Meet the Agents: An Interview with Sarah O’HalloranHarry Bingham
This is an interview with literary agent Sarah O’Halloran. After completing a BA in History from the LSE, Sarah began her career working with the agent Norman North at The Agency (London) Ltd. She then moved to Dublin to study for an MA in Literature at UCD. She returned to London where she worked at Curtis Brown and then the Marsh Agency before joining Louise Allen-Jones Associates as a literary scout where she worked across all markets. Sarah now works for the Madeleine Milburn Agency. You can see Sarah’s Twitter feed here, the Madeliene Milburn Agency page here and of course, Sarah’s Agent Hunter page here.
Q. What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction? (Crime, women’s) Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.
I love great psychological suspense and was blown away by APPLE TREE YARD, a masterclass in confident, seemingly effortless storytelling and in sustaining suspense.
I’m a sucker for unreliable narrators and I think Herman Koch’s THE DINNER and SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL are great examples of the kind of slick, stylish commercial writing that appeals to me.
I also love reading group fiction like A SONG FOR ISSY BRADLEY by Carys Bray, a heart-breaking story about a family tragedy that deals with huge themes concerning faith, hope and love with such sensitivity.
Q. What books/authors do you love in literary/historical/book group fiction? Examples and reasons, please!
I love plot-driven literary fiction and I’m often drawn to dark themes and unlikeable characters, as well as to unique, arresting voices.
I loved HERE ARE THE YOUNG MEN, Rob Doyle’s wonderfully dark and gritty debut set in Dublin and full of sex, drugs, violence and existential angst! I also loved THE GLORIOUS HERESIES by Lisa McInerney and THE SPINNING HEART by Donal Ryan so I think I have a soft spot for the current wave of Irish literary fiction.
I’d read anything by John Burnside for the bleakness of his vision and the poetry of his writing.
I’m also a huge fan of Meg Wolizter’s ambitious, meaty book THE INTERESTINGS which is a wonderful example of writing that approaches family life and domestic relationships with the gravity and seriousness they deserve – as well as a lot of humour.
I think across all genres I’m drawn to stories that shatter the illusion of stability and highlight the fragility of the foundations on which our lives are built.
Q. How about sci-fi/horror/fantasy/paranormal/YA dystopian/erotic? What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?
I’m not the right agent for sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal or erotica, but I do love YA!
In YA books I’m drawn to contemporary stories rooted in the real world rather than the fantastical or the supernatural. An authentic voice is absolutely key and MY SECRET ROCKSTAR BOYFRIEND by Eleanor Wood is a wonderful example of the kind of voice I love. WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart, a dark, compelling story about a family tragedy and a horrible secret is exactly the kind of smart YA I would love to represent, and I’m always on the look-out for sophisticated literary YA.
For the younger end of the market I am looking for poignant stories that make me cry like INFINITE SKY by C.J. Flood or MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTLEPIECE by Annabel Pitcher. And like every other agent I’m looking to find the British Rainbow Rowell!
Q. On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?
As an erstwhile history student I’m particularly interested in accessible history books for a general audience as well as memoir and biography. I’m also looking for pop-culture, pop-psychology and maybe some pop-science. I loved DO NO HARM by Henry Marsh and THE EXAMINED LIFE by Stephen Grosz so if there are any budding psychoanalysts or brain surgeons out there, do get in touch!
Q. And are there any areas of zero interest to you in non-fiction? What would you NOT want to see?
I’m not looking for business books or sports books, and I’m much too cynical for lifestyle books, self-help books or books about mindfulness! Everything else – send away.
Q. Is there anything in particular you’d love to see at the moment?
As a brand new agent actively looking for exciting new authors I’m very open-minded about what I’m looking for. That mightn’t sound very helpful but it does mean there is very little that I definitely won’t consider!
One of my main focuses will be finding great reading group fiction; something that tells a compelling story but that deals with issues that will resonate with the reader long after they’ve finished reading the book.
Q. Do you have any unpredictable loves? [Eg: “I love anything with mentally unwell narrators” or “I don’t know why, but I’ve always got a fascination with everything Australian. And I’ve never been.”]
I really do like dark themes and irredeemably awful characters! More specifically I’m intrigued by fiction or non-fiction about mass psychogenic illness or mass hysteria! I’d also love to find a chilling gothic-style horror or ghost story. A modern THE TURN OF THE SCREW would be wonderful.
Q. What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?
Please do spend time on your submission letter. It might seem really obvious, but it is astonishing how often submissions come through with glaring spelling mistakes. I think it helps to consider your submission to an agent to be like a job application, so I expect to see a professionally written cover letter that follows all of our agency’s submission guidelines.
Q. How many submissions do you see annually? And how many of those submissions will end up on your list?
At the Madeleine Milburn Agency we receive about 40-50 submissions a day and we read them all. As a brand new agent looking to develop a client list of exciting new authors I spend a huge amount of time looking at submission, so please do send things our way!
Q. Do you look for social media and online presence? Do you care?
As someone who isn’t wonderful at using social media myself I’m very forgiving! For novelists it isn’t something I even consider. For writers of non-fiction I probably have higher expectations of an author’s online presence but if I love their manuscript the number of Twitter followers they have wouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
Q. When people are pitching the concept for a book to you, what do you find is the most common failing?
Pitching can be really hard but it’s a skill worth practising. I find that mostly authors are really enthusiastic and start rambling, trying to fit everything that happens in their book into one extended sentence. It’s a really encouraging sign when I see an author who has a precise, concise pitch for their book.
I also start to lose interest when an author tells me that their work defies categorisation and will appeal to everyone from 9- 99! It suggests to me that the author doesn’t read much, has no understanding of the market and hasn’t researched how the publishing industry works.