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Resources for Writers

Literary Super Agent: Marianne Gunn O’Connor

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Article by Bernice Barrington ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).
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What’s she like?

That’s the first question that you want to know about Marianne Gunn O’Connor, right? And the second: how can she become your agent?

To address the former question first.

Think authoritative. Think sage-like. Think someone who speaks in a language that is recognisably English, but in a manner that seems different to most. In a world of faux-intimacy, text-speak and babbling for the sake of something to say, Marianne is like something out of a different time: a self-confessed private, solitary person. Mysterious, even.

Indeed, spells, magic and fate recur while talking to Marianne. “Writing is a vocation and a gift. Great writers seem to weave magic spells and seduce you with their language; their work transports you to another place. That’s the sort of writer that stands out, that I would pluck from the slush pile.”

Speaking of slush piles (and to address question number two), does she even look at hers anymore?

“I do take on unsolicited manuscripts, but very, very rarely. Most manuscripts that come in have been recommended. However, I’m still receiving a hell of a lot – roughly 1,500 unsolicited a year.”

And, of those, how many does she take on? [Brace yourself.]

“Some years there’s none. Other years I might take on two or three. I still look at the slush pile because you have to. Not every writer knows someone who can recommend their work and I want to honour those people who don’t have that connection.

“Also, you don’t know what you might miss. So the unsolicited manuscripts will be read, but it doesn’t mean I will represent them all. I have wonderful readers who look through the slush pile for me and highlight anything that stands out. I would not have the time to read every single manuscript myself.”

Publishing reality
For Marianne a writer is born not made and writing is part of their essence.

“I think a writer’s vision and the way they process the world is different and that’s their gift. I remember Pat McCabe saying to me, ‘It’s what I’ve come to do. Whether or not there is a publisher for my work, I will never stop writing’. The real writer has the urge to write regardless of publishing deals, it’s an integral part of who they are – they are true artists.”

But what if you see yourself as a bona fide scribe but really want to get a book deal too? Realistically, what are the odds these days? Is the recession bringing everything to a shuddering halt?

“If you create a compelling story with a strong plot, interesting characters and great writing, yes, it will sell. We’re all searching for a great story. However, it has become a lot harder. Publishers are much more discerning because people are buying fewer books, and I don’t think that’s just because of the recession. I think it’s because of the internet and social-networking sites. People’s attentions are elsewhere. If you look around on buses or on trains, most people are on their phones chatting on Facebook, they’re not reading as much.”

All of this seems to spell bad news in particular for the ‘slow-burn’ book, a sentiment with which Marianne agrees.

“People don’t have that attention span. We don’t have time to sit there and engage for sixty or seventy pages with nothing happening. Readers need to be entertained, the writer now has to capture the reader’s attention from the first page.”

However, Marianne is heartened that Oprah Winfrey is resurrecting her iconic book club on the back of reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a memoir about one woman’s 4,285km hike across the Pacific Crest Trail following the death of her mother and the breakdown of her marriage.

“She was so blown away by it, she decided to start her club again, which I think is just amazing. Imagine reading something that moves you so much you start off a book club?! Believe it or not, there are quite a few writers who can achieve that if we give them that opportunity and it’s why I think we should be open to looking at debut authors. I love finding new talent…”

Just connect
All of this brings us neatly onto Marianne’s own debut author Kathleen McMahon, whose book This is How it Ends sold for £600,000 at last year’s London Book Fair.

“What you want is to write a book that moves people to the point where it matters to them; where they want to share it with others. This Is How It Ends brings you to that place.”

However, it wasn’t an easy path. “Kathleen had written another book, which didn’t really take off the way we both wanted to. It was quite a sad story. One editor absolutely loved it and we were in the process of negotiating with her when she was made redundant. After that, I didn’t feel there was the same champion within the publishing house. Other editors were torn about it. So Kathleen and I had a conversation and decided it was better, at that stage, to withdraw the manuscript rather than have a lukewarm start.”

So far, so unfortunate. However, Kathleen had already started working on This Is How it Ends, and had given Marianne a detailed synopsis. She (Marianne) believed this was the  “stronger” book.

“Kathleen and I made a pact, which I like to do with all my authors, where I try not to tell them anything until I have something positive to say. I didn’t even tell her I was submitting at the London Book Fair because you don’t know which way it will go and it’s very difficult for authors to be in that waiting place. The way I see it, it’s about timing and connecting with the right editor.  And it is not always easy to get both aligned.”

However, in the case of This Is How It End both factors magically came together – Rebecca Saunders of Sphere stayed up all night to read the manuscript.

“She emailed me at about one or two in the morning, said she was sobbing her heart out and LOVED the book, and she wanted a conversation first thing the next morning. She was absolutely the right editor! The book really gained momentum after that, and other editors also responded enthusiastically, so we were in a very good position. This is How it Ends really touched people.”

PS, I love it
This ability to move people can also be applied to Marianne’s other megastar client, Cecelia Ahern. She admits, quite frankly, she wasn’t expecting to take the young writer on, so much so that she sat on her chapters [metaphorically speaking] for a few weeks, afraid to look at them.

“At this point I was thinking, how do you turn down the prime minister’s daughter? I really wasn’t expecting them to be great. I thought I would only be giving her feedback and guidance at the very most.”

However, things changed when she began reading.

“I got such a surprise. I asked Cecelia to send me more chapters. And when she made me cry, well, that’s when I knew there was something there and I had to meet her.”

This feeling was copper-fastened when she met Cecelia.

“At that first meeting, there was just something so incredibly special about her. She was completely different to what I had expected. She just wanted to write, regardless of whether I thought it was any good (though she was delighted I loved what she had written). The story was already complete in her head. After that conversation, I walked away, very, very moved by her, and I just thought – she is the real deal. She writes from a very pure place.”

Marianne believes the million-dollar deal for PS, I Love You in the US came about because Cecelia tapped into something primal and deep in the American psyche.

“They were still limping along after September eleventh. It was the start of 2003 and Cecelia was dealing with grief. I think that really struck a chord. She was so young and the Americans loved her voice, her characters, her warmth and indeed her wisdom. They were drawn to the essence and sensibility of her writing.  Who she was came across in that.”

Chick-lit and beyond
Cecelia Ahern could arguably be categorised as chick lit, and Marianne represents a number of other writers who loosely fall into that grouping: Claudia Carroll and Sinead Moriarty, for example. However, Marianne doesn’t believe they are chick lit at all.

“I think of chick lit more in terms of the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella – which I love by the way. I actually think Sinead Moriarty is a very serious writer.

“Claudia writes comedy, which is very difficult to write well, and she does. She has great comedic timing.”

But, whatever about categorisations, does she, like so many others, believe chick lit has gone past its sell-by date?

“I think book publishing, like TV and everything else, goes through phases. But to write really great women’s commercial fiction is a skill. I get a lot of it and it’s not good: they [the writers] don’t seem to understand what it is that makes these books work and stand apart.”

Marianne notes that since the recession hit, she’s been getting less chick lit; instead budding novelists are turning their attention to darker themes.

“Crime fiction seems to be very popular at moment. I don’t represent any crime writers myself – although I’m currently looking at something quite special – but in general it’s not a genre I am pulled to. “

However, conversely, she says readers also want books that will uplift them.

“People are also looking for escapism – something to take them out of their own circumstance, even help them make sense of things – and good literary writing has the ability to do that.”

Disillusionment
Somewhere along the line I mention how hard it can be, as an aspiring novelist, to keep faith in your work: to slog away, manuscript after manuscript, never knowing if any of them are going to see the light of day. By times, it can all seem a bit pointless.

Here, Marianne turns quite serious.

“You can’t be in that space as a writer. If you knew the amount of rejections I get every single day – I just have to dust myself off and get back up on the saddle. I feel it intensely, so I can imagine how the author feels.

“But you have to say to yourself: why am I writing? Am I writing to get a publishing deal or am I writing because I just have to express something? I think if it’s the former, that’s a difficult place to be. But if you’re writing from a pure place, I think eventually someone will connect with your work. I always say, ‘write because you have something to say’. Remember, we all love good stories.”

All of this may sound quite esoteric, but for Marianne intuition is everything.

“That’s how I work. If I have to talk myself into representing someone, it won’t work out – I know that now – but when I follow my heart, it’s a different journey and ultimately the right one for me.”

Likewise, Marianne advises writers to trust their gut.

“Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, because your vision and how you see things is utterly unique. Remember that, and go from that space. People have to find their own voice. Find the things that make your heart sing. And if you do that, if you write from that pure place, that’s when you have the opportunity of being heard.”


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(c) Bernice Barrington June 2012