Literary Agent #2: Deborah Rogers

21st April 2003

The writer Caryl Phillips took a phonecall in the foyer of the residential centre where a group of us writers were staying for a week. He snarled into the mouthpiece. The call was late, but why ring at all? He had wanted something doing and the person on the other end had let him down. He slammed the receiver back in place. Enough was enough. That was his agent, a message passed through her assistant. Time to change agents.

This was a hard time for Deborah Rogers. Salman Rushdie had left her. Bruce Chatwin had left her. She still had a stellar list of clients, including Timothy Mo and Ian McEwan, but the exodus from her stable was painful. Perversely, as I heard Caryl Phillips announce he was moving on through dissatisfaction, I decided that this was the new agent for me. Caryl Philips had just bought a house in Shepherds Bush from a royalty payment, so his agenting couldn't have been so bad. Deborah Rogers had helped several of my favourite writers start out in life. Now it was my turn.

Some books take years to reach their final form. I took the novel previously represented by Mic Cheetham, refashioned in a brand new version, along to Deborah's agency home in Powis Mews. The rule then was as clear as it is now: writers don't cold-call agents. I sat unannounced in her reception area, and waited for her to be free.

Deborah was surprised to find me there, but gracious. She paused in passing, let me know that I should make my first approach in writing, then let me through into her office in any case. We both cleared chairs of books so we could sit down, and Deborah leaned forward to show me her interest. Her hair was blonde and cut like the entrance of a cave, from which she peered out. Her skirt was a bright red. All else in the room was shadow, the shadows of books in columns and tumbles on the desk and around the carpets on the floor. The room was a domain, a lair. I once shared a caravan with a packrat who stored pads of cactus and tripped mousetraps under the sink. Deborah gathered books about herself in a similar vein. It did not seem so much a business as a way of life.

"Your book is not the sort I like," she told me. In essence my book sounded like science fiction.

"It doesn't read the way it sounds," I told her. "Try it out."

"You don't want me," she tried again. "You want a younger agent. One starting out. One who can give you all the time you need."

She was just about the best in the business, I assured her. I wanted the best.

And so it came to pass. Deborah did like the writing and agreed to represent the book. After some months of failed attempts to sell it I suggested she put it aside and I would write her something she could definitely sell. I set to work and produced On Bended Knees. This was clearly a 'literary' book and Deborah enjoyed it, though a silence followed. I made an appointment to see her and took the train down from Glasgow for the day. My sole objective was to sit in her office and wait, holding silence until she had promised to do something with my novel. The promise came. The editor Martin Fletcher was soon on the phone, praising the book, expecting much of it, buying it for Picador. Jane Wood took the rights for Macmillan. Deborah is a powerful agent whenever she chooses to be so. All was wonderful.

The book came out. Reviews, on the whole, were lovely. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. Martin Fletcher left Picador before publication, and Peter Straus then Picador's publisher decided not to bring out the paperback after all. Picador was approaching its 25th anniversary and my novel did not match his notion of the imprint. I wrote a new novel. Deborah loved it. Jane Wood loved it. Peter Straus got his hands on it and didn't love it at all. From having a publication date for the second novel, that book was killed overnight.

I stayed with Deborah, writing a first draft of On Sacred Mountains she quite rightly said was unfinished. Then I moved on, searching for a new agent once again.

Why did I move and what's to learn? I made mistakes. I never made it down from Glasgow for the agency's regular Christmas party, so missed the personal network that Deborah could have made available. It's ironic that Peter Straus jumped ship from Picador to become an agent alongside Deborah Rogers. My cause was not one for which she deemed it worth rocking boats. Deborah had told me in her initial judgment that she had big fish in her pond and I would be better tended elsewhere.

A flood once caused damage to her agency and Deborah expressed relief that her diaries were saved. Without them, her biographer would not know where to start. Deborah lives among books, has helped many books toward publication including mine, and ultimately will appear as a character in a book, the book of her life among books. Whilst I might not make it into the footnotes, for Deborah's life as an agent was largely defined before I came along, it is a book I might enjoy reading. Like a royal wave from the Queen, my life has felt charmed by Deborah's passing attention, and it is of course foolish for a subject to bemoan a sovereign's neglect.

Previous entry

Previous 'Literary Agent' entry - Mic Cheetham