Theresa Park walked away from a successful career in law to enter the competitive world of publishing on the ground floor. A twist of fate landed a Nicholas Sparks’ manuscript on her desk and forever changed both their lives.
Born in the U.S. to immigrants of Japanese and Korean descent, Theresa had a globally diverse upbringing thanks to her father’s career with the United Nations. As a child she lived in Germany and Lebanon, but considers beautiful Vienna, Austria her hometown.
Today, Theresa not only brings fascinating tales to the world in her role as literary agent, she herself has an amazing story to share. Aside from her multi-faceted heritage and childhood, she has had an unconventional journey to Park Literary & Media, her highly successful, boutique-style agency based in New York City.
You have a degree from Harvard Law. How did that background lead you to where you are now?
I didn’t go to law school with the idea that I would be a litigator or a partner at a big firm. I went because I wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of my life. And during my summers, when most people were doing internships at law firms, I ended up working with human rights organizations—in Uganda and later in Turkey. So I really had this sense that my interests would lead me abroad.
But life is very unpredictable. I moved to Silicon Valley in the 90s to be close to where my mother was living because she was ill. It ended up being something that was really beneficial to me. It was an incredible learning experience, and many friends and mentors that I had while I was there are still important to me today. It was something of a detour for me, but it was a really interesting time to have been there.As valuable as that experience was, I didn’t love being a lawyer. When my mother recovered and went back to work full-time, I felt I could leave and she would be ok. My then-boyfriend, and now-husband, had accepted a job in New York. We wanted to be together, so I moved with him figuring I could get a job somewhere. But I didn’t want to go to a law firm. I wanted to do something different. I had been a Lit major so I thought maybe I could get into book publishing—about which I knew nothing. I moved there and started looking for anything related to writing, journalism or the arts. I looked into becoming a literary agent after reading a profile about a famous author. The article mentioned the author’s agent. I knew athletes have agents, so I figured they did something similar. I had been a transactional lawyer, so I thought maybe I could do that.
I reworked my resume and sent it to every literary agency in the city. I eventually got a job as an assistant with a mid-sized agency that had been around for many years. That’s how I got my start.
How did you end up representing Nicholas Sparks?
Nick had written a novel and sent a query letter to 25 agents. He had done his research and picked them for different reasons. He sent one to an agent at my agency, but he didn’t know that she had died very suddenly a few months before. We were still getting tons of mail for her, and her assistant was redistributing the projects that came in. She brought Nick’s query letter to me. My boss said the novel wasn’t for him, but maybe I should take a look at it. I thought, it’s about love between old people, it’s so schmaltzy! But he said I should just take a look and if it wasn’t good, I could just send it back.
I contacted Nick and he wanted to know who I was and how I had gotten his letter. I explained the whole story. At the time, I was still an assistant but had negotiated a deal with the agency that allowed me to take on projects right away. But I had never sold a novel before. Nick asked my age. I was 27, but he was only 28 at the time, so he gave me a chance. I soon discovered that a lot of people had asked to see the manuscript, but everyone else had turned it down. I was the only person who wanted to represent what later became The Notebook. That was 21 years ago.
What pushed you to eventually go out on your own?
That was a terrifying leap for me. I had never envisioned myself running my own business. But the agency I was with had been around so long, it was very difficult to change things there. When I decided to leave and interviewed around, I couldn’t find the right fit. Finally, my lawyer suggested I start my own business. I said I felt like I needed mentors, somebody to guide me. I was 35 at the time. He told me that maturity is a process of moving from a dependency on others to dependency on yourself. It was time for me to grow up.
When I left, I was able to take all of my clients with me, including Nick. I had negotiated that deal. When I first got to the agency, nobody had written agreements. It was all negotiated on the fly. I couldn’t imagine living like that. When you’re juggling roles, it encourages you to think in a longerterm way. You are much more concerned about security and the kind of environment in which you’re going to raise your kids.
Recently, you’ve also begun to produce feature films and TV projects. Tell us about that.
I never really envisioned I would be doing this. I sort of backed into this producing role in film and television. My entry point to that world was really Nick. With the first movies that were made—there are now 11 films based on his books—we weren’t that involved. But as his stature and success grew, he started playing a bigger role and eventually became a producer. Because we collaborated on everything in his business life, I just kind of naturally became his producing partner.
What has been exciting is to take some of that knowledge and experience and apply it to other books and projects that aren’t even necessarily written by my clients. It might not even be my typical genre, so it gives me an opportunity to take on different kinds of projects and even makes me read differently. I really love that. As a producer, I can work and develop any kind of film. I continue to learn and stretch my wings.