27 September 2016

Q&A: literary agent Cathryn Summerhayes

cathryn summerhayes literary agent
by Jack Hadley From the Agents

Literary agent Cathryn Summerhayes joined Curtis Brown in 2016. She came to us from WME, where she had built a thriving list of novelists, food writers and journalists including Ella Woodward, Russell Norman, Mark Hix, Naomi Wood and Petina Gappah.  We thought you might like to know more about her, and the kinds of things she’s looking for in new submissions…

I hear you started out at Curtis Brown as an intern in our book department, before becoming an agent at WME. What do you remember about your early days here and what’s it like being back? I remember reading a lot of submissions (on paper, not digitally) and doing a lot of photocopying. Everything feels far more streamlined now – and our submissions portal is genius! What is really reassuring is that there are a lot of old faces still here twelve years on, which has really convinced me that this was a place I could come to and be very happy in. It can’t be a bad company if people never want to leave!

What’s the best thing about being a literary agent?  Three best things: Firstly, reading a submission that stops your heart, that you know is brilliant and that you have to represent. Secondly, being right about that submission, selling it well and in lots of places and really changing an author’s life (my proudest moment was when Emma Hooper was able to buy a house from the advances she got from her debut novel). Thirdly, the publishing community; authors, editors, booksellers, colleagues – we are a good bunch of people – and we are united in our passion for the written word.

Could you tell us a bit about a really memorable deal you made for a book you love?  Bed by David Whitehouse was a debut novel I adored and I tried and tried to sell it, begging everyone to give it a shot – then it won the now sadly defunct ‘To Hell With Publishing’ prize for unpublished novels that agents really adored. Suddenly Canongate bought it for a decent amount of cash and it sold in ten countries. It taught me never to lose hope after the first few rounds of submissions go wrong. Bed is now being made into a film by Warp films and David is writing his third novel for Picador.

What sort of books are you looking for from new writers? My taste is probably best described as quirky – I like unusual characters, magic, mystery, totally unique voices, but above all absolutely compelling storytelling – unputdownable is the key. In terms of the authors themselves, I want to see ambition, a true compulsion to write better and better every day and a desire to build a career as a writer, not to just see their name on the cover of one book. It’s all about hunger and passion – from them and their agent.

What should a new writer do if they’re struggling to get read by agents? The key thing is researching everything about the agents you are submitting to. Make them feel like they have been specially selected because of some of the authors the already work with, projects they are committed to, even hobbies they love (I would happily read a Cardiff City football novel right away). A smart, to the point submission letter, that really gives a clear overview of the material that is being submitted, without being overly showy, is vital to get the agent interested. But, at the end of the day, the real key is knowing that the materiel you are submitting is the absolute best you can possibly write.

What common howler in new submissions do you dread the most?  Totally pointless descriptions of the weather in opening paragraphs. Unless there is a real reason why we need to know if it’s raining or snowing or whatever, leave it out.

Thinking about current literary trends, is there anything that’s popular in the shops which you, personally, are now tired of?  I actually love a good psychological thriller but I do feel like we are ‘Girled’ to death at the moment.

Curtis Brown Creative is the only school to be run by a literary agency – how significant do you think that is for students who are taking the course, and for the agents themselves within Curtis Brown? I think it is a totally brilliant idea – for the agents and for the students. An agency like Curtis Brown has such a diversity of agents that if someone has talent, they have a real chance of finding a home. It’s great for everyone.

What would you say to people considering applying for a course like the one at CBC? What kind of things can it offer a writer who is keen to take that next step? I think the key things that these courses can offer are; opportunities to meet likeminded people who are totally committed to writing, smart advice on how to enhance your work, invaluable feedback from course tutors and agents. It offers a group of your peers who will be (sometimes overly) honest about your work, and, of course, time, which is really what all writers need; proper designated time to actually write. Talking about writing is not enough, you have to get down and do it.

Can you give us your favourite tip for someone trying to write their first novel?  Don’t start on page one. If you have that mind-blowingly brilliant scene in your head but it takes place halfway through, nail that and work back. Write your best bit of writing first to give you confidence that you can deliver.


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