CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and Audible to run Discoveries for a fourth year. This unique writing development prize and programme offers practical support and encouragement to aspiring female novelists of all ages and backgrounds, from across the UK and Ireland.
This week the Discoveries team spoke with Curtis Brown literary agent Jess Molloy about her taste in books and the agent's role. Jess is also on the Discoveries 2024 judging panel – she will be joined by chair of judges and founder of the Women's Prize Kate Mosse, acclaimed authors Natasha Brown and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and CBC’s founder Anna Davis.
You worked in the talent and comedy department of Curtis Brown before joining the books department in 2019. Does your love of TV and comedy influence your reading tastes as a literary agent?
I would definitely say I am drawn to visual writing – I have always been able to picture what I am reading in a very clear, visual way, so when I find writing which matches that and feels quite ‘filmic’ I undoubtedly end up feeling more engrossed. Conversely, I am often put off by books which tell me they are ‘laugh out loud hilarious’ on the cover – comedy is so incredibly broad and subjective, and I know that my own humour is a mixture of dark, dry, absurd, silly and sarcastic – I find humour in the unexpected - and so perhaps books which are considered commercially funny might not do it for me. I have read many things which have made me laugh out loud, but not because they are pitched as comedies, or even actively trying to be funny!
Do you remember the book that ignited your love of reading?
So many! I was obsessed with all of Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s books, and Shirley Hughes, as a small child. I think I consumed everything I could by Jacqueline Wilson and made a huge dent in the entire Famous Five series (I definitely wanted to be George and have my own dog called Timmy), along with constantly re-reading the Magic Far Away Tree – the idea of a magical world I could escape off to was incredible and I would say that had a huge impact on igniting my love of Fantasy. I remember Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses having a big impact as well, and opened the door to writing which had a speculative or political edge. I think reading His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman was when my reading began to step up to an adult level and the ending of The Amber Spyglass left me completely emotionally bereft – igniting a slightly masochistic enjoyment of emotionally wrought stories.
What’s been your favourite read of 2023 so far?
It’s a toss-up between Kala by Colin Walsh and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. Kala is set in a fictional town based on Galway, which is where I spent most of my summers growing up, so it tapped into my own teenage nostalgia in a beautifully painful way, as well as delivering a brilliant, twisting mystery. I love gaming, so Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow was an extraordinary read on so many levels and I was so emotionally invested at one point I shouted ‘NO’ so loudly on a beach that people turned around and stared at me. I had to take a break and swim in the sea at that point to process what I’d just read!
What’s one thing that you wish more new writers knew about literary agents?
That we completely understand how arduous and sometimes deflating the submissions process can be and that the lack of replies, or delay in replies, from agents is a huge part of that. Trust that we are all wracked with guilt about not being able to help or respond to everyone, but that we always recognise how much love and time has been put into the submission by the author.
You represent Sui Annukka, winner of Discoveries 2022. What was it about Sui’s entry to Discoveries that grabbed you?
I still think about the first time I read Sui’s submission – it was such an exhilarating moment. Her opening chapter was a masterclass in tension, and I felt immediately sympathetic of and protective towards her protagonist (and equally just as venomous towards her antagonist!). The pacing was brilliant and what particularly stayed with me was that she was writing from the perspective of an immigrant woman trapped in suburbia, in the domestic thriller space, which I hadn’t seen much of before.
We’re excited that you’re a judge for Discoveries 2024! Do you have any advice for writers getting ready to submit to the prize?
Be confident in your submission and don’t be afraid to show us something of yourself. Try and read through a few times before submitting and look at different elements of the writing, such as character, dialogue, style and pacing. Are they all as strong and defined and authentic as you can make them? We are looking for promise, not polish, so don’t get too stressed about minor typos and focus instead on defining the voice of the writing and ensure you are immersing us effectively in your story.
What will you be looking for when you’re reading Discoveries entries?
Something original and something engaging. I like a good hook which is executed effectively in a confident and distinctive way. I enjoy naturalistic dialogue and well-defined characters when it comes to conversation and I’m always hoping to find an emotional heart of a story which sinks it’s claws in and makes me care deeply about what happens next. If you can surprise me, that’s always a bonus! I will be considering what would work commercially as well, so things which I can see a clear space for in the market and for which I immediately understand the audience.
Best of luck preparing your submission to Discoveries 2024. We’re so excited to read your work!
Do you have questions about Discoveries 2024, the writing process or what agents are looking for? Jess Molloy and fellow Discoveries 2024 judge Anna Davis will answer your questions during a special Instagram Live on Thurs 14 Dec, 1.00-2.00pm (GMT). Make sure you're following us on Instagram (@curtisbrowncreative). Plus, you can send in one question in advance using the form below.
The books linked in this blog can be found on our Bookshop.org shop front. Curtis Brown Creative receive 10% whenever someone buys from our bookshop.org page.