal, and I’m very grateful Russ shared some of his time.

Everyone ready? Let’s all sit down to an agent’s lunch with Russell Galen…

When we went to lunch last year, we spoke about ordering a lot of different items and trying them all. For an outsider, that metaphor seems to hit on some of what a literary agent does. Am I terribly off target? Can you fill us in on some similarities?

When I was hired in 1977 to be an assistant to a literary agent, the interviewer asked me, “How are you at handling hundreds of things at the same time?” I had no idea, since I was fresh out of college where all I ever did was read books, so I just said I thought I’d be fine at it.

As it turned out, I was good at it, and it turned out to be a very good interview question. Agents need to do scores of different types of things simultaneously, some of them requiring wildly different skills.

I envy people (like my clients) who can focus for long periods of time on one thing, like writing a book.  In comparison to them I feel shallow, but in this profession, with such a variety of things going on at the same time, shallowness is necessary for survival.

I’d put them into four broad categories:

1. Editorial: Reading manuscripts, appreciating the good ones, making suggestions for revisions.

2. Salesman.  Getting editors excited about the manuscripts you’ve read.

3. Businessperson.  Negotiating deals, getting better financial terms, bluffing, standing up to editors and producers, pushing for more and better promotion and marketing, keeping up to date with changes in technology that affect writers, looking for new ways to create income from our clients’ intellectual property.

4. Psychotherapist, counselor, friend, life coach, diplomat.

You can find yourself in the dizzying position of sitting with a royalty statement studying sales figures, then you’re talking an author out of his belief that he’s lost his talent and can never write again, then you’ve got an editor on the phone offering a million dollars but only if you decide by 5 pm, then you’re urging another editor to take a chance on a strange but promising first novel, then you’re reading a manuscript and taking notes on revisions that you think are necessary. This can all happen within 15 minutes.

How have tastes changed in genre fiction since you started as an agent? What about in literary fiction and nonfiction?

I don’t keep track of changing tastes, so I don’t have a point of view on this.  I don’t believe that tastes do change, but if they do, keeping track of them wouldn’t help me in my work.

On a very superficial level you might have lunch with an editor who tells you, “Right now we have too many paranormal 18th century werewolf romances,” or “We are really doing well with futuristic family sagas that feature spaghetti, and we need more of those, or any other kind of pasta-based science fiction.”

But this isn’t useful information. The editor who says “I don’t want X” will in fact buy X if it’s got all the ingredients of a commercially successful book, and the one who says “I am looking for Y” will not actually buy Y unless it’s great.

I just don’t think this way. I pick up each manuscript and say to it, “I’m yours if you can take me.  Now try.”

Prose styles change, so you couldn’t retype “The Iliad” and pretend it was a first novel by a young writer. But if you updated the prose and pitched it as an historical fantasy, and changed nothing else, it would sell.

That said, while tastes don’t change, the audience does. During my career there’s been a slow but steady increase in the number of books that are bought by women. I think we’re on the verge of a golden age (or it may have already begun) in books by female authors with female protagonists. I’m not sure if we’re in a golden age of male writers creating strong female characters, but if we’re not, we’d better be or no male writer will be getting a contract in the years to come.

What do you look for in a meal? In a story?

When I first read this question I thought it was going to be impossible to find an answer that would bridge these two different areas. But as I thought about it I realized that there was indeed a common thread. Okay, Fran, I now see that there’s a method in your madness and that you are on to something in linking these themes.

[Editorial note: Reader, we are delighted when our agent sees method and not madness. Ahem. As you were.]

I usually eat vegetarian, whether I’m in a restaurant, making something for myself, or negotiating with my wife about what we’re going to have together.  I’m perfectly willing to eat meat, and I do; I just prefer vegetarian food most of the time.

The reason is that I prefer creativity and surprises in meals, but nothing outlandish. In my experience if you’re eating meat you are probably going to be eating something fairly familiar and conventional. Or, if it’s something creative, it’s going to be silly and overly spectacular. A good grilled steak is boring and a $250 French meal is, at least to my taste, ridiculous.

By contrast, at the vegetarian restaurants that I love, as well as the cooking we do at home, I find unusual combinations and new foods that get my attention with their surprises, and yet still seem like food and not some kind of opera.

This really does work as a summary of my taste in books.  It’s hard to interest me in something that’s just a basic formulaic tale.  When I see a query and it resembles hundreds of already-published novels, it leaves me flat.

But on the other hand, my tastes are commercial and conventional. I rarely want to try something bizarre.

There’s a middle ground that really works for me, where fresh idea is built on top of a conventional framework. I seem to find this in vegetarian cooking more than any other, and so in this sense my food and literary preferences are both reflections of my personality.

In a 2012 interview with LitChat, you said:  “From the earliest age I devoured books, but I don’t know that “love” is the word that comes to mind. It was an insatiable need.” How do books feed you, and quench that need?

I’ll answer this question somewhat differently than I would have before I got an iPad.  I got the iPad about three years ago and got into the habit of taking it to the gym, where I’d prop it up on the exercise bike or treadmill and watch TV for an hour. I’d start with Season 1 of some cultural landmark like “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad,” and it would really make the time pass as I huffed and puffed.

I’d get hooked on these series and couldn’t wait to get back to the gym to watch the next episode. When I got to the finale I’d immediately load up on another series.  (Great motivation for exercise, by the way: you do not get to find out what happened to Tony Soprano unless you work out! You’re only allowed to watch at the gym.)

I’d never been much interested in movies or in episodic TV (the kind where each new show is self-contained).  An episode or movie that concludes in an hour, or two or three, to me is like dating a different person every month. (I’ve been married for 30 years so you can see that that is not my style.) When I was growing up that was all there was, so movies and TV didn’t interest me.

But now, watching these cable shows, I became specifically hooked on serials, i.e., shows like “The Wire” that tell a continuing story that has to be viewed in order over dozens of episodes.

So the “need” that novels “quench” in me is, I think, a desire to follow great characters over long periods of time during which they evolve and change. I still prefer novels because my brain is wired to prefer the written word, but the underlying addiction is probably to the storytelling more than it is to any particular format for delivering story.

Obviously this is not unique to me. Long-form storytelling is a profound human need that was part of the survival strategy of the earliest humans. It will never go away.

So the question is not about my own need for stories. We all have that need. The question is, if this is universal, why doesn’t everyone read novels?  It’s partly because the act of reading requires a certain intelligence and patience that most people don’t have, and it’s partly because there are alternatives which are more popular among a broad cross-section of people.

For instance, it’s the only plausible explanation for professional sports.  If you root for a team, you’re just finding a way to satisfy the human need for long-form storytelling. For other people it’s politics. Every two years this country puts on an epic miniseries called an election, and people get all caught up in it way beyond its actual importance.

It’s all born out of our prehistory as hunter-gatherer bands. You can see this beautifully dramatized in “Clan of the Cave Bear,” where the unity of the clan is dependent on the shaman’s ability to tell stories.

Would you suggest three (or more) food or beverage pairings for clients’ books coming in 2014?

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

It would be impossible not to start this with Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling “Outlander” series, which will see a new entry, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, and the launch of a major cable television adaptation on the Starz network. This is about a 20th century woman who is catapulted back in time to 18th century Scotland.  I’d pair this with a favorite drink of mine, Talisker, which is the peatiest, smokiest, and strongest of the single-malt Scotch whiskeys.

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon

Another big book for us this year is City of Heavenly Fire, which will conclude Cassandra Clare’s 40-million-selling series, “The Mortal Instruments.”  The series features a diner with different menus for mundanes, vampires, werewolves, and fairies.  Diner food is one part exotic and one part basic American and that’s a good match for the strange but perfect balance of mundane and fantastic that characterizes these novels.  I always order a meal-sized Greek salad when I eat at a diner and that’s a great pairing with Cassie’s novels: big and satisfying, filled with many disparate ingredients that work together, very New York and very foreign at the same time.

Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Terry Goodkind has Severed Souls, the newest entry in his series about Richard & Kahlan. The first time I visited Terry, we sat up until dawn talking in his office outside of Las Vegas.  This was fifteen years ago and all the plans and dreams we concocted that night have by now come true.  He had this coffee-making machine that enabled us to stay up all of that time without losing energy or focus.  You put the beans into the machine and it grinds them and brews them in one automated process.  I have never had espresso, or any coffee, that good. It was incredibly powerful and yet as drinkable as water. It certainly goes with Terry’s personality as a friend, client, and novelist, and with his work: strong stuff, but strong in a way that goes down smoothly and sweetly.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

The Sixth Extinction is the very best thus far of the science thrillers by James Rollins.  Jim calls his characters “scientists with guns” and they eat and drink simply. They are too busy saving the world to eat.  But I’m going to use this chance to give a shout-out to my favorite Rollins character, the Vietnamese/French assassin Seichan. I’m hoping some day Jim will give her the leading role in a novel as he has already done in a novella.  You may have noticed a theme throughout this interview, that I like mixtures of things rather than anything that’s this or that. The Eurasian character Seichan is a good metaphor for Jim’s whole series, which is part SF, part thriller, and makes me hungry for the French-influenced Vietnamese cuisine you can find in many excellent restaurants that I’ve been to in New York, Philadelphia, and DC.

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon
Amazon | Barnes & Noble

I’ll close with a New Mexican pair, The Golden Princess, the latest in S. M. Stirling’s “The Change” series, and Mirror Sight, the latest in Kristen Britain’s “Green Rider” series. New Mexican cooking, which is somewhat Mexican and somewhat Native American, features red and green chilies that can only be grown correctly in that state.  I visited them both there recently and suffered withdrawal symptoms when I got back home and didn’t get a choice of red or green chilies on every single item.  They would go well with the colorful, intense epic stories by these two writers.

Do you have a  favorite recipe you’d be willing to share with Cooking the Books? (entirely optional question)

I think it would be too much to call it a recipe, but I have a food process that I indulge in at every possible opportunity.

Basically, it’s lentil soup. You sauté onions and garlic, then into the pot goes chicken or vegetable broth, a cup of French Green lentils, and stewed tomatoes. After that it’s different every time. I throw in whatever strikes me. You just can not go wrong. Mushrooms, peppers, carrots, celery, potatoes, farro or any other kind of whole grain, oregano, dried parsley, basil, etc., and if you want, any kind of meat.  It is always the same because of the broth/tomato/lentil base, and always different because exact ingredients and measurements are never the same.

I’ve been poor and I could be poor again if necessary.  I can spend $500 taking a client out to dinner in Manhattan and I enjoy it, but this soup, which only costs a few dollars for half a dozen portions, tastes better than anything I’ve ever had in a restaurant, bursts with flavor, prevents cancer, and takes almost no time to make. I could live on this.

Thank you, Russ, for visiting Cooking the Books!

When he’s not closing deals, reading manuscripts, or raising his eyebrows at me for some mad new idea, Russell Galen can be found at SGG Literary.

Come back in May when my excellent co-agent Rachel Kory* of SGG Literary visits Cooking the Books!

Meantime, read more Cooking the Books – The updated library of interviews is here.


  1. Thanks, Fran, for a terrific interview! Russell Galen is my favorite agent of all time! I’ve followed his wonderful articles about writing for years; your interview is a perfect example of how sharing he is about his perspectives, which to my mind always makes for interesting reading. Great article!

  2. Hello Fran, thank you for a lovely interview article with Russell Galen. He is my dream agent. I just finished the draft of a novel and I’ve stalked him for years. Working up the courage to query him. Best, Jennifer

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