THERE’S AN OLD JOKE in the pub-
lishing industry— a writer returns
home to get the message: “Your house
burned down, your spouse left you,
your dog died and your agent called.”
The writer replies, “My agent called?”
There are two truths to be found in this:
one, the power of a literary agent is im-
mense in the life of any writer lucky enough
to have one. They can often make the differ-
ence between stardom or starvation. And
truth number two: They can often be as
elusive and aloof as the success one hopes
they’ll bring to an author.
Sandra Dijkstra, Ph.D. ’76, completely
shatters this last stereotype, along with
many other longstanding beliefs in the
literary scene. In fact, her entire career is
built upon breaking one of the most longstanding notions in publishing: that one
can never make it outside of New York City.
“They call it being ‘out there,’” says Dijk-
stra. “Early on, many New York friends said
it couldn't be done—I'd have to move back
east. Now they say just the opposite.”
Yet before she could make her name “out
there,” she had to get noticed in the Big
Apple. Dijkstra’s break into agenting came
about in part by accident, and with an al-
most literary level of irony, her success was
born from the very kind of rejection that
she now unfortunately has to dole out to
BY JARRETT HALEY
Literary agent Sandra Dijkstra,
Ph.D. '76, is an author's lifeline.
others, along with the good news, of course.
Dijkstra was fresh from UC San Diego,
sporting her new Ph.D., when she took a
trip to New York in 1979 as a member of
the MLA Commission on the Status of
Women, with the hope that publishers
might be interested in her dissertation.
The houses all declined to read it, saying
they needed a book proposal. She had just
happened to bring along a proposal from
Lillian Faderman, a friend introduced to
her by then-Geisel librarian Fran Newman.
Faderman’s book caught the attention of
publishers, and the bidding began.
“I came back home and told Lillian, ‘ They
think I’m your agent!’” Dijkstra recounts.
“And she said, ‘ Well then, do it!’”
Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men
would become Dijkstra’s first sale. It was
an exciting moment, tempered by the dev-
astating loss of Dijkstra’s mother, who left
her with the means to do something bold.
While teaching literature at UC San Diego,
she started the Sandra Dijkstra Literary
Agency, and in a few years became a major
player in the industry from out west.
“Keep in mind this was before the internet. I loved books, yet I knew nothing about
publishing. How could I possibly make it
work from out here?” Dijkstra says. “But I
told myself: ‘Yes, you can!’ and went to New
York and made an appointment with every
head of every major publishing house.”
DIJKSTRA MADE IT WORK. She added writers to her list and hosted the show “Books
West” on KPBS, interviewing authors and
publishers visiting Southern California.
Then, in 1987, she sent a letter of interest to
a then-unknown writer named Amy Tan,
ultimately rescuing Tan from a technical
writing day job and making her a phenomenon with the mega-bestseller The Joy Luck
Club. Yet one wonders if the book would
have become such a hit—or even been a
book at all—had it kept its original title.
“Amy named it Wind and Water, from
the I Ching,” Dijsktra explains. “It was