Welcome to the first in a series of Curtis Brown 120 blog posts that will be hosted in the CBC blog across the year, celebrating Curtis Brown’s 120th birthday. These blogs will include exclusive interviews with authors, agents and publishers; writing tips; industry insights – and much more besides (you can meet the team behind CB120 here).
Without further ado we’re delighted to bring you our conversation with the best-selling phenomenon that is Adam Kay and his agent, Curtis Brown’s very own Cathryn Summerhayes. Adam is the author of This is Going to Hurt which has now sold over 1,000,000 copies in the UK and recently picked up three awards (including Book of the Year) at the National Book Awards. Adam and Cathryn reveal the story behind the book’s journey to the bestseller lists …
Q: How did you two meet? Can you tell us a bit about the conception of the book, finding the perfect publishing home, and the journey to where you are today?
Adam: We were actually match-made – it was a slightly unusual journey. Do take a seat.
After the junior doctors lost their battle with the government, I thought I could potentially amplify the junior doctors’ voice a bit by rescuing my old diaries from the bottom of a filing cabinet and reading some of them out at the Edinburgh Fringe. That way a couple of thousand people would hopefully hear my side of events over the course of a rainy August. My friend and brilliant comedian Mark Watson rocked up one evening with his mate he’d been out drinking with, who happened to also be his publisher at Picador, Francesca Main. (The Fringe is basically the AGM for comedians, where you get to see your mates once a year – and you try and watch each other’s shows.)
Francesca came up to me afterwards to ask how much more of this diary material I had, because she thought it could be a book. I told her I had plenty but I wasn’t hugely interested in publishing a book. Mostly because I’ve always thought of books as things that other people write and don’t make much money from.
The following week, Jess Cooper (who has been my friend and agent since I joined Curtis Brown for my TV writing in 2011) watched the show and also told me she wondered if it should be a book. I said I’d consider it, so Jess mulled which of her colleagues in the book department would be the best match for me to discuss it with, and struck gold by suggesting Cath.
It all moved pretty quickly from there, and there was never any question of taking the book anywhere other than Picador. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect publisher.
Cathryn: Adam is very kind to me in this story … Basically I was just incredibly fortunate to know Jess Cooper from MANY MANY years ago when we worked together at a (whisper it) rival agency (!!) and I was the new girl at CB so she took pity on me and handed me Adam’s project a few weeks into the job. Anyone who has read a single page of This is Going to Hurt will know that Adam is a GENIUS – and he had me at ‘the de-gloving incident’. Francesca Main is an undeniable legend in the publishing industry and she steered this book to its phenomenal success, whilst also having a baby … I was just incredibly lucky to be taken along for the ride. The ONLY fly in the ointment was that we couldn’t find a title that wasn’t being used elsewhere – Anyway after MANY MANY bad ideas from the whole team, Adam’s husband (CB client and Game of Thrones executive) James Farrell’s dad actually came up with This is Going to Hurt – which is bloody perfect!
Q: If you could be any fictional character, who would it be (hero or villain!)?
Cathryn: So when asked to consider which character from literature I most identify with, I have to admit that I am such a bloody egomaniac that I read most books thinking, ooh that is SO me, I think that, I do that, I dress like that, etc… I have appeared as a very minor character in a few books – people seem to find it hilarious that I am (a) Welsh and (b) support a crap football team, so there are often nods to that in my authors’ novels. An agent called Cathryn also met a rather sticky end in a crime novel I represented a few years ago. Glad that one didn’t become a bestseller… or indeed come true. I suspect whilst I always dream of being the heroine, I am genuinely more like the slightly dumpy best friend who floats around in the background and has an unmemorable name that no one can spell (like in my real life).
Villain-wise, I am a big fan of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew… (she counts as a villain right?)
Adam: I’ve always felt a strong connection with Ursula the Sea Witch from Disney’s Little Mermaid.
Q: What was the last book you read?
Adam: I’ve just finished reading a proof of Everybody Died, So I got a Dog by Emily Dean – out next year with Hodder. It does what it says on the tin – it’s heart-breaking, beautifully written and frequently hilarious. (Not represented by Curtis Brown SOZ)
Cathryn: Ignoring Adam’s lead, I only recommend my own books so I am saying The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley… and if I need to be nice, I think both The Parisian and The Binding sound like big hitters – and I am praying every day that the new Susie Steiner makes an appearance before long.
Q: What book is totally overrated in your view?
Adam: When asked what books I think are most overrated, let’s just say any book that’s selling more than mine.
Cathryn: I am going to get on my soapbox a bit here and say that I really really hate it when newspapers trash books. What benefit can there possibly be in giving an eviscerating review of a debut novel or a person’s life work? THINK ABOUT THE AUTHOR, people! Putting yourself out there, on the page, is terrifying. When review space is so limited, WHY use half a page to ruin someone’s day – or even career? Yes, if a well-established writer suddenly delivers a turkey, it’s fair to give them criticism – but just being nasty under the disguise of being clever is mean-spirited. That said, Thomas Hardy almost ruined my life at university.
Q: What’s your guilty reading pleasure?
Adam: So my ‘not so guilty’ reading pleasure is Viz. I love Viz. Of all the quotes I was sent for the front matter (as the publishing world apparently calls it) of my book, I was happiest with my quote from Viz. And then my publishers wouldn’t let it go in.
Cathryn: So, I have a few confessions here: Firstly, I buy The Guardian and The Observer every weekend and the only bits that get read by Monday are the review sections and the restaurant reviews, but I religiously do the Everyman crossword – definitely at the expense of learning about a no deal Brexit. And since Christmas, I have abandoned reading (apart from reading my authors’ material and submissions when travelling, which is a lot anyway) to make way for a newly discovered passion for jigsaw puzzles. I would like to say the two my husband and I have done so far, Panorama of London Skyline and Trip to the Museum, are both educational in their own right … (Also I could write a book on the different ways in which people approach a 1000 piece puzzle – endlessly fascinating – to me anyway – and my husband’s approach is just plain WRONG.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Adam: Essentially, there’s no one-size-fits-all advice – Somerset Maugham got it right when he said “There are three rules for writing a novel; unfortunately no one knows what they are”. All I can usefully say is to write and write and write. Whether it’s writing, tennis, sex or surgery, no one ever got good at anything the first time they tried it.
Cathryn: I am just going to add to Adam’s ‘write, write, write’ – ‘read, read, read – and EDIT EDIT EDIT (before sending to any literary agents). And I guess I should also point out that we have a WEALTH of resources for authors on the CBC website …
Q: Which book do you always recommend to others?
Adam: I always recommend books by David Sedaris and Nora Ephron – the high priest and priestess of comic writing.
Cathryn: I always recommend The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe, Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro and from my own stable How to Own the Room by Viv Groskop – and OF COURSE, This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay – a million readers can’t be wrong.
Find out more about Curtis Brown 120 here.
If you’re writing a novel, check out the creative-writing courses – online or in London – currently open for applications or enrolment at Curtis Brown Creative.