14 December 2017

Literary agent Alice Lutyens: ‘I’d love to be sent a good ghost story’

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by Rufus Purdy From the Agents

A huge supporter of our creative writing courses, Curtis Brown literary agent Alice Lutyens has taken on more former Curtis Brown Creative students than anyone else (she represents CBC alumni Kate Hamer, Jane Harper and Catherine Bennetto, among others). Here she tells us why she feels the psychological thriller phenomenon is coming to an end, why she thinks the ghost story is due a comeback and what publishers are looking for now. 

Psychological thrillers have been around for too long.
I don’t think the psychological thriller is dead, by any means – people still want to read them – but now, in order to find a publisher, they have to be absolutely exceptional and completely different from what’s gone before. They’ve been popular for so long that every single angle and avenue seems to have been covered. Recently, I’ve sent out really good manuscripts to publishers that haven’t sold – wheras a year or two ago, they’d have been snapped up instantly. And there are so many psychological thrillers on the shelves that it’s impossible for a book-buyer to know which is worth reading and which has just been churned out by a publisher in response to the craze. I think publishers went through a phase of putting out quite a lot of mediocre ones because everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, and it means there’s now a massive surplus.

People want something to make them shiver, but not something so real that it could happen to them.
I think we’re going to see a resurgence in the popularity of ghost stories. Psychological thrillers and ghost stories deliver the same impact, but the difference is that psychological thrillers are rooted in real life. I think people want escapism. And psychological thrillers aren’t really escapism, are they? They’re like real life writ large. Ghost stories aren’t going to happen in reality, but they satisfy that same sadistic urge.

I’d love to receive something like Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black or Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions.
Over the past eight years, I’ve received my fair share of paranormal and ghost stories, but very rarely have I had anything that’s been really good – other than former Curtis Brown Creative student Kate Hamer’s second book The Doll Funeral. The hardback of that novel came out before readers were starting to turn towards the spectral, but it’s really exciting that the paperback’s coming out at the end of January – just as it seems people are wanting something a bit spookier. But, yes, I’d love to be sent a good ghost story – something like The Woman in Black would be ideal. You’ve got the whole eerie atmosphere, you’ve got the feeling all the way through that something dreadful is going to happen, and it just gets more and more suspenseful, so you get more and more freaked out until you have to close your eyes and say to yourself ‘it’s not real, it’s not real’.

Do ghost stories have to have a period setting like The Woman in Black?
That’s a tricky one – a lot of the best ghost stories that have been published recently, including The Silent Companions, have been set in the past. And that’s probably because the past is always going to be that much more creepy because it’s not your world, so you have to use your imagination. It’s a place where it feels as though anything could happen. But so long as a ghost story has an amazing atmosphere and there’s a feeling of a terrible presence there, it works for me.

Publishers are always asking me for feelgood books.
I think everyone wants relief from what’s going on in the world, and I’ve noticed more editors wanting funny books. But they don’t want funny overkill, sledgehammer funny – they want something that’s subtly funny like Marian Keyes or David Nicholls. My client Catherine Bennetto – another former Curtis Brown Creative student – has her second novel Make or Break out in the summer, and I think it’ll be perfect for that trend. It’s humour with a heart. She’s such a funny writer.

I’m not looking for comic, I’m looking for humour.
I don’t want to receive ‘funny’ books that are about a woman or a man who are sooo silly, and who do this wrong and that wrong, and everything turns out like in that film with Reese Witherspoon as the lawyer in pink – Legally Blonde. I want a really great story in which you get to know the people. The problem with characters who are overly funny is that you never really get to know them because it’s all about their one-liners the whole time. I want characters that feel real but who are amusing at the same time – or there’s something about them that reminds me of myself or people I know. I don’t want stupid caricatures. Obviously, you’re allowed to go over the edge into something a little far-fetched. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, so much of what happens to Bridget is not going to happen in one person’s life. It’s about taking the comic elements from lots of different people and putting them together. But I do want to think, ‘that could happen, that could be real’.

For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:

Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Sunday 21 January).

Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Sunday 28 January).

For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sunday 4 February).

We are also offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ online courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:

Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).

Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).

Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).


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