An Interview with Jenny Parrott
MA student Harry Webster interviews novelist and Oneworld editor, Jenny Parrott.
Harry Webster: You’re an editor and a published author of historical sagas under two different pseudonyms (among other things). How does the process of editing your own prose as you write differ from the process of editing somebody else’s writing? Is it harder to notice where there’s room for editorial improvement when you’re closer to the story?
Jenny Parrott: That’s a question I often ask myself, and the honest answer is: I don’t know. I’ve written five books and each one’s felt very different. The book I like most and the one which I think is the best written is actually the one that’s had the worst reviews.
What I would say is that writing has definitely made me more sympathetic as an editor, because I now realise just how difficult writing is. There’s nothing quite like your book going out into the world with your name on it, or in my case, a pseudonym on it. I can often see the weaknesses in my books, but that doesn’t always mean that I can put them right.
I think all writers are like that. We write the best books we can write at that moment in time. That’s not to say that we aren’t going to write a brilliant book a year that doesn’t have those faults, but sometimes you can only do what you can do.
As a publisher, I’m increasingly finding that I’m not the least bit interested in perfection, or even a book that has a lot of integrity, all I’m interested in is good characters in a narrative people will want to spend time in, they don’t have to be likeable.
HW: When you say a book that has integrity do you mean in terms of its message, or do you mean structurally?
JP: It can be both. I think readers can automatically detect when reading a book if the author’s heart isn’t in it, or if they’re writing about a subject they’re not particularly interested in, or they’re being a bit snide or sarcastic. So I look for a book that has heart and soul – and that can be any type of book. It can be a cool book, it can be a literary book, it can be a kids book. As long as it feels real with real characters.
I increasingly think that people don’t really care about plot, it’s just that they want to be in a world. And if you do that well enough, you’ll hold people’s attention. Nearly all the bestselling books of recent years have been massively faulty in terms of their technical areas like structure and plot etc.
HW: So integrity, as you’ve defined it here, is something like authenticity?
JP: Yes, exactly.
HW: So how does this principal transfer to the pursuit of authenticity in your own work? For example; your evacuee trilogy is set partly in Bermondsey, which is almost unrecognisable now from what it would have looked like during the second world war. How were you able to conjure the image of this part of London as it would have been during wartime?
JP: I looked at lots of photographs. But the thing is with any historical fiction; you have to do your research and then forget it. Because people don’t want to know how a Melamine telephone worked. But writers obviously love the whole idea of trying to add in as much detail as possible from what they’ve learned through all their research. So you have to do historical fiction with quite a light hand.
At the moment, I’m just coming up to writing the third instalment of my evacuee trilogy. It’s going to be set during the blitz, and what's really interesting about that area of south London is the war office let it be known under false information that that's where the war office was, and that's partly why Elephant right down to Bermondsey was so badly bombed – because anyone could find the Thames on a moonlit night and fly out there, so if you were a German bomber pilot, you didn’t have to be Einstein to figure out that that’s where the docks were going to be.
So the idea was to have a working-class community that was going to crumble under immense pressure and then have this much more middle-class evacuee area that has a whole load of different tensions. Eventually, the series will end with the evacuees having to go back home and we’ll see how they feel about it and whether they'll be able to settle back in.
HW: Your other work within the literary world is quite wide-ranging: literary consultant, editor, publishing director, and author. Is there one role that you prefer over all others, or feel you most excel in?
JP: If I’m being completely honest, it’s often whichever one I’m not doing at the time that I really like. Each one of them has completely individualistic challenges. With publishing, like so much in the creative industry, there’s the so-called rule of ten. And by that I mean that you get the ten per cent that you just think is fantastic; a book or a project that you think is brilliant, and then ninety per cent is not so great.
One of the worst things is reading manuscript after manuscript which just aren’t right for some reason, and then when you find something that’s pure genius - which is the most exciting thing - you usually can’t afford to buy it. So it’s like you’re getting really excited then you’re hit with this feeling of “urgh, okay,” and then normal service resumes.
HW: That’s an interesting insight into the publishing world. The process of how titles on a publisher’s list are acquired is something that’s not often discussed on most creative and professional writing courses. When you say that you can’t afford to buy it, what does that mean exactly?
JP: Well, the real issue is this: Everybody recognises terrible books and everybody recognises brilliant books. Often the brilliant books will get a feeding frenzy of agents and publishers trying to buy them. There will be a very heated auction. A writer I was offering on a couple of years ago, her two books ended up selling for 1.2 million pounds - very few publishers can afford to pay that. Actually, big advances aren’t necessarily good for authors. The reasons are a little too complex to get into here in any depth, but large advances often kill writers’ careers. The reason for this is – and here’s the ‘rule of ten’ again – that just because a lot of money is paid for something, that doesn’t, therefore, mean that something will be easy to bring to market. So if your book is carrying a £600,000 advance and you sell 400,000 copies, you might still not have earned your advanced out. So, if you’re carrying £150,000 unearned advance, even though you've made £250,000 or £450,000 or whatever, you can still be deemed a liability.
Whereas if you’ve had a novel sold for £2,000 you're likely to earn out. But if you’re smart, you or your agent will have got really good bonuses in, so every nice thing that happens, you get extra money, and everyone’s really thrilled with it. So that’s often the case with writers that people get really excited about; they make people feel cautious in equal measure because it’s easy to kill their careers if they don’t earn out large advances.
HW: so would you recommend to aspiring authors that they find an agent to represent them, rather than submitting directly to publishers?
JP: Yes, usually. Because the thing about agents is that a lot of them are useless, but some of them are brilliant. And even a useless agent might have a friend who’s a good publisher, and that agent may only send one email out, and there won’t be an auction, but they may say to that publisher: “I think this might really work for you.”
With my three most successful books at Oneworld, I was actually the only publisher to offer for each of them. They were each agented, they were shown to other people, but nobody else was interested. When we published the sellout by Paul Beatty – which won the 2016 Man Booker Prize –that book was turned down for publication by eighteen other publishers and we were the nineteenth. A lot of it is serendipity; it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. A good agent knows who’s good with what sort of books.
HW: Any tips for aspiring authors on how to discern a useless agent from a useful one?
JP: If you can, have a meeting with them. See if you can imagine spending ten years with them and think “would I want to kill them very quickly” (laughs) or “do they seem a bit lazy?” or ask them, “what else have you done?”. The trouble is that often by the time you get any interest, you’ve already been turned down by twenty-five agents, so by then, you’d be happy with a blind, stupid vegetable to represent you. And it is hard to say sometimes – I’ve known big name agents who’ve ended up being utterly pathetic with authors, but then conversely, I’ve known of agents who seem so stupid that you wonder how they’re able to get dressed in the morning suddenly doing really well for an author. You never can tell. I think that’s why, if you can, you need to have the meeting, do some research, see the other sorts of authors, maybe DM or email one of those authors and ask them, “do you like your agent?”. Poke about online, because a lot of people aren't terribly happy with their agents or their publishers.
HW: Say for example, someone at Falmouth University had a manuscript and wanted to begin shopping around for an agent, where would be the best place for them to begin that search?
JP: I think there are two schools of thought on this: Sometimes it can work well if you find British writers you really like and have a look online and see who their agents are. Now a lot of agents will say, “I'm not taking on any new clients at the moment,” but it’s a numbers game. If you think of it like dating; you’ve got to be out there to meet people and if you’re using dating apps then you’ve got to be active to get the swipes, but it can go any way.
One thing I would advise all writers to do is to have your pitch clearly in your head. You need to have written your synopsis, 500 words, no more than two pages. You need your three-paragraph blurb. You need your one-line ‘film pitch’, so that if you’re standing at the bar waiting to be served and an agent happens to be standing next to you and they say “what’s your book about?” you’ve got your elevator pitch right there and you can tell them. Because so many people don’t have their pitch ready to go. You need to make sure that you do. And be honest, too, because you never know what people are looking for. Don’t just tell them what you think they’ll want to hear. So it can work that if you go to a crime agent and you’ve written a thriller that that’s a good thing, or it could be that they think, “oh, well I've already got a police procedural, I don't need another to represent”. So it’s swings and roundabouts, and you never know what is driving people. Go to literary festivals too – agents will often do the pitches where they’ll give people two minutes to sell their book. That can be quite good.
Often it's not so much what people say, often it can be what they look like or how they come across. It might not just be what their elevator pitch is. What you’ve got to do is make it easy for an agent to imagine a publisher wanting to publish you. So it's not about intelligence. it's not necessarily even about writing, sometimes it's just about you as a person. And the great thing about authors is that they come in all varieties and all shapes and sizes, so just be yourself!
by Harry Webster