Literary agent Irene Skolnick died June 27, 2019 after a long illness. She was 80 years old.
Skolnick began her publishing career at The Hudson Review, where she was managing editor, in addition to assisting in the early years of Parnassus: Poetry in Review. Later she worked as the director of subsidiary rights at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and during that time also worked under Frank Conroy at the National Endowment for the Arts and Literature. She \was also a founding member of the Community of Literary Magazines & Presses.
In 1994 Skolnick founded her eponymous literary agency with a focus on representing literary and up-market fiction, history, memoir, biography, YA, and middle grade. She was a member of the Association of Authors Representatives, PEN, and the Women’s Media Group. Among the many authors Skolnick represented were Peter Cameron, Allegra Goodman, Dan Hofstadter, Joyce Johnson, James Lasdun, the late David Rakoff, Vikram Seth, and Edward Sorel.
Plans for a memorial will be announced in the near future.
Novelist, critic and columnist Dale Peck adds this warm remembrance:
“I’m sorry to have to report that the wonderful agent Irene Skolnick has left us. Irene chaperoned a lot of writers into the world, including me for the first five years of my career. Though we parted company twenty years ago, we remained in touch, and the literary world is a little less classy without her in it.
Irene was the kind of woman people described as larger than life in polite company, though the truth is she was a good old-fashioned dame, brassy, a ball buster and ass kicker, with hair and lips always dyed some flamboyant shade of magenta and no outfit complete until it had a patterned shawl or a bit of mink trim.
She was New York through and through, cultured, bawdy, delighted by new things, always up for a good time. Once I came by her office and she told me that she’d forgotten a bag at the pharmacy and would I go downstairs and get it for her. I went down and asked the pharmacy folks if they’d seen a bag lying around but it didn’t turn up. Only when I was back in Irene’s office did she inform me that the bag had had a dildo in it. If you know me (or knew her) you’ll know this only made me love her more.
Anyone who ever met her knows how generous she was, how indefatigable and fearsome on behalf of her clients. One time in 1993 we had meeting at FSG, which at the time had a small display window in the elevator vestibule in which were featured eight or nine of their recent titles. They dutifully put Martin and John in the window after it was published, but when we came for our meeting perhaps two weeks after pub there was just an empty space where my book had been.
When my poor editor greeted us and asked Irene how she was, she said she’d be a lot better if she knew why my book had been removed from the front window. John blanched, and it was all he could do to stammer out that Roger Strauss had taken it into a meeting with a foreign publisher. Irene didn’t miss a beat. Instead of apologizing, she asked if FSG was so broke they couldn’t afford a second copy to keep up front. I have to say, I think she took a particular pleasure in busting John’s chops.
She taught me everything I know about publishing—about, specifically, the way publishing used to be, when agents fought tooth and nail with your editor while they were selling your book and then formed an alliance to do everything they could for the book once the deal was done.
Though she had her share of big successes, she was never in it for money. She loved writing and she loved writers. Her favorite adjective to describe a book she liked was “Wonderful!” which she pronounced in a particularly wet manner, in way that made reading sound like a sensual activity. When she described one of your own books that way you felt as if it had come alive, as if it had moved out of the circumscribed world of art and the imagination and become tangible and useful in a way that art rarely is. Not an intellectual or emotional performance, but something that imparted genuine, lasting pleasure.
One of my teachers in grad school, Joyce Johnson, who was also Irene’s client, suggested I send her a story. I of course sent two. Irene called me the following week and said, Send me everything you’ve ever written. I did, and she signed me anyway, and it was that validation more than anything else that made me feel like I was a real writer. I was 22 or 23, a little gay boy who’d lost his mother at an early age, and Irene was fifty and childless, and though our relationship wasn’t maternal exactly, it was as emotional as it was professional, and sometimes more the former than the latter.
For five years we spoke on the phone two or three times a day, and I’m sure if we’d worked together during the age of email and texting our phones would’ve been pinging constantly. When I began having anxiety attacks in my late 20s, it was Irene who found me a shrink, and when I mentioned that I wanted to put in window boxes it was Irene who came to my apartment and showed me how to line the bottom of the box with pieces of broken terra cotta and lay the soil on top of it, how to tap a plant out of its pot and loosen the roots if it had become potbound and then place them in the window box with what I thought was unnecessary roughness, although she assured me the plants weren’t as fragile as they looked.
She was a clotheshorse but she had no qualms about getting dirty when she gardened. Like everything else she loved, she made you love it too, by her enthusiasm and knowledge and what we used to call lustiness, and twenty-five years later I still do my window boxes every year, and still have a visceral memory of her every time I remove a plant from its nursery pot and see the fine webbing of white roots holding in a perfect frustum of soil like a lace purse stuffed with cash. She had me plant geraniums that first year, because geraniums are gorgeous and hard to kill, and for whatever reason I decided to plant geraniums this year, for the first time in I don’t know how long. Let’s call it kismet, because she deserves that, and these splashes of beauty and fragrance outside my bedroom (there’s mint in there too) are directly due to her
I heard that her passing wasn’t pleasant, even as death goes, and I hope that wherever she is she’s at peace now, and there are lots of flowers and books, because she loved them both.