Gina Panettieri: How Does She Do IT?!

Gina Panettieri, President and Founder of Talcott Notch Literary agency with her children: Rachel, Aaron and Aric on a camping trip.

Few executives are as engaging or as approachable as Gina Panettieri, a 20 year veteran in publishing. I could sense her boundless energy and excitement about her job and her family during our phone conversation. Gina has built an incredible career helping other authors get published—and she did so while juggling her own writing endeavors and raising  three children as a single mom. Gina worked as a freelance editor, writer, agent and now founder of Talcott Notch Literary agency, which she established in 2003.

Milford, Connecticut-based Talcott Notch, is a rapidly-growing boutique agency that seeks to represent “fresh new voices in fiction and nonfiction.” Gina’s writers have been published with small indie publishers as well as major players such as McGraw-Hill, Wiley, Berkley, HarperCollins and others. And I could tell from our conversation that Gina loves working with her writers and finding new ways to inspire them while thriving in this ever-changing publishing environment. Her ability to adapt in business seems to be rooted in the very fact that she has become an expert in change and finding new ways to succeed while juggling multiple roles—something she had to master as a single mom, and likely why she seems so mothering and supportive of her writers.

I discovered Gina via her well-written and insightful book: The Single Mother’s Guide to Raising Remarkable Boys , which she published in 2008. The book is based on her own experience—but also on research in such areas as financial and educational grants for mothers. Gina’s book helps prepare newly single moms to tackle the many varying roles required of them and to find inspiration to do so. As one can imagine, I’m thrilled to interview Gina for NV’s Single Working Mother Series!

Q: As the single mom of two young boys, I can relate to many things that you write about in your book. What especially resonated with me is the need to find good male role models and the many jobs moms juggle for their kids, including: “coach, chef, cheerleader, buddy, housekeeper, teacher, disciplinarian, and nurturer.” How did you best manage all these roles as a working single mom?

GP: I’m never going to say it’s easy, because it’s not. One thing I did very intentionally was build a career where I worked for myself and could set my own hours. Those were long hours, but they were flexible. I also made certain I was up an hour before my kids were. I needed to clear the decks, get my day’s agenda set and orient myself before anyone was up needing me. If your kids are up before you, you’re always going to be behind the eight-ball since the first thing that will hit you upon awakening is some problem, some issue. You need your own time to get your head clear.

Know your limits. Don’t beat up on yourself if something’s not perfect. Streamline housekeeping by getting rid of what you don’t need and learn the world’s not going to implode if you eat sandwiches for dinner. Set your priorities, and do it right. Time with the kids, being there with them, is the most important thing. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to something that would stretch your resources too far, or find someone reliable and trustworthy to help, whether it’s carpooling your kid to sports, or tutoring in a subject you’re not that great in (a little rusty on that Trig? Call your cousin the engineer or a neighbor). Skype is a wonderful thing.

Beyond that, in being able to act in a number of different and often conflicting roles with the kids, I found it important to speak very directly and openly with them. Establishing rules, expectations, discussing the realities of our living situation. As a single parent home, we couldn’t possibly have the same lifestyle as the high-income, dual parent families and we needed to keep a dialogue about that.
(Later in a follow-up phone interview, Gina suggested that some parents seek out a big brother/big sister program to find good mentors for their kids. I think that’s a great idea, as it’s tough to qualify as a big brother and most are stable and not likely to move out of the area any time soon.)

Q: What advice do you have for other working single moms to help them manage the guilt we all feel when trying to juggle work responsibilities and passions with that of parenting?

GP: You know, all working moms feel the same guilt. We’re all in the same boat. That doesn’t go away even if you had a partner at home helping. I think the most important thing to do is to make time to spend with your children every day and not let them get swept away on the tide of your responsibilities. Make it OUR time. Don’t let yourself be so busy you can’t talk to them, or come sit with them for a while. That’s one of the reasons I got up before them in the morning, to try to get the little pesky duties out the way before they got up. Yes, the laundry may pile up, and the dishes may not get done. Have them help you with them and do them together. We actually were renovating the home we were living in and I taught my boys (and some of their friends) how to lay wood flooring and we all did it together and it was fun. (I did end up with some socks stuck between floorboards as the pieces were nailed in place (!), but we cut them away all but for a few threads that became part of the living, breathing home we were building together). Share what you do with them. And when you’re in the car, pull their damned headphones out and make them talk! Seriously, no tuning out, you or them.

Q: How old are your children?

GP: Now, gosh, Rachel, my older is 32 and has two sons who are going on 12 and 9. My sons, Aaron and Aric, are 29 and 26. And Aric  and his wife have a little baby daughter, Jordan, who is 18 months. Can I get an AWWW? Aric’s with the 82nd Airborne and his wife works full-time from home on post with the baby at home, so she’s employing a lot of those multi-tasking skills! But when I started working as a single mom, Rachel was in college and Aaron and Aric were in middle-school and high school. Keep in mind, we also had a number of other boys who came to live in our home from other situations, whether because they were in extremely conflicted relationships at home with new step-parents and everyone needed room, or they were orphaned and their local relative was already overwhelmed with their own children, or they simply had no place else to turn. It was often a houseful!

Q: Was there a stage in your working life and in your boys’ lives that was more difficult for you to juggle? I dread the teenage years, for instance, and worry that I may not have enough time to spend with them—or that I won’t be able to help them navigate issues with sex, drugs or video games. Was this a tricky period for you? And if so, what helped you through it?

GP: Time-wise, the younger years were more difficult because they simply needed more sheer time. But the teen years were more emotionally-complex. I got through those by keeping the lines of communication open and not being judgmental. It’s a practice that needs to start early. Don’t ever think you’ll get a teen to sit down and stare into your eyes and pour his or her heart out! Talk while doing other things. Talk about other people. Don’t probe, but let them get around to talking about themselves in their own time. Be interested in their lives but don’t criticize their friends. They may be testing you in reporting something that happened to see how you will react. Instead, ask them how they or others saw or felt about the event. Own up to your own errors (my favorite line is to wail ‘I’m such a dumbass!’ when I screw up, which cracks them up). If you try to be ‘perfect parent’, you’re setting too high a bar for them to clear to talk honestly to you. Laugh. A lot. Not at them (well, sometimes, in private), but with them and at yourself.

Q: I read in a LiveStrong article that you advise single moms to: “Search for federal grant options available for single mothers via grants.gov.” Is this still the way to go for single moms seeking educational grants for low-income families?

GP: Yes, but look at ALL resources. When my single-mother low-income adult daughter went back to school, we dug deep and found local organizations that would supply money to untraditional students (the Network of Executive Women paid Rachel’s way through summer session). Check out fastweb.com, too. Register there to learn about all sorts of financial aid opportunities (and I mean ALL kinds! There was a $500 prize for a 100 word ‘essay’ on your least favorite vegetable sponsored by a bunkbed company). Check out individual colleges and what special programs they have for returning adult students. I found one college in the west (noted in my book) that had special scholarships for single parents and even had furnished apartments for them on campus as part of the package. You won’t know what’s out until you research, and think outside the box. Don’t think all your money has to come from one source. Cobble together bits and pieces from here and there.

Q: I understand that your children are now grown and that you have married. Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently as a single mom?

GP: Hm. That’s a tough one. Every mistake taught us something, so there’s value in those. Perhaps understand that there are some relationships that you may think they need to have that they’re really best off NOT maintaining. Children don’t need to have a father in their lives who will ultimately be toxic, even if they feel rejected by him and thus jump at any chance to be with him. YOU have to be strong and advocate for what is best. Look at the bigger picture of what patterns of behavior do to a child. They need caring adults, not necessarily someone who shares their genetic material.

Q: It’s so inspiring to meet other single (or formerly single) moms who managed to pursue their passions and thrive in their careers while also raising kids alone. As a former freelance writer, editor and now agent, what are you currently pursuing? Do you have any more writing endeavors of your own slated for the future?

GP: I’m focused on really expanding my business, taking it successfully through the transitions that publishing’s experiencing right now. We’re also more deeply-involved than ever in shaping our clients’ projects, editing and working with them to shape them for market. It’s become ever more competitive in publishing, so the writers need every edge we can give them. We’re also looking into the new business of agency-publishers, where agencies sometimes act as publishers for projects they passionately believe in but which don’t fit squarely into the traditional publishing model.

We’re building our relationships with film studios, foreign publishers, and multi-media producers as well, expanding our own personal network. I’m building something for the newer agents coming up, and for the children of our agents who will be joining us in years to come.

We also do workshops called ‘boot camps’ for Writers Digest about once a month, helping new writers hone their skills and develop their craft. These are done virtually, over the course of a weekend. It’s exhausting, but enjoyable and the writers report they’re getting a great deal out of it, so that’s music to my ears. Now, at my stage of the game, it’s about giving back, teaching, mentoring.

I don’t have any full-length writing in the works at the moment. I’m having too much fun playing with my clients’ work right now!

Q: Which projects and clients has Talcott represented that you are most proud of?

GP: I’m tremendously proud of all of them! Some of them have stood out as exceptional, like Beth Fehlbaum’s COURAGE series (Patience in Courage, Hope in Courage, and other titles to follow), which are based on her own experiences as a survivor on childhood sexual abuse. These have gotten so many heartfelt letters of thanks from victims, teachers and counselors, I know they’ve touched a lot of lives.

We’ve also heard so many wonderful thank-you’s for Kim Lutz’ THE WELCOMING KITCHEN cookbook, which are recipes that are completely allergen-free. Kim’s the mother of a child with multiple allergies and this cookbook is the culmination of all her love and learning and for once, allergy-free eating tastes good! (To read a bit about her, visit her blog, Welcoming Kitchen.)

I have a special place in my heart for Bruce Wolk’s MADE HERE, BABY! This book was painstakingly researched to compile listings and histories of manufacturers that make their goods for babies and families exclusively here in America, using all-American parts, assembly, packaging, and paint. There’s a special emphasis on women-owned businesses in Bruce’s book. It’s so important to be sure what you have in your home is safe, so this is really quite a resource.

Brette Sember’s wide range of books and magazine articles makes her the quintessential freelancer, from original concept cookbooks like THE MUFFIN TIN COOKBOOK to her highly-specialized legal self-help guides, like GAY AND LESBIAN PARENTING CHOICES, and business books like the popular ESSENTIAL SUPERVISOR’S GUIDE. A former family law-attorney and guardian ad litem, she opted to leave a career outside the home to work from home writing to be with her children.

Q: Talcott has helped publish many parenting books, such as THE CONNECTED CHILD (McGraw-Hill), the #1 adoption book in America, by Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. David Cross and Wendy Lyons Sunshine. What topics or genres are you currently seeking to represent?

GP: We’re really omnivores. The only things we don’t work with are picture books and poetry. We love hard-hitting nonfiction, beautifully-written literary fiction, mysteries, history, medicine and science, psychology, business, memoir and all sorts of books for tweens and teens. Between the four of us at Talcott Notch, we handle just about everything.