16 January 2019

Curtis Brown is celebrating its 120th birthday!

Curtis Brown 120 TeamCurtis Brown 120 team, from left: Lisa Babalis, Norah Perkins, Catherine Cho, Lucy Morris and Becky Brown
by Katie Smart Curtis Brown 120, Events, From the Agents

Curtis Brown was founded in 1899 by Albert Curtis Brown. Now in its 120th year, the literary and talent agency is still resolutely committed to its original aim – the desire to discover and launch great stories.

Today’s Curtis Brown authors include Adam Kay, Malala Yousafzai, Marian Keyes, David Mitchell, Aravind Adiga, Margaret Atwood, Tracy Chevalier, John le Carré, Jilly Cooper and Anthony Horowitz, as well as the literary estates of Gerald Durrell, Ian Fleming and Daphne du Maurier. Curtis Brown also represents a growing number of our novel-writing course alumni including Jane Harper, Laura Marshall, Nicholas Searle, Kate Hamer and Janet Ellis.

Curtis Brown 120

As part of a year-long celebration of Curtis Brown’s 120th birthday, a series of Curtis Brown 120 ‘Start the Story’ events will take place online, showcasing the agency’s writers and heritage – and also looking to the future and to new writers out there who might start their story here with us.

The Curtis Brown Creative team is particularly excited to be working with Curtis Brown on a new Curtis Brown 120 Novel Writing prize – more details about that in April – watch this space! And we’re also delighted that we’ll be hosting Curtis Brown 120 blog posts throughout the year here in our blog space. The blogs will include exclusive interviews with authors, agents and publishers; writing tips, industry insights – and much more besides. Check in later this week for an interview with the best-selling phenomenon that is Adam Kay!

Curtis Brown 120 is spearheaded by a team of young book agents: Lisa Babalis, Becky Brown, Catherine Cho, Lucy Morris and Norah Perkins. We thought we’d kick off the blog activity here by introducing them and asking them to tell us more …

Catherine Cho is an associate agent. She started at Curtis Brown as an assistant to Jonny Geller and is now building her own list. An escapee from law, her background before literary agenting was in corporate law and public affairs.

Becky Brown is an agent on the Heritage team and looks after many of Curtis Brown’s literary estates. Before coming to CB she worked on Pan Macmillan’s classics list and as an assistant for AM Heath’s literary estates. In her early days at Curtis Brown she worked with Jonny Geller, who gave her valuable first-day advice: ‘Everyone makes mistakes, but you can’t make any.’

Lisa Babalis works as an editor for all the agents at Curtis Brown. She is also building her own children’s book list. She began working for Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown many years ago before having children, and has fond memories of Jonny making her tea when she was stuck in her desk chair in the last stages of pregnancy. She can recite The Very Hungry Caterpillar off by heart, and developed a disturbing love of violent crime fiction during the night feeds.

Lucy Morris is building a list of book club fiction, crime and thriller, and narrative non-fiction of all stripes (but particularly memoir). She joined Curtis Brown in late 2014 as assistant to Karolina Sutton (from the dusty annals of the Who’s Who editorial office) and has spent the last year covering Felicity Blunt’s list during Felicity’s maternity leave.

Norah Perkins gave up a promising career as a waitress to start life in publishing as in intern at a regional publisher in Vancouver, about as far from working with classic literary estates as you can get! She went from there to McClelland & Stewart in Toronto, and then to Canongate in Edinburgh. But she thinks she’s finally found her spiritual home here among the towering stacks of old books, heading up Curtis Brown Heritage.

Can you tell us a bit about the initial inspiration for Curtis Brown 120?

The idea has two wellsprings – we collectively came to the idea from opposite ends of the 120 years, really. As we were setting up our new Heritage division, and combing through the Curtis Brown archives, it really sank in that we had this utterly incredible literary and cultural history in our hands, and that the year ahead would be a great opportunity to draw attention to that heritage – 120 years of history told over 12 months, in our 120th birthday year. At the other end, we have been doing a lot of thinking around what makes Curtis Brown still such a powerful force in agenting, and what we can do to bring fresh energy to this great and growing company. And so we wanted to celebrate, welcome and support the new writers with whom we are starting to tell the story of the next 120 years.

What excites you most about all the initiatives and events that you have planned for this year?

Lucy: I can’t wait to hear from our authors who are publishing their first books in 2019, whether by video tip, Q&A or at one of the live events we’re cooking up!

Lisa: A CB initiative I’m excited about is Curtis Brown 120 of course! But we are also associated with Fane Productions who are launching a festival called Words Weekend which will be wonderful. I think our company wide eco drive is amazing too!

Becky: The Heritage team spend a lot of time digging out old books from the Curtis Brown archive, so, more than anything, I’m excited to share some of these long-forgotten treasures with the wider world.

Catherine: I’m most excited about the At My Desk series, I love seeing where writers work.

Norah: Our new Curtis Brown 120 Novel Writing Prize! I’m looking forward to working on this with the fantastic team at Curtis Brown Creative, to gathering colleagues together to read what I hope is a towering pile of submissions and to discovering the prize winners and bestsellers of the future.

To give our readers an insight into the working lives of the Curtis Brown literary agents, tell us about a project you’re working on at the moment, or a book you’ve recently sold.

Catherine: I sold a brilliant science fiction debut Ruin’s Wake by Patrick Edwards to Titan Publishing. It’s being published this March.

Norah: In Heritage we sell books a little differently than a front-list agent would – rather than receiving a manuscript hot off the printer, often that no one else other than the writer’s partner or writing group have ever seen, we’re selling books that thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of readers in the past have read, reviewed or ignored, loved or hated, venerated or (occasionally) completely forgotten about. And so it’s our job in Heritage to reassess books that have already had one life, and seek a new life and a new readership for them. One of the most marvellous examples of this is R.C. Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript, which is an indelible portrait, first published in 1939, of an England forced to prepare for the literal end of the world as the moon heads for a catastrophic collision with the Earth. Written by the author of Journey’s End, the novel is part dystopia, part Charles Pooter, and is eerily resonant both for a Britain facing the Second World War, and our contemporary impending cataclysm of climate change (or March 29!). Penguin Modern Classics have reissued it beautifully – it’s a spectacular, strange and supremely relevant book.

Tell us about a typical working day in the life of a Curtis Brown literary agent

The short (cheat) answer is there’s no such thing. But of course there is a rhythm even to the varied workload agents have. Most agents get in to work and check their email (if they haven’t already on their way in). There will be queries from clients, negotiations with publishers to progress, meetings with editors to find out what they are looking for. On top of that, an agent may well be reading through several manuscripts (of existing and potential clients). On some days, a submission will be underway which will necessitate lots of impassioned phone calls to commissioning editors to tell them about the wonderful book they have the opportunity to buy. Then of course there are meetings with colleagues for advice, briefings and idea sharing. It’s busy and fun!

And, of course, the very best bit of the job and one we all wish was part of every single day – calling an author to tell them that their book is going to be published.

When do literary agents actually get to do their reading?

Lucy: My favourite place to read is flat-out on my bed in a fortress of cushions, but you’re more likely to catch me fused to my Kindle, going up and down the Victoria line – and frequently missing my stop.

Becky: Ideally, I would do all my reading at decadent length in the bath. In reality, you’re far more likely to find me snatching time for ten pages on a Tube journey or in between bites of sandwich.

Catherine: One day I’ll have a reading nook, I’m envisioning a window seat like in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. At the moment, I catch as much reading time as I can at our messy dining table after my son has gone to sleep.

Lisa: I read at my desk, in bed and on the stairs outside my son’s room when he is going to sleep at night.

Norah: Trains, mostly. Or whilst brushing my teeth. Occasionally and blissfully in the London Library.

And finally – in the year ahead, what will you personally be looking for?

Lucy: As we all start stockpiling baked beans and head-torches ahead of March 29th, personally I am pretty keen for some laughs. For me, Marian Keyes is the best there is for heart and humour, and I’d love to find an equally witty, thoughtful and masterfully plotted debut novel. I am also on the hunt for a brilliant returning detective. Send me your Jackson Brodies, your Manon Bradshaws, your Cormoran Strikes, your ‘don’t call me “ma’am” call me guv’ Jane Tennisons.

Catherine: This year, I’m looking for reading group fiction and speculative fiction including sci-fi and fantasy. I want to find a story that’s transportive and moving, something that stays with its readers long after it’s finished. I’d love to find a great love story, a narrative with a compelling, unusual voice, characters that live and breathe off the page.

Lisa: I’m looking for fiction to fall madly deeply head-over-heels for.  I can rarely resist a sprawling family saga like A Suitable Boy or The Cazalet Chronicles, and I love a distinctive voice and new point-of-view.

For more details on Curtis Brown 120 head here.

You can keep up with all the Curtis Brown 120 blog content by signing up to our newsletter at the bottom of this web-page and following the #CurtisBrown120 hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. If in doubt, look for the Curtis Brown 120 logo!

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