In the fourth of a series of interviews with our 2014 judging panel, we’re delighted to welcome Rowan Lawton (left) to the website. Rowan is a literary agent and the co-founder of Furniss Lawton – a literary agency that is part of the James Grant Group. She previously spent 10 years agenting at WME and PFD. Rowan’s clients include a number of debut novelists, including Emylia Hall, author of The Book of Summers, a Richard & Judy 2012 Book Club selection.
Rowan gave Joanna Lucas (right) the lowdown on her work, the rapidly changing world of publishing and her favourite short story writers,
What was your route to becoming a literary agent?
I’ve been lucky in that my route was very straightforward – I started working in publishing as soon as I graduated. My first job started two days after graduation and was for a small children’s packager called David West Children’s Books. It was a great first job and the perfect role to get my foot in the door of the industry. I worked across editorial, production, rights and design which gave me enough experience to then apply for roles within trade publishers and literary agencies a year later. I then got an agent’s assistant role at what was then the William Morris Agency and worked my way up to agent over several years.
How has the role of the literary agent changed since you started?
I first started working in publishing in 2002 and the publishing industry as a whole has changed in myriad ways since then – I think the biggest of those changes has been in the digital and retail landscapes. Digital publishing has transformed modes of reading and therefore has changed the industry in many ways. In the time I’ve been an agent independent bookshops have closed in droves (as well as a major chain, Borders) and Amazon and the supermarkets have overtaken the high street in terms of market share. There has of course also been huge consolidation of the major trade publishers. All of this has undoubtedly impacted on the role of literary agents. I think the biggest change is probably in the level of creative input and editorial support most agents now give their clients, and this often comes long before they have secured a publishing deal.
Having said that, I think there are many ways in which the role itself remains the same – the eye for strong writing and great storytelling, moral support, strong industry relationships and know-how and keen negotiation and diplomacy skills. I sometimes describe my job as being something of a professional hand-holder! I don’t think the importance of those key skills has changed a huge amount in my time as an agent.
What tends to excite you, initially, about submissions you like?
In all honesty, there is usually some sort of x-factor, a tingly feeling you get when you know you’re reading something special. Initially that feeling tends to be a little intangible but it could be sparked by a strong voice, a beautiful line of prose or a killer opening pitch.
Are there any forthcoming books from writers you represent that you’re particularly excited about?
I mentioned above the importance of agents employing strong diplomacy skills and to that end I’d have to say that all of my authors’ forthcoming books excite me – that’s like asking a parent to pick their favourite child! Most immediately as I write this I’ve just read first drafts of two quite different clients’ new novels – both of which I’m hugely excited by. One is Lindsey Kelk’s new book, What a Girl Wants (which will be published this summer) – it’s brilliantly funny and warm and absolute vintage Lindsey. The other is Emylia Hall’s next novel, Seahorses, which is a beautifully lyrical love story set mainly in Cornwall (it will be published in 2015). The adult debut I sold most recently is a wonderful novel called Ridley Road by Jo Bloom – it’s a love story set in 1962 against the backdrop of the revival of the anti-fascist movement in London.
What role do writing competitions have to play in a rapidly evolving publishing world?
I think they are increasingly important for two key reasons. The first is that they create a level playing field (particularly when judged anonymously, as the BSSP is). The publishing industry has, in the past, come under criticism for being a bit of a closed shop and writing competitions challenge that perception. The second is that in a market where it’s increasingly difficult to get noticed, never more so for debut authors, prizes hold more and more value both within the industry and with the reading public – both directly and indirectly. Directly for the big name prizes that most keen readers recognise as a seal of approval, and indirectly because it helps an unpublished author get noticed by agents and publishers and then further down the line helps publishers gain the necessary retail and PR support to try and reach as wide an audience as possible.
Who are some of your favourite short story writers?
As a teenager I think I first fell in love with the short story form because of Margaret Atwood’s collection Wilderness Tips. It also led me, indirectly, to Alice Munro who is a long-time favourite. I’m also a big fan of Daphne Du Maurier and Dorothy Whipple. More recent short story writers I admire include Jhumpa Lahiri and Robin Black.
If you were a character in a story (long or short!), who would you be and why?
What a question! I’ve just read a wonderful memoir by Samantha Ellis called How to be a Heroine so I’ve been mentally running through the heroines she discusses for inspiration. She wrote the book borne of an identity crisis – she’d spent most of her life holding up Cathy Earnshaw (from Wuthering Heights) as ideal heroine material when in fact it hits her that perhaps she should have admired Jane Eyre more all along. However, I’m not convinced I’d like to have been a woman in the 19th century so I think I’d probably have to go for a contemporary character and perhaps a man. The possibility of living as the opposite sex could be very intriguing. I can’t get further than that though I’m afraid – you’ve really given me some food for thought!
Many thanks to Rowan.
The deadline for entries to the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize is midnight (BST) on April 30th.