Many congratulations on your nomination, Rebecca, and thank you for taking the time to come and talk to us!
Please tell us a little about the AM Heath Agency, how long it’s been established, and how you came to join.
AM Heath was founded in 1919, which makes it one of the UK’s oldest literary agencies. It represents established contemporary authors like Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell and Conn Iggulden, iconic literary estates, such as those of George Orwell and Winston Graham, and of course the RNA’s very own, wonderful Katie Fforde. I joined AM Heath in April 2017, after over six years at Curtis Brown where I worked alongside Sheila Crowley and had the pleasure of working on some of my favourite authors – Jojo Moyes, Santa Montefiore and Jane Costello, to name just a few – and also started building my own list. The first author I took on was Iona Grey – who I met at a RNA event! – and her debut novel Letters to the Lost went on to be published by Simon and Schuster and won the overall Goldsboro Books Romantic Novel of the Year award in 2016. I joined AM Heath to build up the commercial women’s fiction side of the list, which is an area that the other agents here don’t tend to focus on hugely.
What genres do you represent?
Commercial fiction across the board: contemporary women’s fiction, historical, reading group, crime, thriller and psychological suspense.
What is it you are looking for when a manuscript lands on your desk? Are there any specific plots or themes you’d like to see?
The first thing, of course, is the writing. As an agent, when you open a submission and can tell immediately that someone can truly write – that you’re in the hands of a genuine storyteller – you can relax and let the story transport you with it. Of course the plot and the characters have to be great too, but excellent writing is first and foremost. When it comes to commercial women’s fiction specifically, character is paramount: as a reader you want to really get your teeth into a protagonist’s character, to really root for them or to love to hate them. In terms of specific plots/themes, I’d never want to be too prescriptive, but I’d love to find a really moving love story (heartbreaking, heart-warming, I don’t mind), and while I’m always partial to some gripping psychological suspense I do think the genre is saturated and there are enough horrors to read about in the news, so I’d also love to find something at the opposite end of the spectrum: some uplifting, life-affirming fiction.
Your agency recently put out a call for pitches on Twitter, under the hashtag #TellAMH. How successful was this? Did you have any interesting pitches, and what made them stand out? Is something your agency will be repeating often? (Lots of questions in one here…!)
This was a fun week! We invited debut writers to pitch their novels to us on Twitter (so their pitches had to be concise, 140 characters – not an easy feat), with each day focusing on a different genre. We received hundreds of pitches and invited our favourites to submit directly to us, and I thought the commercial women’s fiction day was particularly strong. The pitches that stood out most were the ones where the novel had a clear, intriguing hook that made you want to read on, or where they asked a question that you just had to know the answer to.
You attended the recent Frankfurt Book Fair. What was your role at the Book Fair and how important is this event for you and your agency?
At the Frankfurt Book Fair (and at the London Book Fair in the Spring) we meet with editors from around the world, pitch our authors’ books and hear what editors are looking to acquire and find out what’s working in their markets. While of course we correspond by phone and email throughout the year, it’s always wonderful to meet with editors face to face and foster those relationships (and of course there are plenty of parties to attend too!) I met with editors from the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Israel and more, and pitched books by my own and also my colleagues’ clients.
What advice would you give someone submitting to you?
Really know your novel: be able to sum up the hook of your novel at the start of your covering letter in an immediately memorable way that just compels me to read on. I always think it’s a good exercise to be able to complete the sentence: “My novel is about a woman/man who…” – it really makes you distil the essence of your novel and what’s unique about it into a single punchy line.
What’s your favourite romance novel of all time?
I can’t pick one! Sense and Sensibility (my absolute favourite Austen), I Capture the Castle (a more perfect coming-of-age love story there isn’t), The Time Traveller’s Wife, Love Story (small but perfectly formed), Me Before You for starters. But there are so many more.
Apart from your own authors, which book have you enjoyed the most in the past twelve months, and why?
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – quirky, sweet, heart-breaking, funny and moving, I loved it.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Tennis, cooking, travelling.
If you could describe your working-day in just three words, what would they be?
Frenetic, fun, fulfilling.
Thanks so much for dropping in, Rebecca, and for your thoughtful answers. Wishing you all the best and we hope everyone at the Winter Party has a great evening!
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Helena Fairfax writes heartwarming contemporary romances, except when she's in the mood for danger, when she writes romantic suspense. Her novel A Year of Light and Shadows tells the story of how plain Lizzie Smith is plunged into a year of mystery involving a missing princess, a false diamond, and a handsome bodyguard.
You can find out more about Helena's books and her editing services on her website www.helenafairfax.com