Ask the Agent: Giles Milburn and Elizabeth Macneal

Richard Lee talks to Giles Milburn and the agency’s newest star, Elizabeth Macneal

The Madeleine Milburn Agency is in Shepherd Market, an area of Mayfair that feels more like Soho. The delightful 18th-century house was once a drinking den, and boasts original panelling and topsy-turvy doorways. When it was built, Giles explains, it was on the very edge of London. There were fields beyond, where they held a raucous two-week fair each May.

Giles attended our conference in Scotland last year, so I ask (inevitably) how the pitch sessions went. I am thrilled to learn that he signed two authors. The details are under wraps, but by any standards, it is a great result.

Is this the value of conferences?

‘Meeting face to face does give you a better chance to understand the person – their passion for the subject. Why it matters to the author is ultimately why it might matter to a reader. It is harder to get that from a cover letter.

‘Besides, it is always interesting to meet authors, to find out why they are writing what they are writing, what influences them, what they are reading. Authors are our business.’

The business is doing rather well. In its seventh year, the agency has expanded to four full-time agents. In 2018 founder Madeleine Milburn won Literary Agent of the Year at the British Book Awards. The agency robustly champions historical fiction, and Giles states that he is ‘actively looking for anything historical, be it literary, commercial, crime, series, non-fiction or all of the above.’

We talk about what kinds of historical fiction he thinks are ‘hot’ right now. In terms of period, he highlights the 17th Century. I am surprised, because this era has been a difficult sell of late. It is a century torn by the wars of religion, and no-one much likes religion any more.

‘It’s not so much the religion,’ Giles explains, ‘It’s the sense of division. Family member against family member. Communities divided down the middle. It resonates now with politics in turmoil, with Brexit, with Trump.’

He cites Philippa Gregory’s latest, Tidelands, and Stacey Halls’ much-vaunted debut, The Familiars.

He thinks there is a hunger for 18th century settings. ‘Particularly the far flung places. The aspect of strangeness, the difficulties of travel, familiar sorts of people in unfamiliar settings. Or of familiar settings told differently (for example Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Blood and Sugar).’

World War II is also perennially strong – especially in the US market. In March, Canelo Publishing released an example of the kind of book that Giles is championing – LP Fergusson’s A Dangerous Act of Kindness – World War II, but featuring a sympathetic enemy, and conveying an idea of what the good Germans suffered under Nazi rule.

I ask a few specific questions. Would he represent a US author? Yes, it just depends on the novel. Would he sign an author over sixty? Absolutely – again, it is the writing that counts. Is there still a market for the action/adventure novel? Yes. Given that women read and buy far more novels than men, should books be written with a female reader in mind? Writers should write what they love. What about historical detectives?

‘Really, historical can be any kind of novel. Thriller. Romance. Psychological drama. Mystery. The historical element brings an extra element to the genre that you choose to write. Selling it I would not necessarily stress the history. It is the human interest of the premise that is important.’

I ask which kinds of novels he particularly likes.

‘I find myself intrigued by books that are set after the event. You have a big event that everyone knows, and everyone knows the outcome. Instead of telling that as a sequential narrative, you set the book afterwards. Everyone has memories. Everyone is marked by it. Secrets. So the book is about the event that excites the interest, but it is not a direct telling.’

He mentions a novel that he has just signed set in Leningrad after the war – ‘the time recalls great heroism, great sacrifice, but it is set in the depths of a truly chilling Stalinist winter.’

We finish discussing the Indie/Trad publishing divide, and electronic books versus print. The effect on the industry has been seismic, and Giles thinks it will take many years before everything settles down again. Initially, he had seen digital as the way to launch an author, with print to follow when the audience is assured. ‘But there is still plenty of life in traditional publishing. Authors love to see their books in a bookshop.’

Can an author skip the traditional route and self publish until they have built a following? Giles agrees that this can work, but doubts it increases the chances of success. Huge numbers of books are published on Amazon, and understanding how to promote a title is a skill in itself. Eventually, he thinks, most authors will benefit from an agent to look after their business, a publisher to manage sales – ‘simply because it gives them more time to write.’

My thanks to Giles Milburn for supporting the HNS. It is wonderful to find such optimism for historical fiction. For more about the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency, follow Giles and Maddy on Twitter @giles_milburn, @agentmilburn.

ELIZABETH MACNEAL

‘I am writing to withdraw my entry, The Doll Factory, from the Historical Novel Award, as I have just received the (thrilling and joyous) news that Picador will be publishing my novel next year.’

I recall how I felt receiving this. Joyous? Certainly. Frustrated? A little. The book was already on my longlist for the Award for unpublished novels, but unannounced.

The Doll Factory (reviewed this issue) is an extraordinary novel that wraps you in its atmosphere within a sentence or two. Maggoty rats, strawberries pickled in sugar, coal-smoke, fur-dust and stink. We are firstly drawn into the macabre world of a taxidermist and collector, then into that of the Whittle sisters, shop-girls, (one with twisted collar-bone, one with smallpox scars), who paint dolls’ faces – either mourning dolls, ‘to be placed in the grave of a deceased infant’ or ‘a plaything for a bouncing, living child’. From here the novel expands to include the artistic ambitions of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Great Exhibition.

Its off-beat charm won it Maddy Milburn as agent, a 14-way auction, publication in 28 languages, major launches in the UK (May 2nd) and US (August 13th). TV rights have been optioned by Buccaneer Media.

So I wonder which Elizabeth I will meet, walking to her East London home. Iris Whittle, stifled shop girl? Louis Frost, self-indulgent painter? Silas Reed, driven collector? Or someone else?

Elizabeth is nervous. Of course she is, she is going to get written about. We settle down with a cup of tea (served in an Elizabeth Macneal mug – did I mention she is also a ceramicist, her work acquired by the Museum of London?). Two determinedly affectionate cats are part of the welcome.

‘Is this the dream?’

‘Of course! But everything has changed, and nothing has changed. I still see myself as the same writer as before, and still spend my days in roughly the same way.’

We admire the pile of hardback books. There are three UK editions alone. The endpapers of the Waterstone’s exclusive edition are Elizabeth’s own work. We talk about TV (they are waiting on book sales in hopes of attracting the best scriptwriters), scariness (‘the first broadsheet reviews!’), excitement (‘actually seeing my book in a bookshop’) and the next novel, which I cannot divulge.

I ask about the spark for The Doll Factory. Was it Lizzie Siddal (model to the pre-Raphaelites, wed to Dante Gabriel Rossetti)?

‘I wanted to write a biographical novel about her. I did so much research.’ But in the end it was too uncomfortable. ‘I felt uneasy imagining her unrecorded emotions and thoughts, but also constrained by being unable to be creative with the plot.’

So Iris was born – her life comparable to Lizzie’s, but all of it fictional. Yet the true spark for the novel was actually Silas. ‘I wrote about him for an assignment on my MA’ (the prestigious MA course at the University of East Anglia). The intrigued reaction of her workshop group gave her the confidence to develop his story further: they had not reacted so warmly to any of her other writing. ‘At first I wondered if he was too weird, but their reactions told me to embrace it.’ They also insisted she make a viewpoint character of Albie.

It is clear that UEA was a watershed for Elizabeth. She had written two novels before enrolling and spent ten years writing. Part One of The Doll Factory is mostly unchanged from the version submitted for her thesis. Her critique group from UEA continues in London, even though they have all graduated.

I ask about the themes of The Doll Factory.

‘It is about what it means to be stifled and achieve freedom. It’s about obsession, confinement, personal expression, objectification. You know Dickens criticised Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents not only for the painting, but for the model! [“horrible in her ugliness”].’

I have the impression she doesn’t like Dickens much. ‘I prefer George Eliot. Thackeray, Hardy, the Brontes.’ Contemporary influences are Sarah Waters, Michel Faber (‘a genius’), and Maggie O’Farrell.

‘It is about daring. It is Iris’ pursuit of her ambition that sets her free. She would never have left the doll shop to be a model. She leaves to learn to paint.’ The artwork for which Iris sits tells the story of Guigemar from the Lais of Marie de France. ‘I asked a friend who specialises in medieval literature for a story in which the female protagonist frees herself, rather than being rescued.’

And it is about contemporary issues.

‘Of course. All historical fiction is.’

Her greatest surprise, apparently, is that the book is being described as a thriller. ‘It’s gratifying, though. I suppose the pace is a natural effect of one of the characters’ ambitions impinging on the protagonist’s.’

Readers will decide.

The cats have been playful throughout our chat, comically affronted when Elizabeth dissuades their naughtiness with a water spray.

On Elizabeth’s bookcase there is a single stuffed mouse – high enough that her cats cannot reach it – a present from her husband, bought as a joke.

It is this image I think of, as I make my way home.

About the contributor: Richard Lee is founder and chairman of the Historical Novel Society. He is writing a novel about the Crusades.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 88 (May 2019)


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