Foyle’s Bookshop, London
Meeting Curtis Brown
Conville and Walsh
Saturday 27 February 2016
It was an eagerly-awaited email from a certain auspicious institution called Foyles that stopped me in my tracks late that Monday afternoon in January. I ripped it open with suitable theatrical disdain – if you can say that about an email. In a detached but informative tone, I was told that “Discovery Day 2016 – Confirmation of allocated time. Please find below your allocated time for your one-to-one pitch session with a member of the Curtis Brown team …….” the rest of the missive faded away momentarily from view as I tried to take in the magic of what had been written. Zero hour was 12.45 – 13.15 with the cryptic reference akin to an Enigma code, DDA5.
I felt as if I had been granted an opportunity to meet an agent that I had only dreamt of previously but was determined to derive maximum value from this experience and my wife reassured me that it was not a job interview or even a first day at school. But something exhilarating from deep inside had been unleashed. A recurring ditty established itself in my waking brain as Discovery Day got closer and it all revolved around those ‘six golden minutes’ of displaying one’s wares as an aspiring writer to best advantage during the one-to-one session. Set within the edifying setting of an iconic bookshop, way up on the 5th floor, six minutes, one tenth of an hour or 360 seconds that could spell ‘death or glory’ about one’s storytelling. No pressure then.
The big day arrived and thankfully a dry, fresh winter’s day beckoned. It added to the frisson generated from within as I began mentally rehearsing those six minutes. I journeyed across town on the tube turning up a little too early at the exalted address in Charing Cross Road with the unholy zeal of someone who is a reformed latecomer. In Foyles, following the signs I drift upwards rising beyond the floors of books devoted to art, languages, philosophy and even fiction where I become tail-end Charlie of a long queue of other budding authors, I presume. People bearing all manner of manuscripts talking in examination-type hushed tones with an aura of restrained anxiety are the giveaways. A young woman appears with a friendly smile and a clipboard and my presence is checked off. My forthcoming six minutes of literary performance, my so-called pitch, dances into my head again. Adrenalin flows and excitement laced with terror rises to the surface of my consciousness.
I am vaguely comforted but not sure why as the thin line of hopeful writers grows behind me skirting a busy restaurant as we gradually edge aloft to the top floor. Under a giant skylight revealing a sunless afternoon, I see many tables in action in this large penthouse space (the gallery, perhaps), where a dozen agents are locked in earnest conversation with authors seeking an outlet of reward for their creative labours. People are being guided back and forth and all of a sudden it’s my turn. Now, where’s that carefully-prepared spiel?
With ease, I am ushered towards an agent by the name of Abbey and as a nifty device to gather my racing thoughts, I proffer some hardcopy: a CV, an ‘elevator pitch’ for my novel, “How Life In Two Squares Inspired Bo Wilkinson” and the first page.
Our conversation starts and I try to convey what makes my story worth reading. Abbey is very reassuring and gently coaxes me to what I should do to ensure the ‘hook’ or unique quality of my book is revealed early on to capture the reader’s imagination. I feel that my pitch strikes a chord and when reading my first page, Abbey remarks on the mention of Stockwell, a south London neighbourhood familiar to her and which is also where my main character lives: an unexpected connection is forged with a smile. All of a sudden my six minutes are history but I am made feel welcome as a writer. This is something to be treasured.
Next, a group of seven or eight of us are grouped in a tight circle under the benign tutelage of Matt Marland from the Conville and Walsh agency, who invites our questions and he carefully dispenses sage words about covering letters, synopses and other relevant guidelines around the topic of submitting one’s manuscript; such wisdom is readily lapped up by this gathering of willing disciples.
This initial part of the Discovery Day concludes and I feel that I have learnt so much in these exchanges from those close to the reality of the publishing world. I have been given a decent glimpse as to the importance of the next part of the process where agents act as the lynchpin between the writer and the publisher.
Because of the crush of writers vying for attention, we are given to understand that 700 of us have shown up for Discovery Day and the next element of the timetable, the panel event slated for 4pm actually starts half an hour behind schedule so that everyone can be accommodated. While waiting I fall into easy conversation with a woman specialising in the genres of memoir and erotica, as you do. But I digress. The large room at the top of the building which had been previously used for the pitching sessions has now been skilfully yet discreetly adapted for the next event. The venue fills up but the wait has been worthwhile as Emma Healey, renowned debut author of ‘Elizabeth Is Missing’; Karolina Sutton, agent at Curtis Brown; Venetia Butterfield, publisher at Viking and Anna Davis, agent at Curtis Brown treat us to a fascinating discussion on how a story progresses through the various stages of production from writer to agent and on to publication with various areas of interest explored. A tale of literary success that inspires.
As a novice to such an exciting universe, this magical day was drawing to a close and I savoured it to the last knowing that for a very brief moment I had been privileged to have brushed up against some leading figures in this rarefied world where creativity dwells at the core. My six-minute pitch had been an eye-opener to future fulfilment as a novelist and now that that the lotus flower of the publishing world has been tasted ……
Many thanks to Foyles, Curtis and Brown and Conville and Walsh for putting together such a memorable, instructive and motivating experience.