Gentle Jason Ashlock Ignores Recession, Opens Literary Shop

Ms. Strong helped Mr. Ashlock find his bearings in the city, introducing him to her “repertoire of friends and business associates,” among them gossip reporters like her friends Richard Johnson and Liz Smith. “I was an editor on the World Telegram, so I do have a lot of press contacts myself,” Ms. Strong said. “I was a known quantity.”

Mr. Ashlock loved the work right away, and when it came time to decide whether or not he would stay at Fordham to write a dissertation (his planned topic: Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and the New York School), he realized he wanted to pursue agenting full time. 

Before long, it became clear to Mr. Ashlock that although Ms. Strong took him to plenty of cocktail parties and treated him regularly to lunch at the Knickerbocker Club on 62nd, her name and her agency could only take him so far. Too often, he found himself pursuing authors and pitching editors too young to know or care about Ms. Strong’s reputation in old New York society—and when he did succeed in nabbing a client or selling a book, he knew it was because of him, not his affiliation.

So he spent his first year or so as an agent chasing small-time celebrities (like the “D.C. Madam,” before she committed suicide) and experts on various topics whom he heard interviewed on the news (like FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver, before the whole country discovered him). After briefly considering the possibility of leaving Ms. Strong for another job in publishing—he was turned down for assistant positions at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Hyperion—Mr. Ashlock resolved to set out on his own.

First stop, the Hamptons, where he spent almost every weekend last summer going to parties and looking obsessively for clients.

“I was like, ‘I need to figure out what I’m doing with my life. And if I’m gonna do this, I need to do it now and I gotta do it as hard as I can and as fast as I can,’” Mr. Ashlock said. “So, most people went to the Hamptons to relax, and I went there to sign them up. Which I think worked for everybody, in a way.”

At first, he said, he felt a bit like an alien. On one occasion, he ran into a journalist he’d met a few times in the city, and could tell from his face that he was visibly surprised to see him there.

“I’d had encounters with him before, but it was with Marianne Strong,” Mr. Ashlock said, pausing as if to picture himself. “I looked like a flack. I could tell he was like, ‘What are you doing here?’”

Nevertheless, the young out-of-towner found that plenty of people were willing to help him. Something about “showing the Southern guy around the Hamptons” appealed to them, apparently, and Mr. Ashlock was just fine with that.

“Nobody in the Hamptons ever feels comfortable with their insider status,” he said. “I think if you have an outsider on your arm, it sort of makes it easier. I was always attached to great people, and I was only ever going to a party because I was with somebody who would introduce me to people and show me around. I very quickly found that it kind of all made sense.”

Sitting at the Old Town, he told a couple of fish stories.

“I was on a sailboat in Sag Harbor, and when they docked and I got out, I met a guy who is doing a biography of Billy Joel,” Mr. Ashlock said. “Because he has—well, he lives next to Billy Joel and he goes sailing with Billy Joel. So he’s doing this intimate portrait of the man, the sailor, the islander.”

Another time, he said, he was at a wine tasting at Wolffer Estates, the big vineyard in Southampton, and met local food writer Sylvia Lehrer.

“She’s been out there for two decades writing for [Hampton’s mainstay] Dan’s Papers,” Mr. Ashlock said. “And she had a great cookbook called The Hamptons Table, and it’s beautiful and it’s brilliant and it’s authentic and it’s tied to the land. And it has a foreword by Alan Alda!”

Gentle Jason Ashlock Ignores Recession, Opens Literary Shop