Monday, June 26, 2017

My First Time: Eliza Henry-Jones

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Eliza Henry-Jones, a writer based in Victoria, Australia. Her debut novel In the Quiet was published earlier this year as part of a three-book deal with HarperCollins Australia. In the Quiet was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction and longlisted for the ABIA and Indie Book Awards. She has worked for years with families in the drug and alcohol sector and has qualifications in grief, loss and trauma counseling and psychology. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Big Issue, Daily Life, Southerly, Island, Seizure, LiNQ and many other places.

My First Agent

My first (and only!) agent is a lovely and very talented woman called Sally Bird from Calidris Literary Agency. How I found Sally is not very elegant. I typed “Australian literary agents” into Google. I liked the sound of the books she’d placed and thought she sounded fascinating. I emailed her when I was twenty-one and had just finished writing a manuscript that I was pretty chuffed with. She liked the sample and asked for the full manuscript. When she called to ask if I’d still be happy for her to represent it and send it out to publishers, I cried.

Writing is, in many ways, quite a lonesome activity. Not just the physical typing, but the process of submitting for publication; the editing; the waiting. After many years of trying to sell myself as a writer, it was the most wonderful feeling to have someone on my side; someone who saw something in my work; someone who was advocating for me. Sally helped me edit the manuscript; she picked up typos and inconsistencies and pulled together a proposal to go out with it, which included market placement, a bio and other bits and pieces.

I felt like this was it. A wonderful agent had picked up my manuscript. There were names like Random House and Hachette floating around. And then… nothing. A lot of very lovely, generous rejections filtering gradually in over the next eight months. My writing, it seemed, was not the problem. But nobody felt like they could sell the story. I assumed they were just being encouraging because I was quite young (twenty-two). I didn’t really think any were truly interested when they told Sally to send them any further manuscripts I wrote.

Sally was pragmatic. We started over again with the manuscript I’d written in the meantime–a quiet little book on family and grief called In the Quiet. Sally loved it, but she said that we might very well get the same response as last time. So I steeled myself for another influx of rejections and did what I always did when I was nervous about something–I started work on another story.

But things were different this time. Publishers came back quickly with questions which Sally sent on to me–was I firm on the title? Could I come in to meet with them? How did I feel about making it quite a bit longer?

Sally and I did lunch before meeting a local publisher. While I was in the meeting, she bought me gardener’s hand cream–I’d been telling her how working in my veggie patch had dried out my skin.

A few rejections filtered through. Of the ten publishers Sally approached, five rejected my manuscript and five made offers. Which is such an important reminder that fiction is subjective and what one person might toss out another person might make a large offer on. If my manuscript had only found its way into the hands of the five who weren’t interested, I would have thought it wasn’t good enough and quietly tucked it away in a drawer.

As I’m a quite controlling, anxious and neurotic little person, Sally had her hands full keeping me calm during the weeks we had offers coming in. I was freaked out and delighted in equal measure–there were people out there keen to turn my story into a book! People wanted to buy my manuscript! After ten years of jumping up and down, desperate to get the attention of editors and publishers, desperate for them to notice me, I was suddenly being wooed. It was a wonderful and unsettling experience. I talked to editors on the phone about the changes they wanted to make. Sally asked for counter offers; she chased busy editors up when they missed deadlines. It was an overwhelming time–the publishers were all magnificent and I couldn’t quite believe they were all interested in what I’d written. I woke up a lot in the night with a start, unsettled–even in sleep–by this sudden turning of the tables.

Three years after initially approaching Sally at the age of twenty-four, I signed an international, three-book deal with HarperCollins Australia for In the Quiet and two subsequent books. And now In the Quiet is out in the U.S.–something I never even dreamed of.

Sally reads various versions of the manuscripts, although she doesn’t have to. She encourages me and keeps me calm. After six years of representing me, she’s no longer just my agent but has become a very wonderful friend whose relationship I am grateful for every single day.

I often hear people saying that you don’t need an agent; that it’s simpler to go it alone. But I truly don’t know what I’d do without Sally.

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