Man Booker 50: How to find a Literary Agent

We are now based on Function room located on the 5th floor of the usual Royal Festival Hall. Two agents and one of their authors sit in front of us.

The first significant difference between the two is their age. While Claire Conville, has been in the publishing world for 35 years, Emma Paterson represents fresh names in the business such as Meghan Hunter, author of The End We Start From as well as the author of ‘Cat-person’ (a successful short-story published in December 2017 by The New Yorker). The other agent is Claire who brings the 2003 Man Booker Prize winner, DBC Pierre.

The first question is clearly directed to their daily life and if the first impression I get is that they don’t have much space nor time for personal life, the second, coming from Claire’s perspective gets even worse.

For those who are interested in the profession or are still waiting for an agent’s reply, this next part is elucidating. Most of their time is spent reading… e-mails. Claires wakes up at 4/5 am in the morning to start reading her inbox before heading to the office. As she says, ‘it’s a 24 hours cycle. Loads of e-mails and phone calls, looking after my authors, meetings with the team…’. Evenings are reserved for readings and launches, as for the weekends more work and reading.

By now heart-shaped balloons from Pride Parade fly all over the sky, passing London Eye and mixing themselves with the planes on their way to Heathrow Airport. The flag from Underbelly Festival dancing with the far away songs from the parade. And while I distract myself with the outside world, Claire’s list finally finishes with ‘loads of editorial work’. She believes that 80% of the manuscript should be ready to be published before being given to the publisher. And at this moment, right before the story that unites this agent and the writer, a question is raised: ‘What do you (agents) look for in a book?’

The answer is not helpful, but full of promise. To be honest, they do not know. In the end, they both agree that they want to be surprised. In addition, there is another factor involved, the first encounter with the narrative is told to be important, unforgettable and personal. Claire, advancing on the other agent’s silence explains: ‘I didn’t know [Pierre’s book] would win a Man Booker Prize, but I knew it could’.

When asked about the feeling on being chosen by an agent, Pierre laments ‘not everyone understood the book. Some readers still don’t. The good thing about being published is they will still read it’.

About his own process of writing Pierre’s reflection is distorted and well-known for those who put their stories into paper. ‘The minute you start think who the audience/reader will be you compromise. And so I tried to take that out of my head and wrote whatever I wanted, believing no one was ever going to read the book’. But when the work is finished that is a whole other story, ‘when I finished, there was fume coming out of the page, such was the energy I had put into it; when I finished I was happy so I sent it’.

Yet, leaving the author’s solitude was hard for this Man Booker winner, ‘by writing completely by myself I did not have anyone to understand it. We were completely alone. Me and my book. My book and me. It’s more difficult to find an agent than a publisher’.

Sympathetic with the writers who listen his words carefully he exclaims: ‘There are always people who want to write stories, and people who want to read stories’. He also adds, ‘there is something incredibly human under writing, the story has to tell the truth even if it offends someone. And that story connects people’.

There is yet another important note to take into account, agents will not send a novel out to publishers because it is talented. It has to be distinctive, word of advice?

‘The only thing we have is our unique self’.

On Q&A time, agents guarantee that all the manuscripts on their desks and computers are read and the writer usually gets an answer six weeks to two months after submission.

First step, finding the right agent. Do read acknowledgements on other books of the genre, most writers mention them. It is also advisable to write on the letter who inspire you as a writer, the courses you’ve done… everything related to the area you’re writing about because selling the manuscripts also means selling the writer authenticity and background.

In terms of presentation, it might differ from company to company/agent to agent but the submission details will be detailed on their websites. No manuscript will be rejected due to its presentation, yet those rules should be followed. And please, Claire personally asks, ‘don’t sent presents’.

In the very end, I finally follow the staff advice and go to the balcony to write. The sun is hiding and now there is no need for me to hid from it. The view is freely opened to seagulls and planes and children shouting and splash on the water fountain downstairs. It is noisy, it is full of life, it is central London.

Man Booker 50: Why the novel matters

The tickets were bought months ago and maybe that’s why when the day comes I do not know what to expect. Yet, the names ‘Man Booker 50’ does not promise less than great expectations.

I booked the first event at 10:30am on a Saturday more due to its name than to the author in question. If I aim to be totally honest, I did not know him by his name. It had escaped me even from my recently pursue for Man Booker prize winners. How? I am still not sure.

Winner of that same prize in 2010 and author of one of the most famous books about the T-word, everyone acclaims him for his sense of humor on this satire Pussy.

As I said, my tickets have been bought months ago and only then, entering the room five minutes after the starting time, I understand how close I am.

The meters that separate me from Howard Jacobson are not more than 5. And when he stands to read his talk, his mastery and love for words and language are notable. It seems I am even closer, metaphysically speaking.

I would not say he is indistinguishable, but I have to admit his sense of humour is beyond undeniable and his arguments find -the truth. The truth that, as Jacobson says at some point, no one knows what is. Questioning the truth, the writing, the arguments or the value of the novel leads us to an interesting pint about the artist’s will on his own creation. For Jacobson, the best novels are the ones and set away from the writer, where the author asks himself, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’. Being creative or creativity in general simply means doing stuff. Because again, the truth is,  and probably the only one authors can agree with and believe to be truly true, ‘it is not art we’re interested in, it’s ourselves’.

But if it is notorious how novels matter, it is also visible the format is in a fight. As Jacobson highlights several times in his talk, ‘not in danger, in a fight. The novel is in good health, what is not in good health is the reader’, a matter that Jacobson believes social media is to blame for. Blaming mainly twitter, for being T-word’s weapon, this argument comes back to the stage in the Q&A, when editors and publishers demand a page.turner manuscript to those who pursue publication. The fight plot vs language can be considered an academic discussion, especially by comparison studies. Page-turners are a virus which may be considered guilty for the lack of literacy today. They are the demand of generations who are now used to instant reactions due to our relationship with the green. There is a lack of patience on the reader who is not able to enjoy a book where the pleasure is mainly on its language.

If the most obvious solution is stepping away from the screen, the most obvious answer is a massive social and emphatic ‘NO’. Even if it is literacy and our own concentration the ones on jeopardy. In Jacobson opinion readers need than to be educated in schools and universities. Which makes me wonder, could that really work when most young people hate the English Literature classes? This is all connected, after all.

The interviewer, a literature teacher herself, defends twitter at least for the possibility of contact between reader and author. As you can probably tell, Twitter has now turned into a joke between stage and audience. To the argument presented he answers: ‘I have never wanted to be in contact with an author in my life. You want to be in contact with me, read my novels’.

During the talk, there are amazing mentions to Dickens, DW Lawrence, Kundera, Henry James and a few to Jane Austen and George Elliot. The interview question is predictable in the 21st century. He admits to admire them, especially Austen for her mastery in comedy and knowledge on women.

In the end there is time to ask about Orwell and politics. Jacobson believes a writer should not be judged for not writing about misogyny or colonialism. In fact, he believes they shouldn’t even be judged by the place they take when they do include them in their novels. If there is something to judge is their choice on using it on the narrative.

And of course there are questions about Pussy, which the author explains can not be considered a novel. Mainly because on novels, people tend to sympathise to the main character and he did not wish that with a person as Trump.

Yet, Trump seemed to opened an exception in Howard Jacobson writing. He admits that when asked if a certain character is a real person he always say ‘no’, hoping that the person is not annoyed with fictional features. Nowadays, people are more offended when ‘no’ is the answer. Which is directly connected to an endless discussion on autobiography and fiction to which he easily, and even beautifully, responds: ‘The moment you put punctuation in your own life it’s not life, it’s art’.

And speaking of endless discussions, literary translation is not forgotten, appearing at the end of Q&A.

Relying on his passion for language, Howards is a believer that a good writer teamed up with a good translator prove his argument. If it is good, if it is well written (especially within the European literature) the particularities of the author’s voice and language  will get through.

As I sit now, hiding on the shadow of Queen Elizabeth Hall, I face my notebook’s page hardly without touching my phone to check time or answer some messages. From this exact spot, again meters away from Howard Jacobson giving autographs and making a few more jokes I imagine, I look around. Famous Man booker winners walk up and down  Southbank like any other human being. Most of them strangers to the common and non-reading souls. And near the margins of river Thames all the winner novelists blend perfectly with the novelists- to-be.


*The podcast of this amazing talk will be available Tuesday 12th July at 10pm on BBC3*


London Lit Fest VI

Everyone reenters the room with Foyles bags. The visual message of how good the first session was. The natural day light is disappearing and I decide to take a photo of the background that have been placing us in these conversations. I also come prepared after buying a pin to support women writers. Not because they need financial support, but because they need people to believe in them. In the UK, a high percentage of men do not read novels written by women. The question is: Do women write as women or do they write as writers? The Swedish guest replies ‘being a woman is too confined’, but then it is also true that most times women are giving voice to those who silence themselves, other women.

While questioning if there is a sense of entrapment in women’s mind, the opinions vary. And the tension vanishes when the author of ‘Butterflies in November’ says she gives recipes at the end of her book, apparently her editor said there was food in every page and with her characteristic humour she highlighted ‘you have to feed your characters, it’s a long novel!’. We do get trap in the conversation, ‘I never met any ordinary person, sorry’, one says. ‘We say love so easily, but what is love? Do we feel it?’ other wonders, gesturing around in order to get understood. And discussing a theme as real as ‘Equal women’, I get trap in time again. Since both the novels here, today, were both published twenty years ago. Why did it take all this time to have these women at a huge festival like this? It is something we can think about for awhile. After all, they are right ‘language has been used to get power and justify it, instead of building bridges’. I look outside, to what I photographed before. There, are bridges everywhere.