Author Interiew: Debut Author Sonja Yoerg Rises From The Slush Pile After Querying 100+ Agents

House BrokenHappy New Year fellow women’s fiction writers and readers. New year, new author. Apropos, right? 

I’m thrilled to introduce you to Sonja Yoerg, who’s debut novel, HOUSE BROKEN, is a riveting family saga strewn with secrets. It’s deftly told from three points of view, and that’s no easy task! I was impressed by the distinctness of the three voices from three generations. I loved that HOUSE BROKEN is set in the present. I enjoy historical fiction but have just been itching to read a slew of contemporary books, since that’s what I write. HOUSE BROKEN did not disappoint. Plus, look at the face on the cover! How could I resist? 

Please welcome Sonja Yoerg to Women’s Fiction Writers and tell us about your journey to publication in the comments. (When I read Sonja’s answers, I emailed her immediately because I’d queried well over 100 agents as well the first time around.)

Here’s to a productive 2015 for us all!

Amy xo

Debut Author Sonja Yoerg Rises From The Slush Pile After Querying 100+ Agents

House BrokenAmy: Sonja, congratulations on your debut novel, HOUSE BROKEN! Since most of us here are writers and authors, can you share a little bit about your personal journey to publication?

Sonja: Thanks, Amy! I’m delighted to have the chance to chat with you.

I am one of the rarest of animals: The Creature That Rose from the Slush Pile. It took about a year to go from finished manuscript to signing a book deal. Finding an agent, as everyone knows, was the hardest part. Might as well buy a fistful of lottery tickets, right? I didn’t have an MFA or any connections, and had never attended a conference. I didn’t even have a critique group!  (I do, however, have a husband and two daughters who are not only supportive but excellent readers.)

I queried well over a hundred agents. I scrutinized every word in their replies, desperate for feedback. “Not for me,” several wrote. What could it mean? Surely there was a hidden message in those three words. My spirits soared whenever an agent said something nice. I felt like a fool—shouldn’t a fifty-year-old woman have more self-respect?—but there it was. “Look!” I’d say to my husband. “She said I’m a really good speller!” “That’s wonderful, darling.” He might’ve been more relieved than I was when I finally got an agent.

The Call, by the way, came while I was visiting my sister-in-law and her husband in England. Their house was 400 years old and originally served as the library for the manor down the road. The front door was enclosed by a vestibule where patrons could return their books. Talk about scene setting! When Maria Carvainis called to tell me how much she loved my book, I felt the history of written word surrounding me.

I thought I’d be a wreck while my agent was shopping the book around, but I wasn’t. Maria has been an agent for thirty years and I trusted her completely. It was out of my hands, in any case, which was a relief. After a few months, she’d brokered a two-book deal with Claire Zion at Penguin/NAL. These two women have been incredible champions for my book, and I’m grateful. And lucky.

Amy: What sparked the idea for HOUSE BROKEN? Was it a person, place, thing? Did the story arrive fully formed? 

Sonja: I started with the main character, Geneva. She’s a veterinarian—and an expert in animal behavior—and rational to a fault. She thinks there’s a reason for everything and won’t let sleeping dogs lie. Once I fleshed out who she was, I set about making trouble for her. I gave her two slippery teenagers, a husband with a lax parenting style and an injured, alcoholic mother whom Geneva must take care of.

I had no idea where the story would lead and didn’t know the ending until I got there. No one was more surprised by this process than I was. Like Geneva, I prefer my ducks in a neat row, so the prospect of setting out to write a story without an outline was terrifying—and fun!

A few chapters in, I decided I wanted to hear from Geneva’s mother, Helen, so I wrote a chapter from her point of view. A couple chapters later, I began writing from the perspective of Geneva’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Ella. It felt right to give all three generations a voice in the family story, although most of the heavy-lifting in the narrative is done by Geneva. She’s the mom, after all.

Amy: I go through a lot of rewriting and rearranging when I draft a novel (especially the first novel)! Is the book that’s published the book you started writing? 

Sonja: Yes, but only because I edit as I go, again and again. I can’t leave a clunker sentence behind and tell myself I’ll fix it later. I have to know the color of the dress, the model of the car, the song on the radio, right then. It can’t be put off. If it sounds distracting, it is. I write slowly, at times painfully so. But I don’t know how to do otherwise. The up side is that most of my little darlings get killed before I get attached to them.

Amy: What part of the publishing process surprised you most? 

Sonja: Everything. Takes. Forever. Except when it’s due yesterday.

Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

Sonja: There’s so much great advice out there—including right here on your blog, Amy—that I’m not sure I’ve got something fresh. Here’s what I try to do whenever I sit down to write.

First, I attempt to tell the truth. I try to get past what I think I know about people and relationships and life, and find the unfiltered stuff. If I stop reading a book, that’s probably the reason: it’s skipping along the surface too much.

Second, I push to keep it interesting. Readers will stay with you if you keep them on their toes, and it doesn’t have to pertain to the central storyline. New writers might be wary of straying too far or of complicating the plot but, in my view, boredom is the greater danger.

Sonja Yoerg headshot 3Sonja Yoerg grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and published a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox (Bloomsbury USA, 2001). Sonja currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband, and they are often visited by their two college-aged daughter. HOUSE BROKEN is her first novel.

Facebook: SonjaYoerg


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35 thoughts on “Author Interiew: Debut Author Sonja Yoerg Rises From The Slush Pile After Querying 100+ Agents

  1. Great interview! It’s comforting to know there are other authors who write slowly and edit as we go along, not knowing the ending until we get there. I can relate to your journey, Sonja, in having a husband and two children standing behind me while getting a slew of “not for me’s” from too many agents, yet holding tightly to those lovely comments that come our way. Although I haven’t yet managed to sign with an agent, I have signed with an independent publisher and have just come through the long publication process myself with my novel, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley coming out in April. I wish you all the best with House Broken.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your answers, and the book sounds wonderful. I also have a little jealous thing going on about the the Trapp Family Lodge. We went there, walked around, oohed and aahed, but decided it was too expensive for us to even walk in the doors, so I’ve never gotten to see it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Liz, Thanks so much for stopping by! Yes, the Trapp Family Lodge is pricey, especially these days, but at least you can enjoy the gorgeous views of the mountains for free. The old lodge, which burned down in 1979, was truly special–carved woods and creaky floors and tons of character. Happy reading! Sonja


  3. I’ve been so waiting for this one – can’t wait to read it! Talk about a cover that sells books! I get an open shirted cowboy – she gets a sweet brown lab. Some authors get all the luck, dang it!

    Congrats, Sonja!!! May it be the first of MANY!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hey Sonja,
    We have a lot in common! I majored in biology, worked at UC Berkeley for a while (engineering department), and I now publish my novels with NAL/Penguin (though a different editor). You’re in great hands–they do a terrific job. I also was a late bloomer, publishing my first novel after fifty–and you know what? It’s a good thing! Gives us the perspective to know that writing is a journey of discovery quite apart from the whole publishing & sales process. Congratulations. Can’t wait to read your book. Thanks for sharing your story, and thanks to Amy for another wonderful interview.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Holly,
      Sounds like we’ve been living parallel lives! Thanks for your kind words and, yes, there are advantages to being a bit more–ahem–seasoned when venturing into publishing. Best of luck to you with your books, Penguin sister!


  5. Sonja & Amy, thank you for a fabulous post! LoveLoveLove this! You nailed it in so many ways that reflect and reconfirm my own experiences as a writer/editor/publisher. Brava! (BTW, I also wrote a novel about a female vet—it’s called A Kiss At Kihali, stars a baby rhino, and is set in an African animal orphanage.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Ruth, Lovely to see you here! As for your book, anything that stars a baby rhino has my approval. Did you spend time in Africa? I’ve been five times, and used to study spotted hyenas.


  6. It is always encouraging to read of how an author persevered! Congratulations to you on your publishing debut, and your two-book deal.  I visited Stowe, VT years ago, and loved the Trapp Family Lodge. What a beautiful setting!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. As Laura said about your cover, you sold me when I saw a chocolate lab that looks so much like my two labs! And the premise of your book sounds delightful – a vet (you got me there too!) and teenagers. Wow. Good luck and I’m so happy to hear that everything’s falling into place for you.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Pingback: New year, new goals | Write Despite

  9. What a wonderful interview. Thank you for sharing your journey, Sonja! As a 49 year-old aspiring novelist, I completely relate to you. My first novel is being shopped right now, and thankfully, I, too have complete faith in my agent to work the right deal for my book. Starting a career as an author at this stage of our lives is amazing, isn’t it? For me, I feel like my many experiences as a woman are being poured into rich characters and intriguing plots. I wish you great success on the novel and your writing career.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great words of encouragement, Sonja. I set a limit for myself of 75 agents for my debut novel and when I had reached 70 rejections, I started to investigate small presses. I sent out 5 queries to small presses and one publisher responded with the magic words, “We loved your story and would like to publish your book.” Sometimes I think we as authors get discouraged too easily. Henry Cole, a hugely successful writer friend of mine told me when I was complaining about how hard it was get my manuscript into the right hands: “If it was super easy, everyone in the world would be a writer.” So I shut my mouth and persevered. My book, Cut From Strong Cloth, was released November 2014!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Congrats on your book release, Linda, and kudos to you for hanging in there. It IS hard to keep going at times, but the alternative is worse. Wishing you and your writing career all the best!


  11. Writers are such a diverse lot. It’s cool when you find similarities. And I found many between us, in terms of process, Sonja. I too edit as I go and, after a history of plotting, am currently being put through the paces by a book (novella-length) that refuses such treatment. The good news is that today I finished the first draft.
    Wishing you much success, Sonja.
    Thank you for another interesting interview, Amy.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I agree with Amy and Andrea — a wonderful debut I was lucky enough to read before it was published. (I’m still astonished that a planner was able to write with zero road map! Bravo.) Another way we’re similar, Sonja — I’m a “fix as you go” writer and cannot help myself. I fully relate to the must know the “color of the dress, the model of the car, the song on the radio, right then” obsession. So happy for you and your debut!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Melissa, thanks for your unflagging support. I’m glad to know we are peas in a pod in many ways. There are so many ways to write, but somehow it’s comforting to know others share our quirks!


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