Literary agent Colleen Oefelein knows a lot about living under the uncomfortable glare of a media spotlight she never sought. In 2007, she was working as an Air Force captain and chemical engineer when her boyfriend’s ex, equipped with a drilling hammer and an 8-inch folding knife, attacked her in an airport parking lot. The incident made news around the world because Oefelein’s boyfriend (now husband) was an astronaut, as was his former lover, who was charged with attempted murder and kidnapping. The story became known as “The Astronaut Love Triangle, and involved details so outlandish — like the fact that the perpetrator allegedly wore a diaper to save time — it eventually inspired a 2019 movie starring Natalie Portman.
It was a harrowing period and one she’d never want to relive, but in a way, Oefelein tells me now in a soft voice that belies the tough, commanding jobs she’s had in the past, that experience prepared her for the next time she would face a swarm of negative headlines. The second attack came in the form of a cancellation mob.
A New Career
After the trial against her assailant was over, Oefelein and her husband relocated to Wasilla, Alaska, a region of glassy lakes and snow-capped mountains, where she began to process her trauma through journaling. That turned into writing a memoir, which eventually led her to publish a novel. Through the process, Oefelein learned the ins and outs of the publishing industry. As a high-energy literature lover, she realized that along with being an author, she had the ideal skills for helping other would-be writers find homes for their work.
She spent the next few years working for a small, startup agency. But when it closed in 2018 due to the owner’s illness, she gratefully accepted a position as an associate with the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency (JDLA), an established boutique outfit with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Looking at their roster of clients that included bestselling authors like “Elf on The Shelf’s” Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, and celebrities like Ed Asner and Tippi Hendren, Oefeleien thought big things might be on the horizon. She gave little thought to the fact that she didn’t share her new employer’s politics.
“I knew the first time I talked to [owner Jennifer De Chiara] that she was on the Left,” Oefelein tells me. “She was very, very proud of having met the Clintons. She talked about that a lot.”
In general, Oefelein finds politics boring, but she is a Christian, and if pressed to describe her ideology, she says she considers herself a moderate conservative who leans left on a few issues. So she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about how partisan her colleagues were, and she disliked the amount of time they wasted bashing President Trump during meetings: “I kept thinking, ‘Man, I have things I need to do. Can we just get back to business?’ It was a little frustrating.”
Further frustrating was when, in January, an open letter began circulating in the publishing world calling for agents and editors to pledge not to work with any member of the Trump Administration or anyone associated with it. Three of Oefelein’s coworkers signed and were encouraging others to do the same.
Privately, Oefelein thought, “I’m not signing a petition to not work with people. That’s ridiculous,” she recalls. She also thought, “Wow, you know, what a way to really alienate a segment of the market.”
Still, she kept her objections to herself and threw her energy into attracting quality authors and manuscripts, something her agency advised her to use social media to accomplish.
“I’m not really a big social media user,” Oefelein shares, “But in our one of our monthly discussions our guidance was that we needed to do more to connect to people more on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and stuff like that.”
Thus, when a comedian she followed on Twitter mentioned that he was going to Parler and Gab because he appreciated their commitment not to police speech, Oefelein thought the platforms sounded like new opportunities to reach untapped talent. In November 2020, she opened accounts herself and began cross-posting the same content she put on Twitter and Facebook, offering free manuscript critiques and describing the kinds of books she was interested in representing — mostly romance and young adult novels.
What she never posted, unlike her associates who routinely shared strident leftwing views on all manner of subjects, was anything remotely political.
‘A Voice of Unity, Equality, and One that Is On the Side of Social Justice’
As writer Kat Rosenfield has detailed in The New Yorker, the world of young adult fiction has become an increasingly toxic whisper network wherein anonymous burner accounts torpedo the careers of agents and authors for such offenses as writing about characters of another color or calling the police on Black Lives