A few weeks ago a debut novel by ex-mental health nurse, Nathan Filer, won the Book Of The Year Award at the 2013 Costa Book Awards, a £30,000 prize. The Shock Of The Fall, is a haunting and powerful take on guilt, death and an extraordinary portrait of one man’s descent into mental illness which drew on Flier’s own experiences gained from ten years working as a nurse on psychiatric wards in Bristol. A brave and groundbreaking novel, judges for one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes heralded a major new talent when they named Filer winner of the 2013 award for this moving account of schizophrenia and grief.
Crucially for new authors, Filer’s amazing book was discovered through a competition – the PageTurner Prize, a bi-annual competition run by literay agents Tibor Jones & Associates. Writing.ie spoke to Sophie Lambert, who established the competition, to find out more. Now with Conville & Walsh, Sophie is still Filer’s agent and explains, “I set up the PageTurner Prize when I was at Tibor Jones & Associates as a way to try and discover and nurture new writers. What I think made it unique was that I welcomed books in progress as well as completed books, and that the judging panel was largely made up by booksellers – the very people who continue to hand sell books to readers. Nathan’s submission wasn’t complete but it shone and even at that stage, it held the most fully realised and human characters I could have dreamt of coming across, as well as offering up a glimpse into something, I quickly realised, I knew very little of. Those characters who Nathan envisaged so eloquently and perfectly, were already there but the book then doubled in length over the year that followed.”
In fact having recently completed an MA in creative writing at Bath, Filer took three years to write the full book and the published version was his fifth draft. As he explains “I had a lot of false starts… I ended up throwing almost everything out and focusing on the character.”
Always interest in how a book come to the page, I asked Filer what had inspired The Shock of the Fall : “If there ever was a eureka moment for this novel, then it went entirely unnoticed. I never had that experience we sometimes hear authors describe, of a character arriving fully-formed in their imagination, suitcase packed, ready for the journey.
‘Neither did I know what that journey would be.
‘This work took its shape in the telling, written mostly with the delete key. I wrote a lot of rubbish. I got to see what belonged in the book by getting rid of all the stuff that didn’t. It’s not an approach I’d necessarily recommend.
‘But I’ve just had a thought whilst writing this. There was one moment. It didn’t come at the beginning, but much nearer to the end.
On page 287. I was writing a scene between my protagonist, Matthew Homes, and a girl called Annabelle. In their conversation Annabelle mentions a memorial that she had for her mother, and this gives Matthew an idea, something he must do – something of such significance that it will conclude the novel.
Here’s the thing: Matthew and I arrived at this idea at exactly the same time. I never planned it. This was a eureka moment that we shared.”
Wow. You heard it here…
It’s very clear that Filer’s book, although unfinished when Sophie first saw it, stood out from the rest of the entries. I asked Sophie what it is that makes a prize winning book, and what stands out for her as an agent when she’s reading submissions. She revealed, “Fiction is subjective and what I love is always going to be different from what the next person loves. Having said that most readers respond to a combination of factors – a storyline that captivates, characters that tug you towards and away from them and writing that fizzes with imagination, evocation and colour. As a writer if you can keep those factors in mind and not drift too far away from what makes the story and the characters compelling, then your novel will resonate.”
Sophie’s faith in The Shock of the Fall was rewarded when she took it to market where it was the subject of a fierce 11-way bidding war by publishers. It was eventually secured by HarperCollins, who offered a six-figure deal and will be published internationally this year. Sophie told me, “The Shock of the Fall is, at heart, a family story with an extraordinary protagonist. The very simplicity of this goes some way to explaining why the book has resonated with so many people and in so many countries. The translation market for English writers is relatively tough still (although nothing like as tough as the other way around) but when a book makes a mark upon acquisition – especially in the form of an auction – the likelihood is that foreign publishers will want to acquire the title too.”
It’s every writer’s dream to have their book published worldwide, and I asked Sophie if international right sales were often made when a book is first presented to the market. She explained, “Many international publishers do [buy] at the time of acquisition, whilst others wait until there is a sense of critical and commercial success in the home territory. What’s most thrilling in this case is that readers in 20 territories (and rising) will be able to read Nathan’s book and share Matthew’s story.”
So how did Sophie get into publishing and become an agent? Sophie Lambert grew up in London and studied English and German at Kings College, University of London and Aachen, Germany. She spent several years as a bookseller and buyer for Blackwells before moving to New York for three years and working for Janklow & Nesbit Associates. Sophie returned to London and freelanced before becoming the Foyles buyer for Selfridges. In 2009 she joined Tibor Jones as an Associate Agent and in 2011 was named a director of the company. She is now building an exciting list at Conville & Walsh, ranging from literary and commercial fiction to thought provoking non-fiction. Sophie is looking for authors whose writing stands out in new and different ways. Sophie told me, “I have always loved stories and spent hours and days immersed in books as a child. After studying literature at university I fell into publishing via bookselling, and experienced my first taste of what being an agent entailed when I moved to New York at 26 and started work at Janklow & Nesbit. After learning from some legendary and fantastically successful agents, I moved back to London and started the slow but exciting process of building my own list.”
And what are Nathan Filer and Sophie Lambert’s tips for aspiring authors? He says, ” I feel reticent to offer writing tips. There are a glut of them, aren’t there? All the aphorisms combined won’t put words on your page. Okay. Here’s one anyway: Get rid of those opening two paragraphs; your story gets interesting half way down the first page.”
And Sophie says, “My main recommendation for aspiring writers is to read as broadly as possible and really unearth what you think makes a dazzling story. Other than that it’s about really keeping going, and – if you have a burning desire to write, as many people do – you need to be tough on yourself. Some days you will cut more than you add, but nothing that you cut will have been written in vain, everything you ever write helps you towards writing more and towards gaining confidence.”
Good advice indeed.
(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin