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 Pratchett, Anthony Horowitz, Jacqueline Wilson among them. I joined Macmillan in 1994 as Fiction Editor and was there until 2007, moving up the ladder to become Publishing Director of the whole editorial side. I was also on the management board, and had about 20 staff reporting to me.

My publishing career has enabled me to understand all sides of this business, which is very useful. I know how writers feel, because I’ve worked with them at the rock-face for around 30 years. I know the constraints and stresses publishers labour under. While there are moments when agents must be confrontational, I have tried to create an agency environment of partnership/collaboration where we work WITH publishers, respecting what they do.

What are the best parts of your job as Greenhouse agent – and what are the parts you find most difficult?

There is nothing in the world to beat the thrill of calling an author and telling them that yes, they WILL be published! That their life’s dream has come to pass. Whatever the size of the deal, there are tears, disbelief, joy – and it’s my job to help them negotiate their way through all the emotions that come in this strange process.

I love the people side of this job, all the relationships, but I also love the hard-nosed thing of doing deals, making money for people. And I love strategizing and negotiating – what step should come next to get us where we want to be. You need to be quick-thinking, charming, patient as Job, passionate, articulate, tough . . . I strive to be gracious, and to retain my integrity in all situations.

The hardest parts of the job are – making fast, good decisions about writing and writers. The volume is tremendous. And the horrid thing is, you can’t represent everyone. It’s easy for a writer to feel that getting an agent is the ultimate destination. However, it’s only the first step on a long journey, and if I don’t have a personal conviction and feel for your work, that I can really advocate for it and ultimately sell it, then it would be better for me to step aside. Sometimes I will make mistakes, and I’m always aware of the hurt of the writer who feels rejected. It would be lovely to be able to give more feedback, but the time constraints often make this very difficult.

How quickly do you know if you have found a manuscript that is going to succeed?

I often have a real physical reaction as I discover a great story; a quietness will come over me, a prickling of the neck! I can usually tell from the first page if a writer has outstanding potential, because I will already be picking up Voice, but I have to read a lot further to see if the plotting holds water. Because I generally first-read on a Kindle, with interruptions, I like to go back and re-read on hard copy –an old-fashioned manuscript, with pencil and Post-It notes in hand. You see, editorially I am old-school, and that’s how I consider detail best.
I hate the rapid-fire pressure of the industry (particularly as more and more people become agents and there’s pressure to grab talent). It’s very rare that I read something and then instantly pick up the phone. I like to consider, make notes, come up with an editorial strategy that I can share with the writer before taking things further. I want a story to be as good as it can be, and for any deal to be as big as it could be, and I therefore need to see if the author is on board to work with me, if that feels necessary. I would never take an author on and then suddenly announce that I had editorial suggestions – I like everything to be out in the open from the start.

What do you think is the hardest thing about being a writer?

Ann Patchett said some wonderfully apt things in today’s Washington Post book review. ‘Writing is an endless confrontation with my own lack of talent and intelligence, because if I were as smart and talented as I ought to be, I would have finished this book by now.’

I think every author feels like this at times. The black worm of self-doubt in the small hours of the night. The sense of unworthiness. The ‘imposter syndrome’ (I’m successful, but when they find out how bad I really am, I won’t be!). The fear of failure, creative dryness, paralysis, criticism. You name it, authors feel it. I like them to share that with me – the secret fears – because there are few vocations in the universe that make demands on an individual’s psyche like that of writing. You live in your head, off your wits; the famine of isolation, the feast of publicity (some unwelcome). Your vacation can be decimated, your Christmas put on hold – because an editor suddenly decides to break seven months of silence and give you a deadline of one month’s time.

Am I putting you off? I hope not, because there are glories too. But you need to be very realistic about how hard this is, what it will cost you. And you need to know that this is what you DO. This is your trade, your calling, your joy. And keep smiling and philosophical throughout. Family and friends won’t understand what you are going through, but as a Greenhouse author you have the support of writers (and agents) who understand, and that is something I don’t want us ever to lose.

What do you most enjoy about Christmas, and what gift are you most hoping to receive?

The gift will be seeing my two sons, putting my arms around them and standing there for a number of minutes. We’ll all be together in London, my extended family, and we will resume the rituals that give our particular Christmas its unique flavor (and occasional craziness). I love Christmas music, the quality of the night air, the moans at the Queen’s Speech, games of Boggle, the generations changing. The fact that I am no longer the ‘Christmas Elf’ (who sits on the stool and distributes the gifts) but have given way to the Young Pretenders. I love looking back and seeing how far we all came this year, in both inner and outward journeys. This year the Christmas Day toast to ‘absent friends’ will include all my Greenhouse friends across the world. I’m proud of us all!

Right then, Boss. Hey, it’s Sunday – should you still be at The Desk? How about giving a dog a bone and a sojourn at the mailbox?

Sure, Wee Man. Thanks for the interview and turn off the lights on your way out?