David Smith Interview
Posted on 10 March 2006. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to literary agent David Smith from Annette Green Authors' Agency
Tell us something about your background.
We’re quite an unusual agency in that we’re small, and small in this business often means specialist, but we resolutely refuse to specialise. The only characterstics common to the work we take on are these: our personal enthusiasm for it and our belief that it deserves to be seen by the major publishing houses. This means we represent the most rarefied literary fiction by authors like Bill Broady and Justin Hill, serious non-fiction by authors like Jonathan Neale and Charles Pasternak, women’s comic fiction from writers like Bernadette Strachan and Fiona Gibson, thrillers, travel writing, memoir, biography, history, music – whatever excites us. One of our earliest successes was the American children’s author Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) who famously ended Harry Potter’s two and a half year reign at the top of the bestseller lists in 2003. But when Annette received the script of the first Princess Diaries novel from our New York associate back in 1998 she knew nothing about the children’s fiction market or about the editors who were publishing in that area. But she loved the book so much she set about finding out, and the series now stretches to six published titles, with three more under contract, and Meg Cabot is one of Macmillan’s top-selling authors, across all categories. On our website we discourage science fiction and fantasy, because these are areas with which we are not familiar, but if something really special came in I’m pretty sure we’d spot it and get behind it.
The agency was founded in 1998 by Annette Green from a standing start. She left A M Heath, where she had learnt all aspects of agenting, with no bankable clients, so she had to build her list from scratch, which no other recently founded agency has done. From the start the ethos was as I’ve just described – if she loved it and thought it had commercial potential she would represent it. The agency grew and early in 2001 I joined, initially to expand the non-fiction lists, but very quickly the lines became blurred and I was taking on just as much fiction as non-fiction. If the agency were to expand again it would not be by employing assistants or secretaries – we’ve never used them and don’t wish to, because we feel it is very important for a client’s first and last point of contact to be his or her agent, in person. It would be by taking on another agent. However, we are wary of diluting the reputation we have of taking on clients sparingly and only submitting to publishers work of the very highest quality. We don’t need to meet the targets or fill the quotas which I suspect might affect some of the largest agencies’ client bases.
How do you find your writers?
Clients come to us by a variety of routes. A certain number reach us by the traditional route of the unsolicited approach on the slush pile. But we are also recommended to authors by other writers who are already our clients, or who know us to be reputable and capable. Or some people will have a particular liking for one of our clients and approach us for that reason. We also maintain links with a number of Creative Writing MA courses around the country, paying regular visits to talk to the students and of course inviting submissions. We work with a very good Film and TV rights agency, and occasionally screenwriters and broadcasters on their books will come to us for representation. If we come across some interesting writing in a newspaper or magazine that suggests an ability to transcend the confines of a column or opinion piece we will contact the writer and suggest that they might be interested in moving into books – whether fiction or non-fiction. So there are several ways.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
It would probably be unfair to single out any of our own clients – in a sense they are all favourites. But I will just mention Terry Darlington, a retired businessman whose book Narrow Dog to Carcassonne recounts his journey by narrowboat, with his wife and his whippet, across the English Channel and down the Rhone to Carcassonne. It’s an extraordinary adventure, but it’s Terry’s writing that makes the book. At times it might seem as if nothing much is happening in terms of drama, but the writing is breath-taking, funny, wise and startling. He’s one of those writers who could write about anything and make it riveting and human. And you just can’t explain how he does it.
Ian McEwan would have to be a constant favourite. To me he is the modern epitome of the poised, intelligent, classical literary author. He writes traditional third person narratives, he employs no shifting or split narratives, he grounds everything in the real world. And yet he is the most accomplished, inventive and original of craftsmen. Not a word is wasted, and his syntactical constructions – whether simple or complex – are flawlessly imaginative. He also has the ability to write huge books (in terms of stature, not length) about the most infinitesimally small matters of human life.
I was a huge fan of Peter Carey’s early novels – he’s very different from McEwan, but always had that same ability to make every word not just count but surprise as well. I’ve not got on quite so well with his more recent work, but Bliss, Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda represent a body of work that’s hard to beat.
Others who come to mind, because they are masters of language, scholars of humanity and story-tellers of inexhaustible imagination, are Paul Auster, Kate Atkinson, Pat Barker, Joseph O’Connor, John Le Carre and, yes, even though it may not be cool to say so, Salman Rushdie.
But if I’m looking for something a little lighter then Gerald Seymour’s your man for thrillers and Sandi Toksvig makes me laugh out loud. They may not be artists in quite the same way but their brilliant artisans.
What excites you about a piece of writing-
I suppose the most important single factor at first would be the imagination with which words are deployed. That doesn’t mean prose laden with obscure words and loads of adjectives and adverbs. Quite the reverse, really. You can be poetic and lyrical without excess. It’s the discipline, the flare and the surprise that really hook me. If I see that on the first page of something I’m pretty confident that the author has something special. After that of course other factors become important – most notably character development and narrative. You have to create people who seem authentic and who command our attention and sometimes empathy. And you have to get your story going and keep it going.
What’s also appealing is the awareness that you’re being taken somewhere unfamiliar – whether it’s a place, or a time, or a field of human experience. Originality of setting and subject is invaluable – it could be China in the 9th Century, England during the Civil War, Camden Town during the drought of 1976, Iraq during the coalition invasion or contemporary Edinburgh during the daily school run. There are no rules but freshness.
and what makes your heart sink?
Anything that starts with the hero or heroine waking up and telling us about their hangover and what they did the night before. And novels about young people back-packing in their gap year. You know these are not novels, they are either thinly disguised diaries, or dull exercises in wish-fulfilment. And children’s novels that launch into extravagant descriptions of fantasy worlds without giving a thought to character. Also, anything that starts by discussing the weather. And of course, if you spot a cliché within the first few paragraphs you start to dread what lies ahead. Writing is very hard work – at least good writing is, and so it should be. Every word needs to be sweated over, so if a writer is prepared to leave a glaring cliché in his or her work, especially in the opening pages, it’s clear that there hasn’t been enough sweating.
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