An Interview with Agent John Jarrold
By Richard Daniels
I met John Jarrold a while ago at a literature convention. He was holding one to one slots with hopeful writers and their manuscripts. I was one of those writers. My first impression on meeting him, the first literary agent I’d met, was that it was clear why he’s one of the best in the business – sharp minded, generous with his 27 years of experience and precise in his critique of my efforts and those of many others like me, striving for publication. “It takes time,” he tells me. “Don’t rush it and don’t give up the day job.”
It’s funny because today I’m speaking to him on the phone whilst I’m at work at the day job. I’ve tried to find a quiet corner of the canteen. A quiet corner which doesn’t exist.
“It took Iain Banks 14 years to get published,” John goes on effusively. “Many of the writers I represent still have a day job. They may only work two, three or four days a week but writing isn’t their sole income.”
It might be easy for a hopeful SFF author to get despondent about this but John’s enthusiasm offsets it. We are in a golden age of creativity and popularity for the genre. John puts it down partly to the Game of Thrones effect. “Publishing houses that hadn’t touched SFF are now interested.” For a new author this can only be a good thing. So what should we be writing?
John is clear cut about this. “Write because you write. Write the story that comes from you. It’s important to have a sense of the market and its trends but your story has to be one that you want to tell.”
He goes on to explain that sense of the market is all due to the pitch that agents must make to the publishers and the publishers are compelled to make to their finance departments. Your work will ultimately be considered, in part, against its provenance and heritage to recent successful publications. John suggests looking to books from the last five or six years for reference. Scalzi, Stross, Rajaniemi, Leckie for instance. We’re talking about SF, but he had similar comparisons to make with Fantasy authors.
As we talk I wonder if sometimes, being so immersed in it, John ever gets a blindness to what he’s reading and evaluating, like not being able to see the wood for all its trees. After all he gets as many as thirty manuscripts a week.
“Not at all,” he replies immediately. “On the first page you just know. If the writing is good you can tell.” That impact that he feels in his gut doesn’t need to come from explosions and laser beams either. “It doesn’t necessarily need action,” he says. “It’s the voice. Obviously beyond the opening page or chapter of a manuscript a writer has to be able to pull off the rest. Clarity and pace are the two things that publishers always talk about.”
The clattering of the canteen is getting louder and I can’t hide away much longer, though I feel John is someone you could chat with all day.
“Science fiction is constantly renewing itself,” he says as we bring things to a close. This, it seems, is what keeps John’s mind supremely engaged in it and has done ever since he was a boy when his dad introduced him to pulp sci-fi stories. “I love working with debut novelists and bringing new titles to market.” Indeed he has two debut authors preparing to release books in 2016; a fantasy title by James Bennett, provisionally titled Ascent of Embers, and a SF book by Andrew Bannister titled Creation Machine.
I thank John for taking the time to speak to me. I have been emboldened by his passion and feel even more determined to succeed as a writer. I leave the canteen and go back to my day job.