An Interview With… Joanna Swainson

Hi everyone and today on the blog, I’m delighted to welcome Joanna Swainson. Joanna is a co founder and literary agent at Hardman Swainson.

I was delighted when she took some time to divulge what she looks for in submissions, as well as what she has been up to during lockdown.

Over to you, Joanna…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always want to be a literary agent when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do when I left school. While at university I’d done some summer holiday work at a publishing company, Boxtree, which mainly did TV tie-ins (I’ll never forget the day Ricky from Neighbours walked through the door) but it never really occurred to me to work in publishing after I left university. I thought film might be an interesting area to go into so my first job was as a runner but I soon realised that it wasn’t the career for me. There are so many people involved in making TV and there was an awful lot of hanging about. I had my family quite young and I was getting by doing copy editing jobs, but it wasn’t until my youngest was in primary school that I started thinking seriously about a career again. I’d always been a big reader, so something to do with books appealed to me and I was interested in writing, too, so it made sense to go into the agenting side of things. I wrote job-prospecting letters to some agencies, sent them off and was lucky enough to get a reading job quite quickly. All in all I was quite a latecomer to the business but have been here for 12 or 13 years now, with my own agency (with Caroline) for getting on for nine years.

2) How did you find your degree in French? What was your experience at university like?

I loved my degree! I spent a lot of time partying (or let’s call it raving. It was the ‘90s!) at university and if I were to do it again, might concentrate a bit more on the degree itself. We covered a range of French literature, history, politics and philosophy as well as translation and linguistics. It was a single honours degree which allowed me to study a number of modules in another subject, so I chose some English literature ones, including a crime fiction module. Doing a language course meant I had a third year abroad, which I spent in Aix-en-Provence, but the highlight was venturing off (with a backpack and very little money) to Senegal. I had the Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa and it seemed like the only French-speaking West African country that was a safe bet. An absolutely incredible experience.

3) What attracts you to a submission? Is it the cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing? How does an author leave you wanting more?

The cover letter is important – it’s the first thing we see so if it’s professional and well-written it’ll make us well-disposed to reading the chapters. There does seem to be a correlation between a good cover letter and good chapters. Ultimately, though, it’s the chapters themselves that matter. It can be any number of things that leaves you wanting more – an interesting character, a question raised that you have to know the answer to, good insights, brilliant writing etc. The synopsis is the last thing I look at – they’re hard to write and hard to read but important to get an overview of the book if I’m interested in the submission.

4) When you take on a full manuscript, what is the editing process like with the author?

It really varies. Most authors appreciate a fresh set of eyes on their work and are open to editorial suggestions and discussion. Sometimes there’s a lot of work to do, sometimes it’s just tweaks. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but that’s rare. I’m really open to working in whatever way the author prefers – whether that means working on the book in sections or whether they just want to crack on with it and send over the revised version at the end. If you take something on, even if it’s not quite ready for submission, it’s because there was something good there and it’s incredibly satisfying seeing a manuscript come together into something you think you can finally sell.

5) How many rounds of editing do you do with an author before pitching to publishers? Does the approach vary from book to book?

Again this varies from book to book. But whether it’s fiction or a non-fiction proposal, it’s as many rounds as it needs to knock it into shape to give it its best possible chance. It’s a really tough market and editors have all sorts of hoops to jump through in order to buy something, too, so it’s worth taking the time to get it right. We want to make the editor’s job as easy as possible and, as much as we can, minimise the opportunity for them to say ‘no’.

6) Do you have a view of the crime/thriller market at the moment? Is there anything that you haven’t seen in a book before?

I saw somewhere that crime and thriller is the widest read genre. I also get a lot of submissions in this area and represent a whole range from stand alones to series, from police procedurals to amateur sleuths, from cosy to psychological to speculative. It’s quite rare to come across something very different but ultimately the genre is a backdrop to exploring human nature. So even if most stories have been told in one form or another, something can really stand out by having an unusual character and/or setting. A distinctive voice helps, too. If you’ve got an original turn of mind there’s so much scope for really carving out your niche.

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

At the end of every working day I take the dog out for a walk. It clears my head and is a good break between the working day and the evening / weekend. A big part of my weekends and free time is spent out and about, walking, soaking up the landscape and when possible visiting Neolithic sites, stone circles, Iron Age hill forts and so on – all these really special places with so much history and energy. I live in Oxfordshire close to the Ridgeway so go up there a lot, or just walk by the Thames. Last summer, when we didn’t have such stringent lock down rules, I took off in my camper van – it was my home office! Little did people know whilst I was emailing them that I was gazing out over a Dartmoor tor or a Scottish loch! I also have a little folky electronic music project on the go with my husband – we do that on weekends and sometimes in the evening. I love the day job but it’s nice to have a hobby doing something completely different. I read to relax, too, if you can believe it.

8) In lockdown, what are you currently reading? Are you going back to old favourites or reading new books?

I rarely re-read books, although perhaps will listen to an old favourite on audio. For some reason I’ve been turning more to non-fiction in lockdown. My most recent read was Steve Roud’s Folk Song in England – a huge tome, relevant to a book I sold recently about folk song collecting. I’d been meaning to read it for ages. I’m currently dipping into The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer. Other than that, a range of commercial and literary fiction. I do a lot of podcast listening, too and am currently working my way through The Fall of Civilisations podcast. It’s really good.

9) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

I’m not a huge telly watcher but we did recently get sucked into Vikings so that’s the one on the go at the moment. I’m definitely susceptible to the odd binge watch of something (Line of Duty springs to mind) but I don’t really watch any telly religiously. There is one thing I have gone back to time and again, though, and that’s Detectorists. I absolutely love it.

10) In lockdown, have you been missing live music? What is the best band or artist you last listened to or wish you had seen live?

I’ve very much been missing live music! We go to a good few gigs and festivals every year, and we’re really missing them. Obviously it had to be done but it was horrible seeing festival after festival cancelled last year (not least because both my son’s and sister’s livelihoods depended on them), and likely this year too. I love a wide range of music but especially folk music in all its guises. If we’re talking a banging set then Depeche Mode headlining the Isle of Wight Festival a few years ago was particularly memorable. For totally weird, wonderful and spine-tingly, I loved Current 93 at Shepherds Bush Empire when they performed their album The Light Is Leaving Us All.

Thank you for your time today Joanna! 🙂 It has been a pleasure to interview you!

Bio: After a degree in French I ran a business for several years, providing a range of copy writing and editing services. My love of books and an interest in writing led me to freelance for a number of literary agents, including one of the most commercial agencies in London.

Submissions are the life blood of publishing but many need further work and development. I really enjoy the editorial side of agenting and am endlessly fascinated by writing – what works and why.

I met Caroline while working as a reader and in-house editor for Christopher Little. When the opportunity arose to set up Hardman & Swainson it was too good to miss.

Growing up I read an unhealthy number of Agatha Christies and hard-boiled detective novels and I love crime fiction from both sides of the Atlantic. After school, while travelling through France and Spain and living in a tent, I read all the novels of Charles Dickens. So I guess I’ve always been a bookworm.

What I’m looking for:
I read widely and aim to reflect that in the authors I represent. In fiction, I’m looking for complex, larger-than-life characters and stories that will stay with me forever.

Some of my favourite recent reads are Booker winner Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter and Andrew Michael Hurley’s three novels, The LoneyDevil’s Dayand Starve Acre. I found Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other exhilarating. And Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven will always be a favourite (I didn’t want it to end!) I adore the work of Ali Smith and Kate Atkinson never fails to entertain me. It’s a lot to do with humour and heartbreak.

I love crime and thrillers at both ends of the commercial / literary spectrum. I’ve recently been enjoying Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series and Cara Hunter’s  DI Fawley novels and I’m always on the look out for a hero like Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole

I also love a good ghost story and accessible speculative fiction, as well as a bit of horror, especially folk horror. Michelle Paver’s novels, Dark MatterThin Air and Wakenhyrst are amazing.

Whatever the genre, whether literary or commercial, historical or contemporary, thriller or crime, I’m looking for originality and distinctive voices. I especially like fiction threaded with humour – not necessarily of the laugh out loud kind, it’s often much subtler than that, but you can’t have too many arresting observations and insights.

On the non-fiction front, I enjoy narrative non-fiction, especially popular history (and prehistory) and science. I’m very partial to a memoir. I also enjoy nature writing and am interested in folklore.

While it’s all very well drawing up a wish list, ultimately I’m a fisherman. So send me what you’ve got. Take me by surprise, and keep on surprising me. I’ll know what I’m looking for when I see it.

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