CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and NatWest to create Discoveries, a writing development prize and programme that offers aspiring female authors of all ages and backgrounds encouragement and support at the beginning of their creative journeys.
This week the Discoveries team talk books and writing advice with Curtis Brown literary agent Lucy Morris. Lucy is also part of the inaugural Discoveries Prize judging panel – she will be joining author and founder of the Women's Prize Kate Mosse, CBC's founder and managing director Anna Davis, international bestselling author Abi Daréand Director for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Sandeep Mahal.
Before joining Curtis Brown as an agent’s assistant in 2014 you worked at Bloomsbury Publishing. When did you know that you wanted to work in publishing and what inspired you to move from a publishing house to an agency?
As a teenager I realised that there was an entire industry built around the making of books, that my hobby of reading everything everywhere all the time (I used to pinch my brother’s library card and use it in tandem with my own to get double the weekly allowance of books) could be a job. My first publishing job found me in the reference department at Bloomsbury, where I spent a lot of time reading obituaries and longing to work on the sorts of books that I loved to read. One of the books I read around that time was The Other Side of the Storyby Marian Keyes, which features a fiercely intelligent, fiercely passionate, fiercely fierce firefighter turned literary agent called Jojo Harvey. I bypassed the firefighting but being a literary agent is everything and more even than Jojo Harvey promised.
You are actively building a list of commercial and reading group fiction as well as non-fiction authors. What’s on your current wish list and what do you look for from a debut writer?
I love this question – it’s the same feeling as being a child writing a list of toys to send up the chimney at Christmas. I would love to find a big weepy love story, or a fabulously creepy ghost story that gives me as many real-life double takes as Julie Myerson’s The Stopped Heart. I love structural conceits of all stripes, like Maggie O’Farrell’s masterfulI Am, I Am, I Amin which she tells the story of a life in near-death experiences, or Nigel Slater’s Toast where he writes about his childhood in gastronomic vignettes. In fiction I might think of Gillian McAllister’s Sliding Doors-esqueAnything You Do Say, the unexpectedly early twist in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, or Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, where the story of a daughter looking after her declining father is interspersed with his diary entries of her as a child, all the while he begins to lose more of his faculties and his own independence, and the initial roles of adult and child twist and blur.
I am always won over by confidence in debuts, unapologetic originality of voice and assured plotting. On a prose level, I am a keen admirer of precise observation – the historian Ben Macintyre, for example, makes me laugh even in his judicious application of adverbs, an infectious delight for the often absurd behaviours of his subjects.
What is a typical day in the life of a literary agent like?
There is no typical day, but it always begins with coffee. And now working remotely, also with my newly acquired electric milk frother (and then perhaps telling anyone I haven’t already told about the transformative nature of my electric milk frother). The variety of every day is something I really love about agenting, moving between editing manuscripts and negotiating contracts to speaking with authors and editors, keeping an eagle eye on royalty statements and Amazon rankings, pitching brilliant new books, musing on marketing and publicity ideas, and so on!
Who is your favourite fictional character?
This is such a tricky one – there are so many – but I’ve just found my very beloved and battered teenage copies of Louise Rennison, so I’m going to say the utterly idiosyncratic Georgia Nicolson. I wonder what sort of adult she became. In fact, can I add that exact thing to my wishlist above…?!
Which book do you always recommend to others?
Tin Man by Sarah Winman, Stay With Meby Ayobami Adebayo, and A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray. Each of these, in its own way, has such truth of emotion, such humanity, that it’s impossible not to want to pass them along to their next reader. Oh, and Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov – impossible not to root for an obituary writer whose subjects mysteriously start to die sooner than they should, with few beyond a slightly sad penguin called Misha to bear witness.
What’s your favourite debut novel of 2020 so far?
I dedicated the summer to reading the superlative Mhairi Mcfarlane’s entire backlist, but in any event want to shout about CBC’s own Hazel Barkworth, whose debut Heatstrokepublished in May 2020. Hazel is a marvel, and so much fun to work with. She writes teenagers like no one else, how they relate to each other, and the fragile social web where their fledgling identities develop, true food for thought in a year where social distancing became the norm. How will 2020’s teenagers have spent their summer? And speaking of structural ingenuity, Hazel achieves a rare feat wherein the cataclysmic actions of one man dictate the arcs of Heatstroke’s three central characters, but all without said man ever really appearing on the stage of the novel…
If you could tell your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
If you pinch your mum’s library card as well, you can get even more books at the library. Other than that, I think a liberal application of kindness, curiosity and mischief will stand you in good stead.
As well as Curtis Brown being a partner involved in setting up the Discoveries Prize you are also on the judging panel – do you have any advice for aspiring authors getting ready to submit to the prize?
Rolling up my sleeves and working closely with debut authors is a joy and a privilege of my job, so I’d urge anyone thinking about submitting to Discoveries to remember that we are looking for potential, not polish. The prize is open for applications until 17 January 2021, and if you’re struggling to crack on, are there ways you can make yourself accountable? It might be a particular hour of the day that proves fruitful, a word quota, a writing buddy. But please do what you need to do, because we are so excited to read your entries, and to support brilliant new female writing talent.