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Cathryn Summerhayes: 'It’s the eclectic nature of the job and of the authors you work with that make you fizz with excitement'

BY Katie Smart
30th Apr 2020

Cathryn Summerhayes re-joined Curtis Brown in September 2016 having started her literary agency career there as an intern in 2004. She represents an amazing list of clients including Dr Adam Kay, Naomi Wood, Kirsty Logan, Lisa Taddeo, Lucy Foley and Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Cathryn was named Literary Agent of the Year at the 2019 British Book Awards.

We caught up with Cathryn to find out how the world of books is changing during lockdown, what books she's excited about this year and what she looks for in a debut novelist ...

Walk us through a day in the life of a literary agent, and how has this changed now that we’re all working from home?

Oh, those heady days of literary agenting before lockdown became the new normal … meeting authors, visiting publishers, seeing your books grace the shelves of Waterstones, the early drinks, the late drinks, the inappropriate karaoke after a launch … (sob!) But seriously, no one day in the life of a literary agent is the same. Some days you send out a manuscript or proposal that sends ripples of excitement around the world, others you weep as your final rejection on a piece of writing you believe in comes in. There are the unexpected collisions with editors in Soho that lead to deals, prize shortlists changing the fortunes of an almost forgotten novel, collaborations with colleagues that end up with a hugely best-selling book, TV deal, live show. It’s the eclectic nature of the job and of the authors you work with that make you fizz with excitement and, let’s face it, STRESS, quite a lot of the time. But it is creative stress, wanting to do the best for your authors, and work on books that mean something to many people.

How has lockdown changed all this? Immeasurably, and probably forever, in that our working practises will alter going forward as we’ve speedily adopted new ways of doing business, Zooming our way through meetings, seeing the publishers and booksellers adapt to new ways of selling, and finding joy in quick to market books to inspire and educate; cookery, colouring-in, educational audio books to help those stressed-out home-schoolers, and books just to show support to our compromised NHS workers. Online festivals, author love-ins on Twitter, clever authors teaching us to draw, to write better books or be better people … the willingness of everyone to try something new because it just might help keep this industry buoyant.

In the tiny moments I have in my day to reflect about this unprecedented time – between queuing for online shops for ageing parents, setting maths puzzles for Ernest and Etta and attempting Yoga with Adriene to bring me some balance, and working harder than I’ve ever worked – I do admire the resilience of my authors, my publishing friends and my colleagues and despite how exhausting, demoralising and overwhelming this can be at times, I know I am in the right profession, working with good, committed people.

Can you tell us a bit about the first book you ever sold?

I can. It was a short story collection believe it or not? Clare Wigfall won the inaugural BBC Short Story Prize and after a competitive signing battle, she signed with me, despite the fact that I was still an assistant at DGA and she was my first author. I sold The Loudest Sound and Nothing to Lee Brackstone at Faber and it got rave reviews, sold a lot of copies for a collection and I am so proud that it was my first book deal. I then did a new deal for her to write a novel and a collection and on last count it was about twelve years overdue – but she is still writing.

Do you remember the book that made you fall in love with reading?

Mallory Towers, Pride & Prejudice, The (terrible) Sweet Valley High Series, anything by Judy Blume but especially Are You There God, It's Me Margaret?, Enid Blyton, Meg Mog & Owl – and I had a very precocious obsession with reading memoirs by psychics and Aleister Crowley's diaries – quite liked a bit of American true crime too.

Which books are you most excited about this year?

I am thrilled that Adam Kay is editing Dear NHS, which is a book with over 100 contributions from an incredible list of writers, performers and other notable people who each have their own personal NHS story to tell – this is coming out in June and all profits are going to NHS Foundation Charities. Adam also has a second book coming this year – Kay's Anatomy– his first adventure in children’s non-fiction writing. Laura Brand’s The Joy Journaland Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End both came out in April – not an easy time for book-sales – and are both wonderful and perfect lockdown reads. The paperback of Lucy Foley’s The Guest List should be a huge hit and has been compared to Christie and Rendell in the US so we have high hopes there too. I also have some very disappointed authors whose books are being moved to 2021 most notably Dr Lucy Pollock with her timely book, The Book About Getting Older (For People Who Don't Want to Talk About It) and Rebecca Watson’s incredible debut novel, little scratch.

Do you have any advice for writers about to query agents for the first time?

I think in times of lockdown you shouldn’t be tempted to finish a first draft and fire it off to agents without proper thought or attention to detail. If you are fortunate enough to have found yourself with enough time to work on your writing, then spend that time effectively, editing and reworking and perhaps discussing your work with other authors online – there is a huge surge in Zoom and Teams forums for authors and I would recommend everyone use them where possible.

The issue is, just because we are at home, agents are no less busy, so they won’t welcome half-baked ideas or unedited first drafts any more than normal, so take your time. When it is REALLY REALLY ready, then send it – once we come out of this, we will all want new things to read … and don’t be tempted to try to write the great coronavirus novel … lots will be trying to do just that, including the already famous, and most will fail.

What excites you about a submission from a debut author and what is currently on your wishlist?

FRESHNESS, confidence, tight, snappy writing that isn’t overblown or overly wordy. A new way of looking at something you thought you knew. I never know what is going to excite me, but I know from the first few sentences if it is going to.

I would like a brilliant cosy crime series – something that is escapist, and clever and warm whilst being dramatic and page-turning.

I would like the next Time Traveller's Wife.

I would like a brilliant memoir by a frontline NHS worker that isn’t the same as those that have gone before.

I would like something very, very funny written by a woman. Fiction or non-fiction.