Arts & Minds (Part 2 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 27, 2009

Photo by Alex Budnitz.

Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Photo by Alex Budnitz.

Photo by Alex Budnitz.

Jill Kneerim: director and co-founder of Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson

Jill Kneerim is a founding partner, along with John Taylor “Ike” Williams, and a director of the literary agency Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson. The agency is based in Boston and has offices in Washington and New York. One of the most prestigious in publishing, Kneerim & Williams’ authors include former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, best-selling novelists Brad Meltzer and Sue Miller, and scholars Stephen J. Greenblatt, Caroline Elkins, Joseph Ellis, Dr. Susan Love, and Ned Hallowell. This year, the agency celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Deborah Weisgall: When you began, New York was the center of the publishing industry. Though Boston had two illustrious publishers, Houghton Mifflin and Little, Brown, pretty much every literary agent was in New York.

Jill Kneerim: When we first began, a lot of the writers said to us, Isn’t it a disadvantage for you to be in Boston, since New York is the hub of the publishing industry? I answered that an agent is only as good as her clients, and, if you’re good, everybody will pay attention. Now that question never arises. And communication has become much easier as well.

Deborah Weisgall: How much is Kneerim & Williams an outgrowth of the Boston intellectual community?

Jill Kneerim: The Boston area has the greatest concentration of colleges and universities of any city in the world, so it’s a natural that we start looking for writers in our own backyard. One of our specialties — taking academics into public life — grows out of my long-standing interest in making accessible the work of people who do not normally write for a broad audience. First of all, I look for people who write well. Many academics haven’t written for the general reader and sometimes could use advice about how to cast their ideas to make them appealing to that audience. I find that there are many people who are ready to try that, especially those who are mid-career and older, who already have tenure. It’s a daring young scholar who can afford to try that kind of writing. People in the academic world have exciting ideas, and when they are good writers, it’s a marvelous trip to be on with them. What’s at the core of speaking to a wider public is knowing how to tell a story.

All art bridges art and commerce, unless you’re living alone in a cave. There are so many ways these days in which artists and writers have to think about filthy commerce. We should stop resisting and learn that it’s part of the game.

Because I’m in Boston, I tend to have a lot of clients in the academic world. Deborah Grosvenor, who heads up our Washington office, has a list skewed towards people from the national press corps. She has more journalists than I do, and they’re writing policy books. We both do history, but I’m more likely to have an academic historian, while she has a journalist. I also think that being in Boston gives me an advantage because New York is so dominant in the book-writing business that it’s easy to forget that there’s any other place — and that people can look at the world differently from the way they do in New York.

Deborah Weisgall: How do you reconcile art and commerce?

Jill Kneerim: All art bridges art and commerce, unless you’re living alone in a cave. There are so many ways these days in which artists and writers have to think about filthy commerce. We should stop resisting and learn that it’s part of the game. And there’s a lot of fun in getting every kind of client out into the book world. With a journalist, I’ll have more of a chance to debate what the subject is going to be. Academics already have their specialties. I have one author who’s been working on his book for 10 years. First, he had to spend a couple of years mastering a complex foreign language in order to conduct interviews in that language. Now he has a body of material that nobody else in the world possesses. Caroline Elkins, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, spent seven years gathering evidence. What I do is find someone whose ideas spark interest that would fire up a reader like me, who’s not a specialist. Some subjects are too narrow — size is important.

I’m on the commerce side, but I adore being part of the link between writers — who, frankly, have been my heroes all my life. There is no one more exciting or important than a writer. I love being mixed up with writers and making a difference.

Photos by Alex Budnitz.

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