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The Christmas interview

December 13, 2009

Two utterly disparate thoughts are in my head as we launch into one of the busiest weeks of the year.
The first: A gentleman whose work I recently turned down, emailed me back (very kindly) and said. ‘It’s nice to think there’s a real person out there.’ Which reminded me again how agents must often seem so distant, enigmatic – and beastly.

The second: The Wee Man is growing up. Now, if you don’t know who on earth The Wee Man is, here’s a photo of him. This guy – our office intern – shot to international fame when he starred in his very own post [The view from under the desk] a few months ago, and many of you reference him in your emails to me. Now seven months old and incredibly mature in his literary acumen, the WM is truly punching above his weight in the Greenhouse.

So – with the jollity of Christmas fast approaching, and with the team feeling unusually mellow, WM has come up with the idea of interviewing me. Yes, me! It’s embarrassing, and it’s taken him ages to convince me, but let’s say this is my small attempt to let you into my Secret World – and convince you I’m not a complete wart on the rear of humanity. That I am, indeed, a ‘real person’!

So, take it away Wee man . . . .

OK, boss. So let’s start at the very beginning. What is your earliest memory?

A pale pink dress that I wore for my ballet class’s Daisy Chain Dance; the excruciating embarrassment of being on stage and everyone laughing.

Snow: there was a lot more snow in Britain back in the winters of my childhood. Tracking the milkman and convincing ourselves he was a burglar.

JFK’s death: I was sick in bed and given the tiny portable black-and-white TV to entertain myself. There was only one hour of children’s programming per day, so I watched the News. Images of the assassination broke in; I climbed out of bed and padded into the living-room to tell my parents. I hadn’t a clue what the death of this man meant, but I sensed it was huge.

What turned you into a reader and what books had the greatest effect on you?

I remember sitting on the wood floor of our public library and pulling books off the shelf with a kind of awe. I always borrowed the maximum number allowable. I learned to read with MILLY MOLLY MANDY (a baby kept in a drawer – fancy!). I devoured Enid Blyton and any/all stories about ponies, rosettes and gymkhanas. I loved Willard Price’s amazing adventure series –TIGER ADVENTURE, LION ADVENTURE . . . . I cut my teeth on commercial collectability! I also loved the British classics: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN, THE SECRET GARDEN. You could never read those enough times.

As a teenager, Tolkien knocked my socks off. THE LORD OF THE RINGS was like a holy experience (the only novel I’ve read as an adult that has come close was Donna Tartt’s SECRET HISTORY). I also spent hours – again, on the floor – diving into my father’s massive collection of war books. Learned, detailed works on the Somme, on life in the Blitz, on Special Ops in World War II. I credit my father with my love of history and its literature, and now my sons share that.

What kind of student were you?

I was shy, teased, too fat, too willing to blush at all times, and one of the last to be chosen for sports teams. I thought I was useless and that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I was 16 I had an epiphany –I was good at English! It took my teachers a while to catch up with that revelation, but in my final two years at school I shone in everything literary, especially what they call ‘lit crit’. I could write for hours on line 3, stanza 2 (whatever poem), explaining why the language worked the way it did. I was also becoming a bit of a secret performer [see My life in the spotlight Part 1). One of my sweetest school memories is of singing alone with my guitar on stage in Assembly; apart from my very close friends, no one had a clue that quiet Sarah could do it and you could have heard a pin drop.

My school experiences gave me a great desire to help release people’s potential – especially that of young people. I was largely written off, my future seen as limited. In the end, my Head Teacher had to write a special letter accompanying my university application, saying they had badly underestimated me, because I got top marks in my final exams. Beating the odds, helping others to beat the odds, is a theme for me. You can’t base your life on other people’s expectations or experience of you – you just have to go out and make it happen for yourself.

What might you be doing now if you hadn’t gone into the children’s books business?

I believe I am in the perfect niche that plays to all my strengths and experience(s). However, I would also have liked to train as a coloratura soprano or continue performing as a singer-songwriter (Shawn Colvin meets Tori Amos). I love everything verbal – especially vocal performance (I read a lot aloud and used to compete in verse-speaking and drama comps), so would have enjoyed some aspects of TV presenter/journalist. I have also trained for a year in psychotherapy and that has always held a lot of interest for me – and is, in fact, very relevant to working alongside authors!

I would also enjoy anything entrepreneurial where you have to create something from nothing. For example, a fabulous chain of patisserie shops, on the French model. There’s not enough great coffee and cake in the USA!

What jobs did you do prior to running the Greenhouse and being an agent?

I started my publishing career back in the Dark Ages, as a member of Lady Collins’s religious books’ department at Collins in London. To understand this, you need to know that what is now HarperCollins used to be Sir William Collins Sons & Company Limited; and Lady Collins was married to ‘Sir Billy’ Collins. (Harper & Row was amalgamated comparatively recently).

From there I spent 5 years with Armada, the commercial children’s paperback imprint of Fontana, which was itself the paperback side of Collins. Next came a year editing adult fiction blockbusters, then a spell freelance – doing the editorial jobs that were too demanding for inhouse staff to tackle. After that I worked for a number of years for Transworld (now part of Random House), again on children’s books. This was at a time when a lot of today’s mega-famous writers were just breaking out – Philip Pullman, Terry Pratche