Literary Agent #1: Mic Cheetham
Strolling with another writer recently, he lamented the loss of the days when you could drop one agent and move to another. He had no faith in his current one, but felt he couldn't move on. Better a lousy agent than no agent - the publishing trade had grown so mean that agents were not interested in anyone other than celebrities. I was new to London after seven years in the States, and was gauging the literary scene. "Whoops," I said. I've always wanted only one agent for my entire career, trusting that such a relationship is more stable than any with an editor is likely to be. In reality I've had more agents than I ought, in the UK and the US. For me it's been a sense that the writer / agent dynamic has been there for a while, and then it has passed. So here's a new occasional series, looking back on the literary agents I have worked with. Hopefully it will add up to a 'how to choose and handle a literary agent' guide - one I might even learn from myself!
The same rule applied in the mid 1980s as applies now - you should only approach a literary agency in writing. I don't always get far by breaking rules, but it's my tendency. I researched my agencies and trotted off to Doughty Street. Charles Dickens' home was just down the street from what was then Anthony Sheil Associates as I recall (since morphed into Sheil Land). I took my book into reception and spun my sales line. The receptionist at least was engaged and promised to pass the book on to an agent who just might have a slot. I asked (ridiculously) for a response the following day, since I was only on a short visit to London.
I got a call the next morning. The agent had loved the manuscript and was keen to meet up. I walked up to her office in an attic room of the agency and Mic Cheetham appeared. If my imagination had been able to paint me an agent such as her, my books would have been instant bestsellers. Her shoes were thonged around her legs, her skirt was a light tan leather slit up her thigh, her hair a tumble of auburn flame that hung like the Gorgon's on a languid day. Her voice was low and breathed smoke. This was the agent for me.
I let her heap praise on my book first of all. (Curiously this is the same book which, after numerous unique versions over the years, I have just completed as Cromozone.) Then we discussed her business. She had just surrendered her own agency to join Anthony Sheil, bringing the writer and actor Anthony Sher along as one her clients. The writer on her list that most excited her at the time was Denis Johnson - she seemed most alert to a 'dirty realist' school of writing, which my book wasn't so remote from.
Future visits to her office were to look at occasional rejection letters. I was most struck by one in which my book had been submitted alongside one that was wholly different to it - as unlikely a pairing as Ceaucescu and Mother Theresa sharing a stage. No editor could possibly accept both. It seemed a waste of a submission, one that stood no chance of success. I took note but said nothing. This probably highlights two of my own faults in dealing with agents - not communicating my doubts so they can be dealt with, and thinking I know better.
The sad day came when I suggested I move on. I packed my manuscripts into a plastic bag and stepped into the streets of London. Mic came down to the agency's front door to wave me off - "I think I will live to regret letting you go," she was kind enough to say.
A few years ago, one winter day, I tracked her new office down. She is back as an eponymous agency in what is now an enormous attic room. Iain Banks is one of the authors whose photo decorates the stairs - I've always reckoned that one star author is enough to bring an agent into the bigtime. I had a new manuscript, and was back on a visit to London seeking fresh UK representation. Her assistant greeted me. Mic was away on jury duty, but my book was tacked with an urgent message and I was promised a response the moment she returned.
Years have since passed. I guess I've given up waiting.