An Interview With… Juliet Pickering

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Juliet Pickering. Juliet works for Blake Friedmann Literary Agency and represents literary and commercial fiction. Details on what else she’s looking for are below the Q&A.

I was delighted when she kindly took the time to answer my questions on alongside what she looks for in submissions, how she started out in the publishing industry.

Over to you, Juliet…

1) How did you first come to be involved in the industry? Did you plan to be a literary agent? Did you actually have any other career plans?

I worked in Waterstones, and had no idea that literary agents existed. One of my fellow booksellers was a writer and I met his agent at a gig, realised agents are the middle man between authors and publishers, and loved the idea of all the reading!

I took two weeks’ annual leave from my Waterstones job to do work experience with this agent, then sent my CV to every agency listed in the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook, begging for a job. Luckily, A P Watt was looking for an assistant and called up to offer me an interview.

I had no real career plans after university; I was mostly hoping to avoid becoming a teacher, after doing work experience in a school as a teenager and finding it exhausting!

2) What was your experience moving from A P Watt to Blake Friedmann?

It was both nerve-racking and exciting. When A P Watt were acquired by United Agents, I discovered that my role would be diminished (I had a list of around 15 authors at that point, and UA seemed to want assistants rather than Associate Agents) so I took a massive gamble accepting redundancy and hoping another agency would take me on.

Every one of my authors stuck with me, despite not knowing where I would end up – and I will always be deeply grateful to them for their faith in me. I met with lots of different agencies – which largely reinforced my suspicions that this is one of the friendliest industries; so many people met me for informal chats and supportive advice – and when I met Carole and Isobel from Blake Friedmann, we hit it off straight away.

You have to go with your instincts a lot in this job. They welcomed my authors so warmly, and I’ve always been very grateful for their mentorship and encouragement.

3) What are you mostly attracted to in a submission? The character voice, the tone of the narrative or the freshness of a strong voice in an author?

All of those are key, but probably the freshness of a strong and convincing authorial voice is most appealing to me. I love to read something surprising in my submissions, and I get very excited by precise, engaging writing. There are definitely themes that I return to again and again – coming of age, identity, sexuality, love and friendships – but it’s often the writing underlying the story that convinces me that this is an author I want to work with on this book, and many more.

4) What are you currently looking for in submissions? From the sample writing, cover letter, or synopsis, what draws you in first?

I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to read a warm, emotional, fun novel to make me completely forget what is going on around us. They’re rare to come across, but something like Curtis Sittenfeld’s ELIGIBLE or Maria Semple’s WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE would be perfect.

I’m first drawn in by a persuasive cover letter, then I go and read the chapters/proposal before looking at the synopsis.

Sometimes you can tell that an author is going to be promising from the tone and style of the cover letter alone (I’ll always remember the cover letter for THE MERMAID AND MRS HANCOCK, which immediately stood out, even though traditionally historical fiction and mermaids wouldn’t be my thing! I loved that book.)

The first time you meet an author on the page is via the cover letter, and often it’s a reflection of an author’s personality and writing. But then, of course, the chapters are the really exciting part of the submission!

5) Can you describe the feeling of ‘I really want to represent this author’? How do you feel when you offer representation?

It’s a growing excitement as you read a submission, and often begins with a great cover letter, then continues as you read the first three chapters/proposal and ask for the full manuscript (if a novel).

If you finish the novel or proposal and know that you HAVE to work with this author, and are already envisaging which editors will be similarly excited about this book, which prizes it will win, all the opportunities you might be able to find for it, that’s the most thrilling feeling. When you offer representation it feels brilliant but you’re also a tiny bit nervous: what if they say no?! And we’re often competing against other agents, so I want to convey how much Blake Friedmann can offer alongside my own efforts: I work very closely editorially with my authors, and my colleagues and I cover US, translation, and film & TV markets directly in addition to the UK, and we collaborate closely with each other and with our authors, so a new author gets lots of champions here!

I always meet an author or at least have a chat to them before we might start our author/agent relationship, as I rely on my instincts about working with them. Both have to feel that this is a person they like, can trust, and can work with editorially. The hope is that you’ll work together for years and years, so it’s essential to ‘click’.

6) What are your views on the fiction market currently across the genres you represent? What would like to see more of, or what do you think hasn’t been done before?

I work with contemporary fiction across literary, bookclub and commercial, so keeping up with changes in the market keeps me busy! At the moment we’re all looking for that uplifting story with a lot of heart, whichever category that falls into, and I’d like to see more of those stories. I’d also like to read a bold, beautiful and rich love story between two friends; female friendship can be the deepest, truest love, and outlasts many romantic relationships.

I think it’s a challenging time for literary fiction, perhaps, and especially for literary authors who are more than a couple of books along in their careers.

I tend to think that most stories have been written before, it’s the way a new novel is written and what the author brings to the party, that has to be fresh and intriguing!

7) Can you name one fiction author that you like, and why you admire their style of writing?

One of my recent favourites is Elizabeth Strout. She’s wonderful at observing the most human behaviours, writes in spare, succinct prose, and her women are real, fierce and vulnerable. I worship her!

8) In lockdown, what are you currently reading? Are you finding that your reading habits are changing at all?

I’ve just finished Marcia Willett’s REFLECTIONS, which my mum read and loved, and recommended to me. It was a great escape to Devon, and I admired how she writes from several character perspectives and gives them all full stories; it’s quite rare to pull that off, and make each character as interesting as the others. I’ve just started James Baldwin’s GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, for Blake Friedmann Book Club.

9) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Are you finding that your habits are changing? Do you have a favourite drama that you enjoy religiously?

I watched Selling Sunset, Indian Matchmaking, The Duchess. I’ve re-watched a lot of comforting TV: Modern Family, Motherland, Grace and Frankie. Anything that was easy on the eye and the brain! I loved Crazy Rich Asians, which I watched for the first time, recently.

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

Freddie Mercury. Queen’s Greatest Hits was the first album I ever had, and his voice is just incredible. One of a kind!

Thank you for your time today Juliet. It has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: I worked for Waterstones as a bookseller and fiction buyer, before joining the agency A P Watt in 2003. I moved to Blake Friedmann in 2013, becoming Vice Head of the Book Department in 2017, and my authors have been shortlisted for Booker, Costa, and Guardian First Book Awards, won the Whitbread and Green Carnation Prizes, and the Prix Femina Etranger. I regularly visit literary festivals, courses and events, and enjoy giving talks and holding workshops for writers. I have been a judge for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2016/2017, and for the Manchester Fiction Prize 2016.

What I’m Looking For:

I am proud to represent a list of intriguing, conversation-starting, diverse writers, across both fiction and non-fiction. Many of my authors write contemporary stories, often led by themes of identity, coming-of-age, class, gender and sexuality, to name a few; for me, vital qualities to a good story include emotional depth, authenticity, an engaging voice and irrepressible energy. I want to be surprised, and to have everyday experiences and relationships told with nuance and colour.

I love to bring an under-represented experience to both editors and readers, and some of my most enjoyable moments have been campaigning for authors who have looked for a book to reflect their experience and, not having found it, have written their own to provide that space for others. I’m a proud feminist and love books that empower us, or that make us feel recognised and heard.

Favourite authors include Kate Atkinson, Curtis Sittenfeld, Elizabeth Strout, Shirley Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, Nora Ephron and Elizabeth Jane Howard. I’m drawn to rich and multi-layered stories of women, families, friendships and relationships, and love small communities with a strong setting and lots going on beneath the surface; I prefer the small and intimate to the epic and world-affecting.

Alongside literary, book club and commercial fiction, I represent non-fiction writers across the board, including memoir, pop culture, social history, writing on issues of race, gender and class, and cookery and food.

In case it’s helpful to know what I don’t represent, I don’t work with the following genres: Young Adult or children’s, fantasy, supernatural, dystopian, sci-fi, thriller, horror or crime fiction. I tend to enjoy historical fiction only if it’s set after 1900!

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