Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Interview with Claire Anderson-Wheeler

Hi Claire,
We’re super excited to have you here! Now tell us, how did you become a literary agent? How long have you been one and have you always wanted to be a literary agent? Whew, that was a mouthful.

It's a pleasure, thanks for inviting me! As to how I started down this route: I realised a little late in the day - but happily not very late in the day - that I didn't want to be a lawyer after all. I began doing some work experience and small-time freelance stuff in publishing, in Dublin, where I was living at the time. Then I moved to the UK to do a Masters in creative writing. I met a lot of agents there, and it clicked: this agenting thing was the niche for me. I loved the idea of that particular, personal interaction with writers and their work. That was in 2007 and it's been a pretty straight trajectory since. I got a wonderful internship in London after graduating and things went from there. I moved to New York last Autumn.

What genres do you represent? What genres will you definitely NOT represent?

 It's flexible. I definitely will not represent the more academic or specialized fields in non-fiction, because I don't have the particular knowledge. Likewise with poetry, screenplays, picture books and the younger children's market: I'd leave these to people more specialised in the field. Straight subject-driven non-fiction typically doesn't excite me as much as narrative non-fiction - I love a story arc, no matter the genre - but if the right thing came along I would hope I would be open. In terms of the fiction side, there is little I would reject out of hand, but there are certainly some genres I am less likely to go for. Horror, for example, has never been my thing; nor has romance. (I would define the 'commercial women's fiction' category as something quite distinct from romance: it might be a light read, but there would be broader issues and themes going on than in a typical love story). I do like some fantasy, and some sci-fi. As with any other genre, though, the story has to feel original: I think in today's marketplace maybe it's easier to be derivative in the fantasy genre, and that is a shame. It gives fantasy a bad name. What I read most, however, is character-driven literary fiction, often the domestic microcosm rather than the grand epic kind - but again, that's not a rule.

What kind of books would you say would make up your ULTIMATE wish list?

Story is a must. Replicating a version of reality - even with brilliant detail and acuity, is not enough - or not enough for me, at any rate. I like to see people being taken apart, the putting back together is optional; books where there's a little bit of fatalism, and some really interesting characters. Josephine Hart's Damage is a prime example of the kind of book I love. Donna Tartt's The Secret History is another.

Do you have any client work coming out?

I haven't been here long enough for that, but watch this space.

Would you say you’re an editorial agent?

Certainly. It's the most important thing an agent can do. You can fight as hard as you like for an author, but if their book is not the best it can possibly be, it's never going to make it out there. Also, you earn a publisher's respect by only submitting things to them that are in good shape and that you can stand over. And then there's that other reason - I just love the process.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Read - and not just for pleasure, but forensically.
Read how-to books as well. They're often underrated. Robert McKee's 'Story' is one of my favourites.
Never kid yourself that someone else is not going to notice the flaws. Those bits you already know are not working? Fix them.

Be ambitious. If you have a big idea, write it. Don't write something that you think is just 'good enough to get published'. You need to give it your very best. If you're having too much fun, there's probably something wrong. It should feel good, maybe even great, but it should feel like hard work.
When you're ready to send out, be professional: nice, but brief. Don't write gimmicky cover letters; your writing will speak for itself. Try to read the guidelines; don't say 'Dear Sirs' when it's an office full of women (which it likely is).Also, almost no one wants material in the body of an email. Attachments are much preferred. For your own sake, keep track of where you've submitted. It's okay to send a courteous email follow up if it's been a couple of months, but please, take care with your tone. Remember that agents have full time jobs that have to get done before they make it to the slush pile. You are the thing that keeps them from leaving the house on weekends! So if you're going to nudge, nudge nicely. A courteous two-line enquiry is fine.

What are you biggest query pet peeves?

The biggest, I suppose, is arrogance, or just ignorance that reads as arrogance. "I have deiced to appoint you as my literary agent"; "Please tell me what qualifies you to represent me", etc.
Personally, it really bothers me when writers shroud their synopsis in mystery, as in "and then something happens that  upends everything Paul has ever known". If I'm going to assess the book, I'm going to need to know what "the thing" is. I need the full story: I need to know who dies at the end, and how many times! 

How can authors query you?

 I'm happiest getting email queries, with the first three chapters attached (as an attachment, not in the body of the work). Getting it by email saves paper and saves my back, and having the attachment gives me more to go on at an early stage. Sometimes I've read bad synopses, then dipped into the work and found it really good.

Favorite book?

Oh no! I hate this question! Probably either Anna Karenina, The Secret History, or The Magician's Nephew, depending on the day.

Favorite movie?

Again, I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow, but today I'm going with Hannah and her Sisters.

Favorite TV show?

I don't watch that much TV, mainly because the ads get to me. But recently some friends have got me into the original (Danish) version of The Killing. That is good TV.

Cookies or Cake?

Chocolate fondant cake, with a scoop of something wonderful on the side. (Are you offering?)

Well, if you like the lactose free variety then sure... ;)

Thanks so much for joining us and for offering the full manuscript page critique. Stay tuned everyone. Winners should be announced this Friday!



  1. great interview - very interesting, her path to agenting (as a current lawyer, myself).
    Looking forward to congratulating the winners on Friday.

  2. Lovely interview, ladies! It's great to meet Claire. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks guys--glad you enjoyed it!

  4. Great interview! I love how the slush keeps them from leaving the house on weekends. I'd be the same way. Never know when you're gonna find "the one."

  5. Oohh, she seems amazing! Awesome interview. Thanks!

  6. Great interview - thank you both.

  7. Great interview. Thank you, Claire! Your advice to aspiring writers really hit a chord ~ :) Good luck to all contest entrants!

  8. Insightful interview! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings.

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