An Interview With… Oli Munson

Hi everyone. Today I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Oli Munson to the blog. Oli is a literary agent at AM Heath and he loves nothing more than discovering new talent. He also represents David Jackson and Mari Hannah – writers I am privileged to say I have both met.

Below, read on for Oli’s answers to my questions on what he looks for in submissions, his views on the crime and thriller market and what he does for some relaxation time! Over to you, Oli…

1) Did you see yourself becoming a literary agent after you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

I left university with an English literature degree which is a passport to everywhere and nowhere. So I supersized that with a Publishing Studies MA and through that course I soon realised that being an agent was the part of the industry that would suit me best.

2) What are the differences between representing both literary and commercial fiction? Are there any similarities?

In a nutshell, I’d say that literary fiction is more about the quality of the prose and commercial fiction is more about the plot. So in that sense it’s easier to get editors interested in commercial fiction because the pitch tends to be more straightforward. Defining something as literary or commercial is inherently unhelpful because it presupposes that something well written can’t sell and something that sells can’t be well written. Which is thankfully, nonsense.

3) What do you consider a standout query letter?

A clear, concise pitch, realistic comparisons with other writers and a sense of where a book sits in the market.

4) On the other hand, what wouldn’t attract you to a submission?

“This would make an amazing movie”, “ My wife/husband thinks it’s fantastic”,

5) What are your views on the crime and thriller market currently? In your view, is there a sub genre you think is in need of more representation?

I think we’re at a crossroads. Psychological suspense has dominated sales and chart placings for the past eight years. I suspect it’s taken us as far as it can and those in the business are all waiting to see what’s coming next. One things for certain, people in the trade are always sick of a trend long before the reading public so there may be life in it for a year or two yet.

6) Do you have a genre that you read for pleasure?

Crime, thrillers, biography, literary fiction. I recently joined a library for the first time in about 25 years so I’m reserving all sorts of books and getting a thrill when an email comes through saying they’re ready for collection. It’s the simple things in life…

7) Is there any genre of book that you wouldn’t read?

I don’t read sci-fi or fantasy. I’m pretty clear about this and yet every day people send me sci-fi and fantasy submissions which is ultimately mutually disappointment for both sender and receiver.

8) What was the last book you read, that wasn’t one of your clients, and if so, did you enjoy it?

I finished THE TESTAMENTS last week. It was very good, I enjoyed it, but in my humble opinion there’s no way it should have won the Booker. GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER does something truly different and scratches an itch I didn’t know I had. Which is the way I felt when I read THE HANDMAID’S TALE…

9) When you leave your desk on a Friday, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/on the weekend, what do you do to relax?

I go home and hang out with the family. The weekends are largely spent trying to entertain an indefatigable toddler.

10) If you had to choose between Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury, who would you choose and why?

I think Faces are a great band and Rod’s early solo stuff stands up. But I’m not a fan of late stage crooner Rod. You can’t argue with the Queen back catalogue and Freddie was a once in a lifetime vocalist. Would you rather live in a world without Maggie May or Bohemian Rhapsody? I’ve literally spent 15 minutes thinking about this and I still don’t know: too close to call.

Thank you for visiting the blog, Oli. It’s been a pleasure to interview you.

What Oli is looking for:

I have a wonderfully varied list (one of the perks of being an agent) but I’ve always been a sucker for commercial fiction that has the Holy Trinity of pace, plot and character. Those are the three elements I’m looking for in any novel. I also love books that have a clear pitch; a hook that has me immediately wanting to know more.

A significant part of my list is comprised of award-winning, bestselling authors of crime, suspense, and thrillers. Between Mari Hannah, David Mark,Julia Chapman and David Jackson, I think my authors have killed most of northern England. I’m eager to find authors who are plotting the demise of other victims, wherever they may be.

I do love speculative fiction with high concept plots in the vein of Lauren Beukes, Sarah Lotz and Kate Mascarenhas but I’m not looking for the type of science fiction or fantasy that would solely be found on the SFF table of a bookshop.

I’m on the hunt for commercial fiction with an emotional heart, compelling underdog stories with unlikely heroes and heroines. Something uplifting to balance out the murder and mayhem in the rest of my fiction list.

On the non-fiction front, I particularly enjoy sports writing and narrative non-fiction exploring contemporary social issues. I’m looking for great storytellers who bring an original, often personal, take to a subject. And I love it when the sheer power of an author’s words completely draws me into an area I had previously known nothing about. Adharanand Finn taught me what it was like to run with Kenyans, Kate Mayfield showed me what life was like growing up in a 1960’s Kentucky funeral parlour, and Gary Dexter spent a year as a street poet, learning the rhymes and taking abuse from midnight drunkards so I didn’t have to.

Discovering new talent is one of the highlights of the job. Nothing beats the feeling when you pick up the phone to a debut author to tell them a publisher wants to buy their book. But I’m also interested in existing authors who fancy a bit of reinvention and scriptwriters who would like to take their talents in a new direction.

I’ve given talks to various writers’ groups, university courses and international book fairs as well as being a Frankfurt Book Fair Fellow in 2010 and a former committee member of the Association of Authors Agents. You can almost certainly find me in the bar at the Harrogate International Crime Festival.

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