03 September 2018

Norah Perkins on representing heritage clients: ‘My writers’ words are very much still alive’

Norah Perkins, Literary agent
by Jack Hadley From the Agents

As well representing its list of living writers, an important part of Curtis Brown’s business is its huge list of heritage clients. Daphne du Maurier, Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Bowen are just a small selection of the extraordinary list of historical clients on the CB books.

After cutting her teeth in UK publishing at Canongate, and a stint working as Karolina Sutton’s assistant, Norah Perkins took over the reins of the CB estates in 2015. On top of  her work with Curtis Brown’s historical clients, Norah is key part of the CBC team, regularly hosting guest speaker sessions and giving one-to-one tutorials with students on our London based courses. We talk to Norah about her role, and her top tips for new writers…

You’ve given lots of tutorials to our London-based and some of online novel-writing students. What excites you about working with aspiring authors?
I work mainly with our heritage clients (generally literary estates), and my thoughts and my reading are often consumed by writers of the past, near and distant. So having the chance to work with living writers is a treat; hearing them articulate something about the world we live in now is a thrill. I particularly love that the CB courses reach writers all over the globe via the online courses, so I get to speak with writers from Canada, Tasmania, Singapore and India, among many other places, who bring their diverse experiences to their writing. Being in creative conversation with a writer who is working to tell some particular truth about the world is an extraordinary honour.

Do you have any tips for writers who are just starting to show their work to industry professionals, any dos and don’ts?
Proofread your work! I remain unconvinced that genius shines through bad grammar.

You represent Curtis Brown’s heritage clients; can you tell us a bit about how you started working in the industry?
I started my career in publishing as an intern at a lovely regional publisher in Vancouver, working on books about local food, wellbeing, travel and so on. About as far from working with literary estates as you can get – and so I feel a bit like a Canadian Dick Whittington, come to London to find my ridiculously good fortune. But I think any career in books is a bit like that – a combination of toil, passion and bloody good luck. I love representing the writers on my list, from Laurie Lee to Rumer Godden to Douglas Adams and so many more. So many of them were my literary heroes growing up, so it’s thrilling and terrifying to be their agent now.

Can you share some of the differences between working with estates and working with new authors?
Well, there’s the crucial difference that when the phone rings, it’s not actually Lawrence Durrell or Vita Sackville-West calling me, which is sad and a relief in equal measure. The pressures are different: the crises are less immediate, less intensely personal, the successes are at a slight remove. But I am nonetheless responsible for these writers’ reputations; without them there to speak for themselves, I must try to speak for them. I see all writers, living and dead, in a continuum – there’s not really a divide for me. My writers’ words are very much still alive.

On our London courses, you lead all of the practice pitch letter sessions. What’s the one piece of advice you always give?
Keep it simple, succinct and personal (that’s three pieces of advice, I guess!).

Have you read anything recently that really stood out to you?
Oh yes, absolutely. Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, as published in Virago’s lovely new Classics series. It’s just a delicious book – I laughed! I cried! And Kevin Kwan’s Austenesque Crazy Rich Asians the perfect combination of soapy and smart, with the unexpected pleasure of very funny footnotes on colloquial Malay and Singaporean high society. (I’m a sucker for a footnote.) I’m just about to start Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, which I’ve been really looking forward to.

Any final advice for novelists who are just starting out?
Keep going!

Our selective entry novel-writing courses include tutorials and guest sessions with Norah, and are also currently open for applications: Three-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Nikita Lalwani or Three-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Charlotte Mendelson (including one fully funded scholarship place). 

If you’re currently working on a novel for children or young adults why not take a look at our dedicated selective entry online course: Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson. (There’s one scholarship place available for a talented BAME writer.)

We also run three short online courses designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your NovelWrite to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.

And we have three brand new online children’s picture book courses: Writing a Children’s Picture Book or Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book, and for those who want to do both there’s Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book

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