An Interview With… Juliet Mushens

Hi everyone, and this evening on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Juliet Mushens. Juliet is a literary agent at Mushens Entertainment, and kindly accommodated some time to talk about what she looks for in submissions.

Over to you, Juliet…

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 studied History at University and had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. A friend said to me, ‘you read faster than anyone I know, what about publishing?’ I googled the industry and found a paid summer internship at HarperCollins.

I applied to work in their children’s marketing team as the summer intern and didn’t get the job, but they passed my CV to the fiction marketing team who took me on. It was a two-hour commute for me each way (Essex to Hammersmith!) but because it was paid I could afford to do it, and I absolutely loved the job. At the end of the internship, their assistant was leaving, and they offered me her fulltime role.

I took on a dual marketing/editorial position, and whilst I enjoyed it, as I started to come into contact with agents and understand more about their role, I realised that that was what I wanted to do. As an agent you can work across fiction and non-fiction, and that appealed to my broad reading tastes!

I applied to be an assistant at an agency and I worked my way up from there. I have now been a literary agent fulltime for ten years.

2) How did it feel being shortlisted for Literary Agent of the Year?

It was extremely exciting to be shortlisted! I was 27 at the time so it was early in my career, and it felt like a wonderful boost of confidence around the authors I was signing and selling.

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?

I’m a sucker for a high-concept hook! I’m drawn to plotty novels, with pace and suspense, but I also want to see characters I believe and invest in, and quality writing. I’d say a cover letter should focus on the hook or pitch of the novel, to intrigue me and make me want to read on. The writing needs to establish character and suspense – whether that’s ‘will she get back with her boyfriend?’ or ‘what is she running from?’

4) If you have asked to see a full manuscript, what would make you ultimately reject it? Would you offer editorial feedback at all?

My most common reason to pass on a full manuscript is that the plot didn’t feel ‘big’ enough. I don’t mean by that that every novel needs to be about saving the world, or stopping a killer – but each novel needs to set up questions which will be answered by the end of the book, to keep us reading on.

I want to feel as if I have gone on a journey with the characters, and that they have been changed by the events of the novel. I do offer editorial feedback if I pass on a full manuscript.

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

I feel very excited when I think I want to represent something. It’s a heart response first, an ‘oh I love this, I’m so gripped, I can’t put it down!’ then it’s a head response of ‘do I know how to sell this? Does it need edits? Can I fix it?’ But heart is crucial: I’m really passionate about the novels I take on. It’s nerve-wracking to offer representation, especially if they have other offers from agents, but it feels amazing when someone says yes. Then, of course, the hard work begins.

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?

Two of my crime/thriller authors are topping the charts at the moment: Richard Osman’s THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB is the number one Sunday Times bestseller and GIRL A by Abigail Dean is the number two Sunday Times bestseller this week. They’re both very different takes on the genre. THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB is very much a golden age murder mystery.

GIRL A has a very interesting structure: you know they escaped from page one, but it’s more about the psychological ramifications after a crime rather than the crime itself. So, in short, the genre is thriving, but I think authors are developing very different takes on it.

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?

I love working out and I usually do an hour of weights on a Friday as a way to switch off from work. I then cook dinner and we always play a board game or watch a film afterwards. I’m a big fan of games like Splendor and King Domino. Before the pandemic I could normally be found at a jazz club on a Friday night, swinging out (I’ve been dancing lindy-hop for around ten years), or karaoke with friends. I also, unsurprisingly, read a lot of novels.

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

I’m currently reading ‘These Women’ by Ivy Pochoda, which is a literary thriller told from the perspective of the women impacted by a series of murders in their neighbourhood. I’ve recently set up a book group with a friend which means I’m reading books I would never have picked up: which I love.

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

I watch a lot of TV! Currently I’m watching The West Wing and we recently finished The Americans, which is now my favourite drama series of all time. I also loved Selling Sunset, Last Kingdom, The X Files (which I’d never seen before!), Queen’s Gambit… okay, maybe I watch too much TV.

10) What music do you like to listen to? Have you missed live music in lockdown?

I love 1950s RnB, jazz, swing and soul. Little Willie John, Django Reinhardt, Fluffy Hunter, Amos Milburn…. I hugely miss live music and especially dancing to live music. I can’t wait until it’s safe to do so again!

Thank you so much for your time Juliet. It was a pleasure to interview you!

Bio: Juliet Mushens started her publishing career in 2008 at HarperCollins, and became an agent in 2011. She has been shortlisted for Literary Agent of the Year four times and is currently the number 1 ranked UK dealmaker on Publishers’ Marketplace.

She represents a bestselling and critically acclaimed list, including million-copy no. 1 bestseller Jessie Burton, multi-million copy NY Times bestseller Taran Matharu, record-breaking no. 1 bestseller Richard Osman, and Sunday Times bestsellers Ali Land, Claire Douglas, Debbie Howells, Stacey Halls, Laura Lam and James Oswald.

Her guide to YA creative writing was published by Hodder in 2015. You can find her on twitter as @mushenska.

10 Questions With… Jack Byrne

Hi everyone, and this afternoon I’m delighted to welcome Jack Byrne to the blog. Jack is from Liverpool and has set his debut novel here.

I was delighted when he agreed to an interview, and to find out about his writing journey. Details of how to contact him are below the Q&A.

Over to you, Jack…

1) As a child, did you have a favourite author? Was there a turning point with a book that made you go ‘Wow!’?

I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid. No particular favourite, from Sven Hassell to Dickens. I never really read children’s books, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, all came later as a kind of catch up exercise. The books that were available in the house were mum’s Catherine Cookson, and an older brother’s collection of socialist literature, he was a shop steward in a local factory. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was an early book that had a huge impact on me and I would still recommend it today. Maybe even more than ever, as we have multi million pound companies skimming huge profits from kids free school meals.

2) Did you enjoy English at school?

I did, it was probably the only subject I had any time for. After leaving Grammar School part way through and going to the local Secondary Modern I told the English teacher my favourite book was Of Mice and Men. He laughed and said that would be too high a level for the Secondary Modern. I left that school without sitting for a single exam.

3) Do you currently write full time? If so, what was your ‘life’ before becoming a writer?

Writing full time is still an ambition. Like most working people I had jobs, rather than a career or profession and I have done many things, from car factory to University janitor, including setting up a couple of businesses. I finally settled to teaching English as a foreign language and combine that with writing.

4) How did you develop the idea for Under the Bridge?

The experience of the book is part of my life. All my ancestry was Irish but growing up during ‘The Troubles’ being Irish existed in, to use a more modern phrase, a hostile environment. One narrative in the book follows the adventures of two immigrants to Liverpool through the 50s to the 2000s. The second is set in 2004 and the main characters Anne and Vinny try to uncover the mystery of unidentified human remains found near the docks. Without being biographical, the story is of families like mine, the city they came to and the country they left.

5) Can you briefly describe the publication process?

I had been querying agents and publishers for over six months, with over fifty rejections, I had given myself a year to try the traditional publishing route if nothing happened then I would self publish. A writer friend suggested Northodox, and after submitting through their process they said they liked it, so that’s where we started.

6) How did you find your current agent and publisher? Do you have any ideas for other novels and have you started working on them?

It’s a little bit unusual; I’m a debut author, this is the first book for the publisher, and I think I was the first client of the new agent to get a deal. So a trifector of debuts. I found the publisher then approached the agent, and the agent sorted the the contracts etc. Under The Bridge is the first book in The Liverpool Mystery series, books two and three are written, and I am currently working on book four. The books cover the period from 1920 to 2020s a hundred years of turmoil in Anglo Irish relations, and the consequent crises in the lives of my characters.

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

There are too many to name a single style or author, some favourite books; A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel. Germinal, Emile Zola, The Black Jacobins CLR James. Reading in The Dark by Seamus Deane. I guess I like a more direct style of writing, luxuriating in the prose seems self indulgent to me.

8) What are you currently reading? Have you found that your reading habits have changed throughout lockdown?

I am researching the last book in the series and while writing most of my reading is background. My current WIP is set in Ireland in 1975 and 2019 so I am reading Dairmud Ferriter’s 800 page tome about Ireland in the 70s.

9) What are you currently watching on television?

I guess like many people TV is no longer the ‘go to’ medium. For casual viewing I tend to surf news on Youtube, and for entertainment there are so many great TV series being produced these days it’s hard to choose.

The Wire is the stand out series of the modern era, then of course the Sopranos. I came across Dirilus Ertugrul recently, a propagandistic Turkish production about the foundation of the Ottoman Empire a bit weird but strangely compelling.

10) When you write, do you prefer music or silence? Do you have a favourite band or artist you like to play when you do write?

It’s silence for me, I don’t want anything competing with the voices in my head.

Thank you for your time today Jack. I wish you all the best with your writing.

Bio: Jack Byrne was born and raised in Speke, Liverpool to an Irish immigrant father and grandparents.

Under the Bridge is his debut novel and follows reporter Anne and student Vinny around Merseyside, as they become involved in a story of unions, crime, and police corruption after human remains are discovered at a construction site.

Follow Jack on Twitter @Jackbyrnewriter

And find him on www.jackbyrne.home.blog

An Interview With… Tom Ashton

Hi everyone, and on the blog this evening I’m delighted to welcome Tom Ashton. Tom is an editor and award winning novelist, currently working for Northodox Press.

He joined me on the blog to chat about his career to date and what he looks for in submissions.

Over to you, Tom…

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

I’ve always been publishing something or other.

At Age 5 I published a school newspaper, called Playground News consisting mostly of size 36 font and blown up clipart. 

Fast forward to university, I published a Creative Writing magazine showcasing the work of unpublished student writers and poets, which is where I met the other members of the Northodox team. 

Publishing’s always been the career path for me, whether it be my own books or other peoples. The world needs more books.

2) You studied Creative Writing at University. What was your experience of the course like and how has it helped you as a writer?

If I hadn’t gone to university, I would never have met the two chaps with whom I created Northodox Press.

The creative writing course at the University of Derby taught me how to critically analyse writing independently and in a workshop situation, and I gained a lot of contacts who’ve helped me throughout my career.

3) You have worked for independent publishers and literary agents. How did you find your experience? Did you find your previous roles were good experience for Northodox?

I’ve done everything from flogging books off a market stall to haggling over rights at London book fair – and frankly I loved doing both.

Working in independent publishing, allowed me to study the publishing process from start to finish, whereas working for a leading literary agency allowed me to communicate with the ‘Big Five’ and see how they do things on a wider scale. 

Both were good experiences for seeing what Northdox needs to be, and what it could be.

4) Why did you choose to specialise in crime fiction? What do you feel Northodox can offer a new writer?

All of the staff at Northdox have a natural fondness for crime fiction – and it sells well! Everybody seems to love a juicy murder.

We offer editorial support, pre and post publication marketing, and quality cover design, along with bags of enthusiasm, tenacity, and regular communication. 

We want to champion your book.  

5) Where do you start with the submission package? The cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing?

We ask for a 5000-word extract or your opening three chapters, along with a blurb and a short author bio of no more than 200 words

6) What are your views on the fiction market currently? Across the crime genre, what would you like to see more of that hasn’t been submitted before to you?

The fiction market, particularly the crime fiction market, is booming!
Personally, I love an antihero, a dirty cop, a whiskey swigging detective with anger issues. Send me your noir detective stories and anything with a serial killer in it.

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

I take the dog out for a long walk usually. Then the rest of the evening consists of pizza, Netflix, Fifa, and, of course, books – editing, writing, or reading. The grind never stops.

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

I’ve been trawling through Netflix mainly, watching F is for Family, Gogglebox, and Trailer Park Boys. The best thing to come out of Netflix for a while, in my opinion, is Mindhunter. Seriously check it out!

In terms of stuff I watch religiously… The Sopranos. 

9) During lockdown, what have you been reading? Have you found that your habits have changed?

Lockdown has been a great opportunity to read all those books I’ve always felt like I should have read, so I’ve been wading through the classics. 

I’m also trying this thing where I read anything a friend recommends, so I read lots of stuff that I might not necessarily pick up whilst browsing Waterstones… it’s been a very hit and miss experience. 

10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

I’m an enormous AC/DC fan, but Freddie Mercury… the guy’s elite.

Thank you for your time this evening Tom. It was a pleasure to interview you. I wish Northodox Press all the best for the future!

Bio: Tom is an award-winning novelist, from Cumbria, who holds a degree in Creative Writing. He has worked for independent publishers, literary agencies, and often speaks at universities and literary festivals about his career. Tom is interested in zany characters – send him your weirdos.

An Interview With… Genevieve Pegg

Hi everyone, also this morning on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Genevieve Pegg. Genevieve is the Publishing Director for Harper North, a northern based imprint of HarperCollins.

I was really intrigued by Genevieve’s role so I was delighted when she agreed to answer a few questions on her career to date.

Over to you, Genevieve…

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

I left university having been told publishing was too competitive, so I signed up with lots of temping agencies while I was working out what to do instead. Luckily, they sent me for an interview at Penguin…

2) You have a background in editing. What was your first editing role at Orion like? How has it helped you in your current role as Publishing Director?

In so many roles right across the business, much of what you learn is on the job training and a key part of that in editorial is learning from a slew of amazing colleagues. I started that process at Penguin and later at Orion – at first as an editorial assistant. Like lots of first and second job roles in the industry it gave me an appreciation for the whole chain of people it takes to create a book – between the talent and hard work of the author and the end experience with the reader, are so many dedicated teams of people. It’s important in editorial to connect those people. And of course, it also gives you a sense of how much a book can evolve from first draft to finished copy.

3) What prompted HarperCollins to set up a northern division? How did you feel about moving from London to Manchester?

Having grown up in North Wales, Manchester always felt like a city of opportunity to me. I moved back north five years ago and started working for myself. But when I first spoke to HarperCollins about their ideas for a northern-based imprint, it really tallied with all the conversations I’d been having with clients about regional diversification, so it seemed the perfect time to join. HarperCollins could see a chance to join the literary scene in the north – publishing from here but for a global audience. And since HarperCollins in the UK is already spread between offices in Glasgow, London and Honley, they welcomed another location.

4) At HarperCollins, what is a typical day for you? Do you have a particular department that you are attached to?

As I’m sure most of your interviewees say, no two days are the same! Since the pandemic has moved us to remote working, maintaining contact and team collaboration is a big part of what I do. As well as working closely with my colleagues, we’d normally all be seeing lots of authors, agents, booksellers, librarians and readers, so making sure those communications continue online is really important – while trying to make sure no one’s burning out from too many emails, videocalls and meetings. But in terms of the publishing, my role is to oversee the shape of the list – looking at what books my team are hoping to acquire, discussing ideas for new projects and where they sit in the market, and making sure every department within the business shares our vision for how to publish each title and help every book reach its widest readership in all formats. In between that, acquiring, editing my own titles is a key process. And in addition to looking at individual titles, I work on the financials and the strategy of the list – planning how to build authors for the long-term as well as on a book by book basis.

5) If you weren’t working in publishing, what would be your other dream/ideal job?

Growing up, I wanted to either drive the mobile library – I don’t think I’ve quite let go of that ambition! Or if I was to leave the book business entirely, I think I’d still hope to work in a field that touches on the stories we tell ourselves and each other. I think, for example, we all struggle with finding the right words at some points in our life and I really admire the work people like grief counsellors do to help people find their own story to make sense of the hard times we all face on occasion.

6) What advice would you give to a writer who is just starting out? Would you recommend a creative writing course?

First of all: start writing. Finding your voice and getting into the habit of words on a page is the basis of everything. After that, whether you should pursue a creative writing course can be quite personality-dependent. If you like structure and input, they’re great for adding accountability and community into your writing process – while other authors flourish by writing in the secret hours of the day and night. Whichever path you choose, I would say it’s useful to think about how you’re going to share to your work. Whether that’s with fellow course members, beta readers or agents, at some point writers make that step towards releasing their words into the wild.

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

Since remote-working, the first thing I do when I leave my desk is usually feed my ever-hungry children! And to relax, getting outside gives me perspective. Spending so much time reading, it’s great to lift your eyes to the horizon when you can.

8) During lockdown, what have you been reading? Have you found yourself re reading your favourites or starting new books?

I confess I lost my reading mojo in the early stages of the pandemic, and found myself dipping in to lots of books rather than devouring them in long sittings. And after an autumn of being in the lucky position of reading wonderful submissions, I’m treating myself to reading some finished, already-published books for the holidays.

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

Recently, I’ve loved The Queen’s Gambit, Sex Education and Criminal.

10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

Freddie for me – Queen is often my children’s car music of choice!

Thank you for your time today Genevieve, it was a pleasure to interview you!

Bio: Born in Liverpool and raised in North Wales, Gen is delighted to be at the helm of HarperNorth and bringing readers and writers together across the region. Gen has published authors from Kate Mosse to Belle de Jour and has worked at Penguin, Orion and with indie authors and publishers. She is always in search of page-turners, from bookclub stories to historical fiction, and from memoir to crime thrillers.

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