Ask the Agent: Michelle Brower & Jennifer Weltz

WRITTEN BY RICHARD LEE

Michelle Brower

For this article we asked members to choose which agents to consult and which questions to ask. The preferred agents were Michelle Brower, Founding Partner of Trellis Literary Management, and Jennifer Weltz, President of JVNLA – two stellar names in the publishing industry with great historical fiction lists and strong links to the HNS. The decision was to ask the same questions of both, to see if and how responses differ. An additional point of interest is that we have previously carried online interviews with both agents (search “Ask the Agent” on our website). It is fascinating to see what fashions have changed and what endures.

HNS: What is on trend in historical fiction? (Single plot or dual plot; preferred time periods are any impossible?; male or female protagonists)

MB: Right now I’m seeing an emergence of supernatural or horror-tinged historical fiction, which I like because it’s different; I think WWII remains a crowded category that already has a large number of established authors. We’re also seeing a fair amount of mythological retellings. And I am always eager to see historical fiction from previously underrepresented voices.

JW: What I’m hearing from editors is that the dual-timeline plot has been done a great deal. I would caution about pursuing that direction because it is very difficult to do it in an original way. Female protagonists are more likely to be interesting to the readership because the readership for these kinds of books tends to be majority women. I think the twentieth century has been very interesting for a while, and it continues to be on the historical side, but not necessarily WW2. The key is to make sure you are telling an original story. Do your research. Make sure there aren’t five other books out there.

Jennifer Weltz

HNS: Can you write outside your race/sex/sexual orientation in hf? There were lots of allusions to a supposed ‘woke agenda’ in publishing – is this true? Is it sales driven? What are the chances for more traditional styles of historical fiction?

MB:  I think that finally, the world of historical fiction is open to stories that were less popular in previous years; if you weren’t writing about the white Tudors or the white Edwardians or the white Europeans of WWII, there was very little space for you in the marketplace. But everyone has a history, and now we are finally seeing those stories receive mainstream attention and marketing support. In my mind, it’s been a long time coming and is very welcome.

JW:  Your origins do play a part in what story you are telling. If you are trying to embody a character who is extremely different to you in background you better have a really really good reason why you should be telling that story with a tremendous amount of research to back it up.

 

HNS:  Would you consider books from authors similar to those you already represent? Or do you prefer different?

MB: I generally prefer different, especially if my current author is writing a book every year or two. It helps to have variety in my list.

JW:  I prefer difference. I don’t necessarily want to go for the same kinds of material that I’ve already done. I’m looking for a new, original concept and perspective. Do your research when it comes to agents to know what they have on their list so that you don’t overlap.

 

HNS:  What advice do you have for debut authors, or authors trying to break through?

MB:  The book, the book, the book. In the end, it all comes down to the book you’re writing. That’s what’s under your control, that’s what your introduction to readers will be. Don’t focus on the publishing to the detriment of the work.

JW:  Write the best book you can. Do your research not just for your book, but for agents. Be open to feedback, and be patient.

 

HNS: How important is it for HF to be ‘relevant’ to today’s issues or stories?

MB:  I think most historical fiction is “relevant,” because it looks at humanity in other times and shows us how others responded in circumstances very different from our own.

JW:  I think the wonderful historical fiction writers are able to make anything relevant because they’re able to relate enough to the characters that we as readers of today can understand their plight and perspective. So it’s up to the writers – whether its Pope Joan from the 8th century, or Jean Auel with The Clan of the Cave Bear – the onus is on the writer to make that happen.

 

HNS: How biographical should biographical fiction be, and does the subject need to be well known?

MB:  I’m all for a forgotten person of history that has an amazing story to tell; or a totally fictional person set against some really interesting part of history (for this reason, I really liked The Lost Apothecary).

JW:  If the subject is not well known, the subject has to be worthy enough. It has to be a revelation that enriches our perspectives and points of view about a particular time. You go deep with your research. But it is fiction and, within the confines of your research, you need your imagination to take flight.

 

HNS:  Describe the book you’d like to sell – what your instinct tells you the market is hungry for.

MB:  I want something with elevated writing, and I’m particularly interested Black historical novels that deal with class within the Black community.

JW:  The market is hungry for diverse voices and hidden stories of diverse voices that we may not know. And diverse writers to be telling these stories. And I think the HNS – all these kinds of organisations – ought to be active in diversifying their membership and encouraging writers from all different backgrounds to be part of the conversation. I think the onus is on everyone in publishing to help these voices rise.

 

HNS: Are you looking for translations from other languages/cultures? Similarly, with Black historical novels, are you looking for anything from African countries, or set in African countries?

MB: I’m not looking for books in translation, but very open to books set in the African Diaspora.

JW:  If the story is accessible to a US audience then I’m in!  The joy of historicals is getting to experience new places and people in different times.

 

HNS:  I have been asked very specifically from a couple of emigrants to the US who have become fascinated by the history of their country of origin (in these cases, China, Japan, and what is now India) if writing about this might work in the US market, or if it is only the emigrant experience that is marketable?

MB:  Yes, these are marketable!

JW:  If you’re writing a book that’s set outside this country – and most of the fiction I represent is set outside this country – it’s how the story is told, and if the reader can connect to it. It has to transcend.

 

HNS: Which new historical novels are due from authors you represent? What historical novel have you most enjoyed (or admired) recently by an author you do not represent?

MB: I am so happy to have The Last Lifeboat by Hazel Gaynor forthcoming, and Strangers in the Night by Heather Webb. I also really enjoyed Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

JW:  Some of my more recent ones are The Surgeon’s Daughter by Audrey Blake, about a British woman in Victorian times who is training to be a surgeon at the university of Bologna.

Revelations by Mary Sharratt – an incredibly true story of forty-year-old Margery Kempe in the 1400s who pilgrimaged all the way to Jerusalem from England and back on foot and by donkey.

Then there is C.W. Gortner’s latest one, The American Adventuress, about Jenny Churchill, the mother of Winston Churchill, who was quite a racy and ambitious character.

I have a new book coming out from Molly Greeley, who wrote The Heiress. It is based on the true story of Beauty and the Beast during the time of Catherine de Medici – an incredible story of family, and struggle, and differentness and otherness.

And I have a debut, The Witch and the Tsar, by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore – the feminist revisionist story of Baba Yaga and Ivan the Terrible – a wonderful mixture of fantasy and history.

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 101 (August 2022)


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