Role Reversal

Humanities6 MIN READ

Eleanor Jackson ’02 now works as the literary agent for her former professor, Debra Spark

Eleanor Jackson poses for a portrait at her office in New York City. (Photo by Hilary Swift)
By Meredith McCarroll
March 13, 2024

Over lunch in New York City, a Colby professor and her former student are catching up. They talk easily, like old friends. When the server brings the check, though, the situation becomes tense. The student reaches for the check first. There is a discussion. There is silence. And then there is laughter.

Eleanor Jackson ’02 is not only the former student of Zacamy Professor of English Debra Spark, she is also her literary agent. The ambiguity of roles in moments like this is the result of the relationship that has morphed over 20 years since Spark first directed Jackson’s honor thesis at Colby. Today, it is Jackson who is here to support Spark, whose latest novel, Discipline, will be released this week.

The roles have reversed.

When they first met in 2002, Jackson was an English major and art history minor. She was writing a collection of short stories for an honors thesis. Spark, a writer who teaches fiction courses at Colby, was assigned to Jackson for the project. Though the two had never met, it did not take long for each to be impressed with the other.

Eleanor Jackson ’02 is a literary agent with Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency and represents fiction and nonfiction in a range of categories. (Photo by Hilary Swift)

Jackson recalls that Spark was a great reader, who led her line by line through the stories. “I came to her with a collection in progress of short stories. She was incredible. The first thing she ever did as an advisor was she gave me a list of probably 15 to 20 books to read,” she said. “It was one of the more useful teaching things that anyone ever gave me. She has such an eye for what writers will help other writers with their writing.”

Spark recalls that years later, when they reconnected, she was surprised to learn that Jackson had read every book on the list. What impressed Spark initially, though, was simply how smart this young woman was. She showed up with “tight” stories and seemed to have a clear idea of next steps in her career.

Working with words

Jackson, who grew up in Westchester County—just outside of New York City—had long imagined working in the world of words. With a family friend who worked in publishing, Jackson remembers being intrigued by the field. As an elementary school student, she thought, “‘Oh my god, you can do this for a career?’ From a pretty young age, it was always in my head.” Still, she credits Spark for taking seriously the opportunity to work in publishing.

Debra Spark
Zacamy Professor of English Debra Spark (photo by Nicole Wolf Green)

“Debra Spark is the reason I got into publishing in the first place,” Jackson recalled. “She said, ‘It seems like you have a good instinct.’ I took her advice. I got an internship and that led to a job and here I am.”

When Spark and Jackson sat down to talk about her thesis draft, the conversations often went to books they were both reading. Jackson recalled this as a pivotal moment, in which she understood herself and felt understood. “We were supposed to be talking about my writing, but I wanted to be talking more about the books that she had assigned. That probably was the first signal to everyone that I was much more of a reader than a writer.”

With encouragement from Spark, Jackson enrolled in the Columbia Publishing Course, Columbia Journalism School’s intensive program that prepares students to work in publishing. Within the broad world of publishing, she found her way to agenting. She realized that she wanted to be able to build relationships with writers more than she wanted to work with individual texts. Reflecting on her two decades in the field, Jackson remains grateful for the work she does. It isn’t just that she gets to read for a living.

“I get to shape careers,” she said.

Several years after Jackson graduated from Colby, Spark was looking for a new agent. She remembered Jackson and their great conversations about writing and reached out to her. Spark shared her latest book with Jackson and the relationship began anew.

A gift and a dream

In each person’s version of the story, there is a nuanced difference. For Jackson, the opportunity to represent Spark was a gift. For Spark, being represented by Jackson was a dream. Each felt like the lucky one. Talking about it now, years into their agent-client relationship, that sense of mutual respect and admiration is apparent, bolstered by both agent and writer.

Jackson recalled the decision to serve as agent to her former professor as “the most obvious thing in the world. It felt like the best and easiest transition. An extension of the relationship we already had.” Similarly, Spark feels grateful to have an agent like Jackson. “I completely, completely trust her. … She’s incredibly steady. Good moral judgment and good literary judgment.”

Jackson, who now works with Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, has been an agent since graduating from Colby. She represents fiction and nonfiction in a range of categories, including literary, commercial, memoir, art, food, science, and history. Some of her best-known projects are The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner, and Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson.

In that time, Spark has published five novels, two anthologies, two essays of books about fiction, and two collections of short stories. This week, Four Way Books will release her latest novel, Discipline, which the publisher describes as “a propulsive literary mystery about family strife and devotion, ambition and authorship, and the abiding and mysterious power of art.”

Spark will discuss her writing with Associate Professor of English Sarah Braunstein, whose novel Bad Animals will be released next week, and Maine writer Monica Wood at 6 p.m. March 28 at the Mechanics’ Hall in Portland.

Spark began teaching at Colby in 1995 after studying at Yale and Iowa Writers Workshop. Over the years, she has continued to teach fiction and has continued to connect with and stay in touch with students.

Each time she sits down with Jackson, she brings some expectations as her former professor. “When I see a student, I feel parental. I’m the one who’s supposed to draw them out. I’m the one who is supposed to see how they’re doing. I’m the one who takes the student out,” she said.

The evolving relationship calls for more than just a former role. When Jackson speaks of Spark, there is an equal level of protection and pride. “I honestly think that she is an incredible writer. It’s so clear to me that as a novelist she is so good. So my job is easy.”

And when the bill comes, Eleanor Jackson is determined to get the last word. “There’s no way I’m not paying. The one thing an agent can actually reliably promise is a free lunch. There’s no question that I’m paying for all food and coffee for the rest of our lives.”