An Interview With… Madeleine Milburn

Hi everyone, on the blog today I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Madeleine Milburn. I was really pleased when she was able to accommodate an interview. Read on for how she got into the industry and what she looks for in submissions.

A huge thank you for doing this Madeleine, it has been a pleasure to interview you!

Over to you, Madeleine…

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 answered a stamp-sized advert in The Guardian for a Foreign Rights Assistant at AP Watt, which was the oldest literary agency in the UK. Back then, I had no idea what a literary agent did let alone what foreign rights were, but it sounded intriguing and I loved books, so it was the first real job I applied for after university. They offered me the role in my interview, but I was hesitant because of the salary… They said ‘do you know how lucky you are? This is one of the most competitive salaries in the industry!’ It didn’t take me long before I realised the opportunity I’d been given, working with authors such as Philip Pullman, Zadie Smith and the late Helen Dunmore.

2) What attracts you to a submission? Is it the cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing?

I’ve wanted to represent 99% of my authors from the moment I read their cover letter. They had me captivated with just those few paragraphs, and their voice continued to excite me in the opening chapters of their novel.

3) How exactly is a high concept novel identified? Is it always X meets X?

Fiction that can be boiled down to a concise, compelling pitch that drives the story. It makes it very easy to position as you can use elements from different books to pinpoint the readership.

4) Are there any differences between representing authors of both fiction and non fiction?

I think there is a huge difference. My list is mainly fiction, and I’m solely concerned with an author’s voice. For a lot of non-fiction though, it becomes as much about an author’s profile as their writing.

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

My hairs stand on end, I can feel my heart beating harder, and I have this strange mix of emotions, one of euphoria and one of fear… I have a rare gem in my hands that I want to share with the world, but will the author choose me?

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 think people are looking for escapist, uplifting fiction right now including cosy mysteries, love stories, discussion-inducing suspense, anything to take our minds off lockdown. I’d like to see more genre-bending and literary fiction. An epic love story that crosses generations or a really sophisticated thriller.

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

I recently read Anna Hope’s Expectation which I loved….it captured that feeling of suddenly waking up feeling that life is very different to how you once knew it. It captures that extraordinary transition you go through in your late thirties, and I found it strangely comforting to know that I’m not on my own in this!

8) 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?

I read to relax! Honestly, there is so much reading to do in the evenings as my days are taken up by deal making, liaising with publishers and author care. Cooking is a great escape for me though and I’ve started to learn about wine which has opened up a whole new world…

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

I wish I had more time to read old favourites such as Middlemarch or The Magus! I have over fifty authors so I’m usually reading their latest drafts or something from the submissions pile. I also keep up with trends so I’m reading the books that sit at the top of The Sunday Times and The New York Timesbestseller lists…

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

Oooh, I have to say This Is Us is definitely getting me through the second lockdown… I’d love to find more stories with wider casts, an original concept and a similar uplifting nature. I think we all need them right now! Aside from this, I tend to watch a lot of crime and thrillers. I love a Scandi crime series.

Thank you for your time today Madeleine, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Madeleine founded Madeleine Milburn Ltd in 2012, and it is now a major international literary agency based in the UK. Working with a network of publishers and producers based all over the world, Madeleine represents debut writers, journalists, and established authors. With her tight-knit team, she handles all rights to every book including UK, US, international and Film & TV.

In 2018, Madeleine was named Literary Agent of the Year at the British Book Awards, and was shortlisted again in 2020. She has appeared on The Bookseller’s list of the 150 most influential people in the book trade every year since 2017. 

Madeleine represents authors based in the UK, US, Canada and Australia, and has a strong reputation for talent spotting writers and launching their careers with major publishers internationally. She works across all genres and has a particular passion for smart, accessible literary fiction, that can be discussed by book clubs. She has launched the careers of multiple bestselling authors, some of them the highest-earning in the book trade. Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has sold millions of copies worldwide, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over 84 weeks, and won the 2017 Costa Book Awards. Madeleine also discovered Elizabeth Macneal’s international bestseller The Doll Factory, and bestselling brand authors including C.J. Tudor, C.L. Taylor, Fiona Barton and Holly Bourne. In January 2021, three of the agency’s authors spent multiple weeks the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously: The Push by Ashley Audrain, Wintering by Katherine May, and The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley.

Actively looking for:

Character-led, voice-driven literary and book club fiction with a strong discussion point, moral dilemmas, family dramas with thought-provoking themes, quirky characters, original concepts, thrillers and suspense. Some of my favourite authors outside the agency include: Sally Rooney, Elizabeth Strout, Donna Tartt, Tana French, Hanya Yanagihara, Alex Michaelides, Margaret Atwood, David Nicholls, Anna Hope and Maggie O’Farrell.

Call Me Mummy… A Q&A with Tina Baker

Hi everyone and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Tina Baker, to discuss her debut novel Call Me Mummy.

I LOVED EVERYTHING about this novel – the characters, the plotting, the pacing. It didn’t feel like a debut novel, but it is. I was intrigued by the premise, so had a chat with Tina to discover more about her writing process.

Over to you, Tina…

1) Where did the idea come from and how did you begin to flesh it out?

I’d always wanted to write a novel but had never given myself the time. When my dad died, I finally decided to go for it, and I signed up foran MA in Creative Writing at City University. On the course, one bit of homework was to go somewhere you’d never been before. I went into a branch of Mothercare. As I’d failed to have a child, despite fertility treatment, I’d never set foot in a shop like that. I had a full-on meltdown. Very painful. That was the seed of the idea for Call Me Mummy.

It took two years after that to flesh out the idea into a story of the two women.

2) How did you create your main character Mummy? Did you enjoy writing her? Which other perspective did you most enjoy writing?

Sadly, some of Mummy is my worst impulses and it’s also based on my own mother, now deceased. She was abused by nuns, so the warped Catholicism came from her experience.

3) Call Me Mummy is your debut novel. How did you choose the title? What made you decide to tackle the subject you chose?

I’d always wanted to be a mother but failed. I’ve yearned for someone to call me Mummy, but it never happened. The cats haven’t even tried! Ialways wanted to write from the heart – tackling topics that meant something to me.

4) What was your research process like? Did any of the research surprise you at any point? Did you refer to it during the process of writing?

I didn’t have to do much research as I already had direct experience of feeling desperate for a child and fertility treatment that failed. I also know the locations in the book very well. I taught Zumba on the Andover Estate where Kim lives, and I taught fitness sessions at the Finsbury Park Mosque, where her friend Ayesha worships.

I did re-read press coverage of child abduction cases.

5) What does your writing process look like? Do you plot in detail? If not, why not?

Plotting – as in sitting down and having the structure before you start – feels totally alien to me. Some people have spreadsheets! Post-its on the wall! Colour-coded chapters! I have to lean into a story and feel that things happen organically. Sometimes I do know how I want it to end, but by the time I’ve got there, even that might change.

6) Lastly, do you use Scrivener or MS Word? Which do you prefer and why?

Word. I don’t know what Scrivener is without googling it. I’m not the most technical person. Head of Technology (he appointed himself) is my husband, Geoff.

Thank you for visiting the blog today, Tina. It has been a pleasure to interview you. I wish you all the best with your writing.

Bio: Tina was brought up in a caravan after her mother, a fairground traveller, fell pregnant by a window cleaner. After leaving the bright lights of Coalville, she came to London and worked as a journalist and broadcaster for thirty years. She’s probably best known as a television critic for the BBC and GMTV, but after so many hours watching soaps gave her a widescreen bum, she got off it, lost weight and won Celebrity Fit Club. When not writing she now works as a fitness instructor. She also rescues cats, whether they want to be rescued or not. Call Me Mummy is Tina’s first novel, partly inspired by her own unsuccessful attempts to have a child. Despite the grief and disappointment of that, she hasn’t stolen one. So far.

An Interview With… Jodie McNee

Hi everyone and this evening on the blog I’m delighted to welcome actress Jodie McNee. This is the first time I have interviewed an actress, and as I am a huge fan of Jodie’s work.

Having watched her as Angela in Criminal Justice as well as true crime dramas Anthony and Little Boy Blue – I was delighted when she agreed to come on the blog and answer some questions about her career highlights, what attracts her to a script and what she has been up to during lockdown.

Over to you, Jodie…

1) How did you first become to be involved in the industry? Was it something you always wanted to do? Did you have any other career plans?

I can’t remember what age it started, feels like I knew very early on that I loved it. I was such a shy child, but I just loved being on stage. I was really lucky because my mum and my teachers at school were so supportive and encouraged me to go into acting. I think I would’ve been a nurse if I hadn’t got into acting.

2) Your career has varied between television, film and theatre. Which of the three would you say is your favourite and why?

I love all three. Theatre is about a connection with the audience, and a sharing of ideas. Tv and film are very much about capturing truthful moments, I love being on a set and watching the other actors, witnessing their process. It’s all fascinating to me.

3) You played Jackie Carter in Little Boy Blue. How did you find the role and the research involved in preparing for the production?

Little Boy Blue was a privilege to be part of. It was a dramatisation of a real event, so it was a very delicate subject for Rhys’s loved ones and for the people of Liverpool, everyone involved felt a personal responsibility to tell the story truthfully and to do our absolute best.

Before we started I read up as much as I could about the case.
The director, producer and writer had been working together on the script for years, so it was intensely researched, all with the blessing of Rhys’s parents Mel and Steve.

4) When you read a script, what do you pay attention to in particular? Does the character leap off the page for you? What makes you think ‘Yes, I want to play this role!’?

I just have to connect to it, for me it’s a feeling rather than conscious thought, a gut feeling.

For example when I played Faustus last year, I read Chris Bush’s script and thought “I’ve got to play this part” because the writing was so wild, and clever I instantly fell in love with it.

It’s not always just the character that excites me, it can be the project as a whole, the subject or the writer or director that draws me in. It’s a collaborative process and that’s what I love most.

5) How did you find your current agent? Would you say the process is the same for a writer seeking representation? For example, a submission reel is the same as a sample of a manuscript?

You usually send your cv and showreel to the agent or if you’re in a show you can invite them along to see it.

6) How have you been coping during lockdown? As an actress, how has lockdown affected you?

I’ve been lucky enough to have some work during lockdown, which I am very grateful for because it’s been extremely difficult for so many in our industry, many freelancers have been overlooked and are struggling.

7) During the pandemic, what have you missed most about the day to day routine of your job?

I miss the collaboration and being part of a company.

8) Are you currently reading any books? Between fiction and non fiction, what is your favourite? Do you have a favourite genre?

I’m reading Women Who Run with Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I’m interested in lots of different genres.

9) During lockdown, what have you been watching on television? Do you have a favourite programme that you watch religiously?

I watched Schitts Creek three times over because I’m obsessed with Moira Rose. I also watch a LOT of Four In A Bed and I’m currently watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race religiously.

10) If you had to choose between Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury (Queen) or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

Freddie Mercury! He’s an icon and an incredible talent.

Thank you for visiting the blog Jodie. Thank you very much for taking the time out for me and for being so accommodating. It has been a pleasure to interview you! 🙂

CV:

TELEVISION:
Britannia – 3 seasons (Willa)
Anthony (Nurse Susan Parr)
Agatha And The Death Of X (PC O’Hannauer) Vera (Natalie Bell)
Little Boy Blue (WPC Carter)
Ripper Street (Myrtle Waters)
Criminal Justice 2 (Angela)
Poirot (Annie)
The Liverpool Nativity (Mary)
Shane (Nurse)

THEATRE:
Unprecedented: Fear Fatigue (Beatrice) Faustus:That Damned Woman (Faustus) Venice Preserved (Belvidera)
Anatomy Of A Suicide (Jo/Laura/Lola) The Night Watch (Kay)
The Oak Tree (Actress)
Our Country’s Good (Liz Morden)
Game (Carly)
Three Winters (Alisa)
Hamlet (Rosencrantz./Second Grave Digger) Hobsons Choice (Maggie Hobson) Twelfth Night (Viola)
The Empty Quarter (Holly)
A Life Of Galileo (Virginia)
Orpheus Descending (Carol CutrereWritten On The Heart (Mary Currer) Measure For Measure (Isabella)
This Happy Breed (Vi)
Seagull (Masha)
When We Are Married (Ruby)
Canary (Melanie/Nurse/Sue the miners wife)
Knives In Hens (Young Woman) When We Are Married (Ruby) A Taste Of Honey (Jo)
Double Portrait
King Lear (Cordelia)
The Frontline (Polish Jodie)
Cymbeline (Imogen)
Jenufa (Jenufa)
Mother Courgae And Her Children (Kattrin) The Changeling (Isabella)
The Burial At Thebes

FILM:
Official Secrets (Duty Solicitor)
Judy (Vivian)
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (Jessie)

The Physician (Agnes Cole)
Collider – Short (Melinda)
One Happy Moment – Short (Kasha)
A Picture Of Me (Sarah)

An Interview With… Karen Sullivan

Hi everyone, this evening on the blog I’m delighted to welcome publisher and Orenda Books founder Karen Sullivan.

Karen and I first met in Waterstones when Orenda came to Liverpool in 2017, and I was very grateful and pleased when she kindly accommodated an interview. Read on for how she got involved in the industry, what she looks for in submissions and her all important views on the crime/thriller market.

Over to you, Karen…

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

I always knew that I wanted to do something with books, and my first job was in publishing. I went on to write books (non-fiction) and then returned to publishing and eventually started Orenda Books. I remember reading when I was a teenager about a girl who got a job ‘reading the slush pile’ for a publishing company, and couldn’t believe that it was possible to have a job that involved simply reading!

2) How did Orenda first begin? What was your plan/vision for the company?

I founded Orenda Books in 2014, and we published our first books in 2015. I wanted to publish beautiful, unforgettable books … books that pushed the boundaries of their genres, fresh, exciting voices, gorgeous writing. I also really wanted (and still do) to demystify translated literature, and bring some superb international reads to English. Because I was an author, it was equally important to me to create a team spirit, and make the publishing process pleasurable for authors.

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?

A bit of everything, really. A generic covering letter does not impress; however, someone who has taken the time to look at what we publish and to let me know where they think their book fits into our list, and what they like about the books we publish is a great starting point. A short synopsis, a killer ‘blurb’ (elevator pitch, if you like) and a full manuscript are essential. We don’t sign on the basis of a synopsis. I often start reading after the first chapter, which many authors find painful to write. Something different, strong writing, a compelling storyline that wants me to read on are all important.

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

We go through a number of stages of editing, the first being the structural edits, which can be brutal. We often lose whole plot threads, characters and even points of view at this stage, and there can be a lot of additional writing required. I am absolutely fierce about this process. Every book we publish also effectively bears my name, and I won’t put anything out there that isn’t the best that it can be. After several months, often with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and perhaps brainstorming solutions to problems, we’ll move onto copyediting, which can throw up more of the same! We work closely with the author at every stage.

5) How long does the publishing process take? Is it different with each book?

Yes, it’s different with every book, depending upon how much work is necessary. I would say, however, that the average book will take between eight and twelve months from submission to printed copies, and often longer. We can work much more quickly than big publishers, and we’ve turned around books that didn’t need many structural changes within six months. We need proofs about five months before publication, so the time is pretty much set in stone.

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?

There are always new twists and new ideas, and that’s what fascinates me – how a genre can continue to be so vibrant and diverse. I’m not one for ‘trendy’ plots or settings, and there has been, as there always is, a spate of similar books in different locations. I’m sure there is lots to come and many things I haven’t seen yet.

7) What would you do if you weren’t working in publishing? What keeps you motivated on a day to day basis?

I don’t even know! I have spent my entire career working in or with books, and reading is my ultimate hobby. I am motivated by doing something I love, with people that I love, in a community that I love, and that’s every reason to jump out of bed in the morning and get to work! I love the marketing aspect of the job, so perhaps that would be an alternative career! But oh … the books!

8) 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?

I mainly read, cook or spend time with my family. Over lockdown, my habits changed completely. I never, ever watched TV, apart from the odd series, and now I am watching a few at the same time, with a long list of things I plan to watch in future. I have also become a bit obsessed with DIY, and have been updating the house over the past few months. But Friday night is pizza and poker night, and we have so much fun! It will be strange when everyone is ‘free’ again and I think I’ll miss this! Chances are that I’ll be travelling again, too, and that will be weird. Over the weekend, I usually work for at least one day … editing or tackling social media. And then just do the stuff we all have to do!

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

LOADS of new books. I was seriously ill with Covid for several months, and picked up my kindle for the first time, reading book after book by friends in the community, proofs for upcoming books, anything. I think that I’ve read about 200 books in the past year, and loved every minute of it. I just finished reading Elizabeth Haynes’ You, Me and The Sea, which is so beautifully written and moving. Not crime, but I love reading widely. I’ve got Jenni Fagin’s Luckenbooth up next, and I recently finished Ashley Audrain’s The Push and Erin Kelly’s Watch Her Fall. Both absolutely BRILLIANT. I love translated fiction, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir is always a favourite!

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

As I mentioned, I never watched TV before and definitely didn’t have any favourite anything! I’m watching Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes at the moment, did a catch-up on Line of Duty recently, and my favourite spirit-lifter is Schitt’s Creek. There’s some amazing drama around. Thank goodness!

11) 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?

We have a shared Spotify account in this house and I tend to be the first one kicked off! I like all types of music. When I’m working, I listen to the exquisite music of one of our authors, Thomas Enger, one of which was inspired by a visit to our family home on a lake in Canada. I can’t listen to anything with lyrics while I’m working, and I work A LOT, so it’s really just what’s on in the background. The best band? It HAS to be the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, with Val McDermid, Luca Veste, Stuart Neville, Chris Brookmyre, Mark Billingham and our brilliant Doug Johnstone on drums. I have seen an alarming percentage of their live performances, and I always get up and dance!

Thank you for your time this evening Karen. It has been a pleasure to interview you!

Bio: Karen Sullivan is founder and publisher of Orenda Books, a small independent publisher, based in London. Orenda publishes literary fiction, with a heavy emphasis on crime/thrillers, and about half the list in translation. Orenda won CWA Crime and Mystery Publisher of the Year in 2020, and has been shortlisted for Small Press of the Year in the 2021 British Book Awards. Karen was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2016. She is Canadian by birth, and lives in London with her family.

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