Just the two of us

August 23, 2010

It’s summer time, and the livin’ is easy.
Well, sort of. Actually, Julia and I are very hard at work, with record numbers of submissions, lots of interesting projects circling, and, as you know, some fine deals under our belts in the last few weeks. This is a business that never sleeps!

But just for fun, we thought we’d ask ourselves some of the questions you might ask us, if you could. We know that lots of you wonder, ‘Who are these agents? How do they think? Would I like them?’ Well, here are a few fun tasters into what makes us both tick.

As some of you will know, I’m also just back from vacation, so the photos are just a few of the characters I met on my travels this summer. Enjoy!

What sort of student were you at high school and how have you changed since then?

SARAH: Shy, diffident and lacking in confidence – which made me appear very lazy. Then at 16 I started to bloom. I found one thing I could do well (English) and it was transformative. I was not expected to achieve anything, and I determined to prove everyone wrong. That has motivated me ever since.

JULIA: A bit naughty but solid. Nothing’s changed.

Think of one individual who has had the greatest impact on your career path. Who was it and why.

JULIA: My mother: a great businesswoman and entrepreneur. She left Holland when she was 16, came to London and set up a business that became one of the top PR firms in Europe. 99% of what she says is right.

SARAH: Mrs Cowley, my English teacher from ages 16-18. She was completely different to any teacher I’d had before – passionate about her subject and aiming very high. She showed me a vision of my future, which was literature.

What novel has had the greatest effect on you in your life and why (only allowed one, sorry we’re ruthless!)?

SARAH: Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS in my early teens. I was awestruck. How could it be possible to write something like this???

JULIA: THE RATS by James Herbert. I read it much too young and the effect wasn’t wholly positive. Nightmares for years. But it did give me a love of horror that has proved useful.

What job would you have done if you hadn’t become a literary agent and why?

JULIA: Chef. I love that the deadlines during service are twenty minutes at most. And a walk-in fridge is a great place to cool off.

SARAH: Singer or psychotherapist. I performed a lot as singer-songwriter in the early 90s (complete with leather pants and long red hair). I also studied psychotherapy to diploma level.

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What do you love most and dislike most about your job?

SARAH: I love telling a writer they have a deal – especially a debut author. I get as emotional as they do. I hate it when things don’t work out with a publisher but you come so, so close. You need nerves of steel in this business (or you need to pretend you have them).

JULIA: Giving the good news and giving the bad news. Also finding those books in my submissions box: The manuscripts that get you cancelling your dinner plans and keep you up till dawn.

If I had a debut author’s manuscript and a red pencil in my hand I’d be most likely to . . .

JULIA: Take out the ‘telling’. It’s amazing how red-penning all the telling can bring a scene to life.

SARAH: Cut out a lot of adjectives and adverbs. Writing more sparely can give your story greater impact because both your characters and world have some breathing room.

You’re sitting at your desk, banging your head on the wall with frustration. What is most likely to be the cause?

SARAH: The server going down. Or editors not replying.

JULIA: Technology going wrong.

What would you most like to do if you had a day off work?

JULIA: Get my boots on and go for a hike. Or go to the cinema twice in the afternoon.

SARAH: Hiking in a wild place or going round an ancient castle or historic building. With my faithful Canon at the ready, of course.

Yum, yum. Favorite food and drink?

SARAH: Cake! Apple cake. Blueberry muffins. Chocolate roulade. Carrot cake. Even scones, with fresh raspberry and walnuts. Sadly, I also like wearing my jeans so I eat a lot of fantasy cake. (And by the way, Julia is weird. See below.)

JULIA: Raw herring, soft roll, chopped onions.

You’ve won a prize of a vacation in any place of your choice. Where would you pick and what sort of trip would it be?

JULIA: Up a mountain. Any mountain. Go Capricorn!

SARAH: Somewhere with big views and wild scenery where I can think about the meaning of life. I’d love to go out west and see the really big mountains.

If you could find three great new novels to represent right now, what genres and age groups would you pick?

SARAH: I’d love to find a thriller with a fantastic ‘what if’ concept that turns on a dime. A great, spare, amazing love story that does something new. Stylish, quirky, brilliantly voiced younger fiction.

JULIA: I’d love some horror with a great premise. A thriller with a great premise. A love story with a great premise! Any age.

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There are tons of agents and agencies in the world. Tell us why you think an author should choose Greenhouse to represent them?

JULIA: We both work hard, and creatively, editorially. We share each other’s skills. We are the only transatlantic children’s book agency. If I was an author, I’d want to have an agent on both sides of the Atlantic – and Greenhouse offers that (with incredible results).

SARAH: We’ve made Greenhouse fly in just 2+ years, in an intensely competitive environment and from a standing start. I believe that underscores both our energy and our skill. Plus we have a passion for subsidiary rights (vital in today’s marketplace) and a wealth of transatlantic knowledge which can be highly advantageous to clients.

With which fictional character (adults as well as children’s books) do you most identify and why?

SARAH: Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell). I’d always been fascinated by her, and then some years ago one of my publishing staff said I reminded her of Kay (tough on the outside, gentle on the inside, apparently!).

JULIA: According to those facebook quizzes: Jack Bauer!

What is the one writing tip you would choose to share with a new writer?

JULIA: Keep at it.

SARAH: Be at peace. And listen.

Publishers – love ‘em or hate ‘em?

SARAH: Love ‘em, a lot. On a professional level we must hold them to the highest standards. But on a personal level I know the huge workload, the unrelenting meetings, the financial constraints they are under. It’s a tough job and it’s getting tougher, with fewer staff, higher targets for books, every decision under a microscope. We try hard to be collaborative rather than confrontational.

JULIA:Love ‘em. As an agent, I have the publishing teams that I love to work with, from editor right through to sales and marketing: The dream teams. And those dream teams come because everyone works together and there’s trust, respect and openness. We’re all on the same side after all.

Which novel(s) published in the last year would you have most liked to represent (but didn’t)?

JULIA: GONE by Michael Grant. Oh, and THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin. That is an epic book.

SARAH: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Obviously not YA, but somehow I’d have made a case! In YA, I’d have loved to land MATCHED (Allie Condie) which pubs this Fall.

Greenhouse is a relatively young agency (2+ years old). Where would you like the agency to be in five years time?

SARAH: The top destination in both US and UK for authors seeking representation in children’s/teen, and a byword for author care and great results. Ambitious? Moi?

JULIA:Unchanged in terms of our values and strengths – but bigger.

Describe yourself in three words.

JULIA: I asked my best friend for these: Enthusiastic, supportive and creative.

SARAH: Driven, energetic and contemplative.

Name one thing you do that really annoys your nearest and dearest.

SARAH: Looking at my Blackberry constantly. Chewing Orbit gum and leaving it in disgusting places when the phone rings. (I know, it’s repulsive.)

JULIA: A taste for trashy magazines.

Describe your style of agenting in one sentence.

JULIA: Honest. I don’t like the feeling of being ‘handled’: I always want the truth. That’s what I seek out and expect from others so that’s what I give my authors. The job is a huge privilege: I’m on the front line of people’s careers, seeing and knowing things that they might not, so it’s only right that I say things as they are.

SARAH: Energetic, straight, and caring. I have worked with authors ever since I graduated from college (that’s a long time ago!) and I understand what this precarious industry feels like. Writers want my best efforts, they want to be able to trust what I say, but they also need kindness. Courtesy is a big word with me.

What are the hallmarks of the query email you’d most like to find in your inbox?

SARAH: It will follow our guidelines (see website) and be clear, straightforward and concise. It will also entice with a short outline of an irresistibly compelling plot.

JULIA: I think the strength of a query is all about the strength of the premise. So I’m looking for a great premise that has focus, clarity and freshness.

What is the biggest no-no you are likely to find in a query?

JULIA: Starting with an alarm-clock, waking up and then breakfast. In most cases, the decision the writer has made is to start their story on the morning the action starts, rather than to start in their story.

SARAH: I agree with Julia on alarm clocks. In terms of the query, I don’t like bragging. The best writers don’t, I think, boast constantly about their brilliance because they’re too busy thinking about how they might be even better.

Animals are important to both of you. What was your first pet and how did you feel about him/her? If you could get any new pet now, what would you choose?

SARAH: First pet was a hamster called Hamlet. Now we have two dogs (standard Dachsunds) who are very loving, funny and unbelievably stubborn. My husband is dog crazy and we have to speak every pooch we meet in the street. We’d love another Golden Retriever one day – probably a boy called Nelson.

JULIA: Bertie (real name Alberta) was my first pet. She was an English Bull Terrier. Really tough looking and all muscle. I was a baby when she joined the family and I used to pull her tail, try to ride her and eat her food and she never got annoyed. And she once attacked a flasher at the playground. She was very cool.

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