Ask the Agent: Isobel Dixon and Graeme Macrae Burnet
WRITTEN BY RICHARD LEE
Isobel Dixon is MD and Head of Books at Blake Friedmann Literary Agency in London and President of the (British) Association of Authors’ Agents.
‘It has been insane – managed mayhem, perhaps!’ Isobel says, of the COVID-19 lockdown. Meetings must now be conducted by Zoom. She has myriad consultations with industry representatives, new measures to consider. ‘All this while helping authors to deal with a whole new world of everything online, reconfiguring cancelled events and managing the shifting of publication dates.’
Isobel normally commutes to London from Cambridge, where she lives with her husband, a clinical psychologist. She is an award-winning poet, and her writing remains pivotal for her: she is currently working on a ‘long-term’ collaboration with Scottish artist Douglas Robertson, inspired by D.H. Lawrence’s 1923 collection, Birds, Beasts and Flowers. Her Scottish roots are also important to her, as is her early life in South Africa – brought up in a rambling, book-filled house shared with her parents and four sisters. But Isobel is first and foremost a people person. When I was sitting next to her at an RNA dinner she flummoxed me with her first question: ‘So what are you writing?’ I thought she had mistaken who I was, and tried clumsily to explain. But she knew exactly who I was, was characteristically more interested in that than in who I represented. Next day at the London Book Fair we again chatted cordially. Later I saw her at her desk on IRC floor at the event – legendary land of caffeine and fear (sometimes described as ‘speed-dating for agents’). She projected such calm to her succession of international editors. If there is anyone you would trust to manage mayhem, it is Isobel Dixon.
Our meeting today, sadly, has to be virtual rather than in person – me at home in Devon, Isobel in Cambridge.
I ask first for updates about her HF authors – as eclectic a group as they are impressive. Joseph O’Connor’s new novel, I learn, is set in the Vatican and Rome during WWII (My Father’s House). Graeme Macrae Burnet is working on a new standalone, then will return to writing the final of his Inspector Gorski novels set in Alsace in the 1970s. Ann Granger’s next Victorian crime novel is The Truth-Seeker’s Wife, set on the Hampshire coast and out in 2021.
‘Edward Carey has just completed a beautiful slim novel (with his own illustrations), The Swallowed Man, narrated by Gepetto from inside the belly of the huge fish that has swallowed him. Is a haunting re-fashioning of the Pinocchio story a historical novel? I guess so?’
David Gilman is working on the seventh as-yet-untitled book in his hugely popular Master of War series, starring stonemason-archer-turned knight Thomas Blackstone, and set during the Hundred Years’ War. Elizabeth Chadwick has just completed The Coming of the Wolf, the prequel to her prize-winning debut, The Wild Hunt, a short novel set in the Welsh Borders in 1069. She is also working on her next full-length novel, about Joanna de Valence. Pippa Goldschmidt has recently completed Schrödinger’s Wife, focused on Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, his wife Anny, and his relationship with a mystery woman around the time he made his ground-breaking discoveries in quantum physics in the 1920s. Barbara Erskine’s new timeslip novel, Offa’s Daughter, will be published next year. And I also gather that Lawrence Norfolk is working on new historical novel…
My (inevitable) next question is if Isobel is open to taking on new clients. If so, what might spark her interest? She offers a cautious ‘yes.’
‘I have to say at the start that I have a very fluid sense of genre, and while one has to use categories in the business, I often represent authors who write across traditional categories. I find myself particularly attracted to ‘borderline’ books, the betwixt and between, the indefinable and hybrid.’
She says she is open to work set in any era – ‘Everywhere and anytime, past, present, future. I love to travel – in books, even when one can’t do so geographically. The same goes for time as well as place. I am happy to explore widely. I am sceptical, suspicious of narrow ‘certainties,’ absolutist narratives, and acutely aware of the complexity of history and in all human endeavour. I love representing fiction which shows the world in all its joy and pain and nuance.’
I ask about the importance of media crossover: Blake Friedmann has always represented film as well as books – does this influence the kind of author they like to sign?
‘As an agent you are used to seeing a story’s potential in its totality. It’s wonderful if ideas spark in all directions and you can see how a book could work on page, stage, screen and more – but the transfer to screen is not essential for me to love a book and take on an author. I do have to feel very strongly about the quality of the work and sure of its commercial potential, by which I mean that I can secure worthwhile deals for the author, not just in one market.
‘I wouldn’t say Blake Friedmann has “separate wings” – even though we do have a Media Department and translation rights colleagues, we’re a very close team.
‘Agents are encouraged to follow their own taste and instincts – the test is whether you can also sell what you admire. Working only on a commission basis focuses the mind! I have to love a book, respect the author and feel that I can sell the book to take someone on. It’s a close relationship and a long game.’
I ask if she has taken on any new HF authors recently. ‘Last year, two clients. Tom Benn, a Lecturer in the School of Creative Writing at UEA, contacted me by email and I was blown away by the power, originality and exceptional prose of his novel Oxblood, which tells the story of three generations of women in a family of criminal men in Wythenshawe, Manchester. Separately, I went to the Norwich Crime Fiction Festival and attended readings from the Crime Fiction MA anthology – and heard Bridget Walsh, one of Tom’s students, read – brilliantly. Her witty, spirited and beautifully written Victorian crime novel, The Stanhope Venus, is the first in a series which I am selling now.’
Isobel still looks at new work, still takes on ‘special and irresistible projects,’ but passes most submissions on to her fellow agents. The colleagues that are interested in historical fiction are Samuel Hodder (favourites include The Song of Achilles, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and ‘all the novels of Mary Renault!’), Kate Burke (‘interested in high concept thrillers and on the women’s fiction side, loves historical fiction that appeals to a reading group market, particularly set during or post-WW2). ‘Juliet Pickering is very clear that her preference for historical fiction is anything set after 1900.’
To finish, I ask Isobel about any particularly loved books. Her list tends pleasingly towards books she enjoyed in childhood or in her teens – I am reminded of that idyllic home in the Camdeboo – Georgette Heyer, Victoria Holt, Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier, as well as Flambards, The Eagle of the Ninth and Johnny Tremain. Her favourite Austen is Persuasion, Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd, James, Portrait of a Lady, Wharton, House of Mirth and Age of Innocence. She loves ‘a brilliant love story, whether that comes packaged in literary fiction, historical adventure or romance of any period.’ Perhaps surprisingly, she chooses a trio of ‘perfect’ American Civil War novels: Cold Mountain, Neverhome and Redemption Falls.
I am sad we didn’t get to meet this time in person. Something to look forward to when our current turmoil has passed.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel, His Bloody Project, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and has been translated into 21 languages. Graeme will be a guest of honour at our UK conference this year in Durham: hns-events.com #HNS2020
Graeme didn’t have an agent for his first three books. ‘I dealt directly with Saraband,’ he says. So his process for choosing an agent was one most authors can only dream of. His Bloody Project, Graeme’s second novel, was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize and though it did not win, it outsold the other shortlisted titles. As a result, agents were emailing him out of the blue.
That is one version of the story. Graeme tells me that in fact his first recognition came from winning a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. An agent did sign him after this, and worked with him extensively on The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. ‘This was a wholly positive experience,’ Graeme says, though the agency was unable to place the novel. ‘It was getting the sort of response like, “if we wanted a French novel we’d get one from France written by a French author.” It wasn’t crimey enough to be a crime novel, it wasn’t literary enough to be a literary novel.’ And eventually the agent dropped it. So Graeme looked for smaller publishers who would accept unsolicited manuscripts, and by serendipity Saraband was at that time proposing its new crime imprint, Contraband. While Adèle Bedeau had perhaps been seen as too niche by bigger publishers, Saraband’s founder Sara Hunt recognised a unique voice and agreed to publish the novel.
But a publisher is not primarily an agent. After meeting with a number of agents, why did Graeme choose Isobel? ‘I was impressed by how she spoke about my work, and how she wanted to know what my future plans were. She listened to what I wanted. She was also extremely respectful towards my relationship with Saraband, which in my experience of speaking to other agents, was not always the case.
‘You learn as an author that there are certain things that you can control and certain things that you can’t control, and the one thing that you can control is: how good is the book. Some agents I met up with – they didn’t even mention my work. I mean – I guess they’d read it. But I don’t know. One of my questions to Isobel was: ‘to what extent do you want to get involved editorially?’ And Isobel said she did want to be involved.’
So how does that work?
‘Isobel has seen a draft of the next book, and she read it with tremendous attention. She annotated the whole manuscript and sent me back extensive comments, and she is a very insightful reader. And it’s like, maybe sometimes you are trying to get away with something, you think, maybe no-one will notice? And Isobel puts her finger on it, and you’re, like, “Damn!” But that’s actually what you want at this stage, because you don’t want that when the book’s published.
‘I want her to take my work out into the world and be my champion. And the whole screen and theatrical thing – it’s very helpful. It’s not something I know about at all.’
This week Graeme is sending Isobel a ‘final’ manuscript of the novel he has been working on for two and a half years. ‘Yeah – it’s a big deal for me. What I’d say I’m sending is a submittable draft. Because no matter who publishes it, they will have an editor who may want to tighten up various aspects of the plot – so it’s not final final.’
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s first three novels are The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, His Bloody Project and The Accident on the A35. His short story, ‘The Dark Thread,’ appears in These Our Monsters: The English Heritage Collection of New Stories Inspired by Myth and Legend. Visit graememacraeburnet.com or follow Graeme on Twitter
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: RICHARD LEE is founder and chairman of the Historical Novel Society. He is currently writing a novel about the Crusades.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 92 (May 2020)