After three years assisting Curtis Brown chairman Jonny Geller, Catherine Cho is beginning to build her own list of fiction and non-fiction writers. We caught up with Catherine to talk about her tastes, why she loves working with debut novelists, and the enduring appeal of science fiction…
You started your career in publishing in New York before moving to London to work for Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown — what struck you as different about working in London when compared to New York?
I think that in New York, books feels a lot more like a business than it does in London. I remember being very stressed in New York and having a general sense of tension. In New York, just to survive, you need to have a second job, so I was always running off after work to go wash dishes, tutor or be a waitress somewhere. In London, it feels a lot more civilized. Of course, it’s a business here too, but I love the traditions in London. People are kinder, and there’s a real sense of community.
You are now actively building your own list, could you tell us a bit about what you are looking for?
I’m looking for a great story, a story that transports you. I love books that incorporate speculative elements, like Station Eleven and The Time Traveler’s Wife. A couple of my favourite authors include Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro. I want a novel that people want to talk about and share with their friends. The last book I felt that about was Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny, which is a hilarious story set in New York that’s about family and relationships. I’m not a huge believer in genre, but if I had to list genres I’m focusing on, I’m looking in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction.
Recently there has been a resurgence of science fiction, particularly of ‘grounded sci-fi’. With narratives often set in near future worlds not so different from our own. Books such as Power by Naomi Alderman, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year and Sophie Mackintosh’s 2018 Booker longlisted novel The Water Cure are capturing the imaginations of the public. What do you think it is about this area of fiction that appeals to modern audiences?
I think reading is a form of escapism, and science fiction provides a window into another reality. I also think that sci-fi has always offered a perspective on the world as we know it, it presents an image of what the world can be, and that’s something that is very powerful.
Do you have any particular all-time favourite sci-fi or fantasy novels?
My favourites are the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown and the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. Growing up, I was a huge fan of Tamora Pierce and Orson Scott Card.
We know that sci-fi and fantasy can be huge, but one thing that some writers working in these genres struggle with is finding a broader appeal, beyond their niche. What qualities do you think these books need to possess to really break out?
I think really great sci-fi gives greater insight into the themes that face the world today. In terms of great fantasy, I think it comes to characters. Characters that live and breathe, ones that readers root for.
In a general sense, what advice would you give to new authors approaching agents for the first time?
My main advice would be to perfect your writing. Make sure you never send a first draft, writing is a craft, and you want to make sure that your manuscript is as strong as it can be before you send it out to agents. Remember also that an agent is a reader who wants to find something great, they want to fall in love with your novel, so hopefully that makes the whole process seem less intimidating.
And do you put more onus on the pitch letter or the synopsis when you are looking at a submission for the first time, or is it all about the opening chapters for you?
I’m a strong believer in the pitch letter and the synopsis. I think it’s a sign that a writer really knows their story. It’s also very difficult to condense a novel into a one page synopsis, and it’s even more difficult to write a pitch letter to try and entice someone to read your novel. I think when an author does it successfully, it’s a testament to their skill as a writer.
Of course, ultimately, it’s about the writing and the manuscript, but the opening chapters and the other submission materials are strongly correlated.
Finally, what’s your favourite part about working with debut novelists?
I love being a ‘fairy godmother’ and making wishes comes true. I read somewhere that a book is a dream realised, and it’s such a privilege to be a part of that.
Catherine will be taking part in the practice pitch letter session on our upcoming 3-month novel-writing course in London. If you’re interested in applying for this course, taught by author Charlotte Mendelson, applications are open until midnight end of day on Sunday 21st October. There’s also a fully-funded scholarship place available.
Or, you can enrol today on one of our 6-week online novel-writing courses for different stages of the writing journey: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel or Edit and Pitch Your Novel.