Jaco Botha in conversation with Isobel Dixon
Please describe yourself in one sentence.
|• “For the reader in Benoni, and the reader in Beijing”: UK launch of the The Cambridge History of South African Literature|
|• Review: Bearings by Isobel Dixon|
I am a South African poet and literary agent based in the UK, where I am director of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, representing writers from around the world, including many prominent South African authors.
Where did you grow up, and when did your passion for books start?
I was born in Mthatha (and border officials the world over ask, “Where on earth is Umtata?” when they rifle through my passport). When I was three my family moved to Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo: my asthmatic teacher-minister father was in search of a drier climate for his health, though he always missed the Transkei area and went back to work in teacher training for another decade in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. So I am an Eastern Cape girl through and through, loving both the Wild Coast’s rolling hills and coastline and the starker lines of the Karoo plains and mountains. (And then there’s that part of me which, like my father, feels very much at home in Scotland, where I also studied.)
I feel very blessed to have grown up in the beautiful Graaff-Reinet, where my sisters and I still share our family home, the town where two of the five of us still live, and where we all meet at least a couple of times a year. And it is a house absolutely burgeoning with books. Both of my parents were avid readers, booklovers to the very marrow.
My mother was the eldest of six children, a farm manager’s daughter. She had wanted to be a librarian, but the head of the course at Rhodes University dissuaded my grandfather from spending hard-saved or borrowed money on degree study for her – girls being an uncertain return on investment, it seems, despite my mother’s being as smart as a whip. My blood boils. If I could just go back in time …
So instead, my mother became our family librarian and archivist in a rambling old double-storey house, with lots of space for all the books she bought in auction job lots and at charity shops and jumble sales. I remember the family making a special trip to Cathcart when the little town library was selling off boxes of old stock, and returning home triumphantly with a bakkie full of treasures (which most other people would consider a load of dusty old rubbish). It is impossible to sort the books in our house properly, because in the process of trying to impose some order, one has to decide how you’re going to sort and classify the volumes, then you have to open the book, and well, one page leads to another …
My father’s study was (and still is) filled (literally), floor to ceiling, with books on theology, physics, science, astronomy, chess and travel. I can go in just to answer the phone, and emerge only hours later, having gone down an unexpected bookish pathway as compelling as any Google trawl (and that particular wormhole probably not available on the internet anyway).
Please tell us about your studies, and books that had an influence on your life then? Any specific quotes you can recall?
I had some wonderful teachers along the way, first at Union High in Graaff-Reinet where I had English, Afrikaans and Latin teachers who were very inspiring about language and literature (they know who they are, but some day I will have to write a poem in their honour – what a difference good teachers make to the present and the future). Then it was bliss being able to focus on literature at university, with professors like Michiel Heyns, who is now also an award-winning translator and novelist – and my client too. There’s such a luxury of reading time (you don’t know how luxurious till later in your life) in doing a literature degree, and I loved being able to delve deep into many great classics. It was a time of rich focus, especially as I had been a very wild and eclectic reader as a child – which I certainly don’t regret, though I had a youthful allergy to the classics, reluctant to explore all the books that people told you you really had to read. I then completed a masters in applied linguistics in Edinburgh in the mid-‘90s and focused my studies on South Africa’s new language and education policies and adult literacy projects, intending to work in this field back home – but I was hijacked by London publishing instead.
Memorable books from my university years? Many of them are in the list of my 10 favourite books you ask about in your next question (below), so that flows on naturally from here. The last book I’ve listed there, In parenthesis, was a blinding revelation to me in my first masters year at Edinburgh, an extraordinary work of humanity and genius by the Welsh poet-artist David Jones, who served as a private in the trenches of World War I. I recently took part in a BBC documentary, presented by Welsh poet and novelist Owen Sheers, all about In parenthesis. (It’s downloadable here – for a small fee, and if the link works in South Africa.)
As for favourite quotes, here are a few that keep echoing in my head, some of which I’ve had stuck up above my desk over the years:
Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost! – Henry James, The Art of Fiction
Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind. – Henry James
I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. – Joan Didion
My idea of man’s chief end was to enrich the world with things of beauty, and have a fairly good time myself while doing so. – Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (also one of my favourite titles).
What are you top 10 favourite books, and what have these books brought to your life?
I love and hate “Best Of” lists. Fascinating to read other people’s lists, frustrating to compile one’s own, as their very finitude is their greatest flaw. I guess protocol requires that I have to exclude my own clients, brilliant as they are, from any list like this, so I’ll share a sub-list of my favourite novels by dead writers, with the usual caveat that what’s excluded today might have to elbow its way back on to the stage tomorrow.
- Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
- The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
- The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford
- Arrow of God – Chinua Achebe
- The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
- Good Morning Midnight – Jean Rhys
- Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
- Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (though sometimes it might be Lord Jim instead)
- In Parenthesis – David Jones (though this is a novel-length poem, it really has to be on any “Best Of Anything” list for me).
My favourite children’s or YA books (all of Asterix, In the Night Kitchen, Emily of New Moon, I Capture the Castle, Bilgewater and so many more) would take another weekend or two to mull over, as would books by living writers.
For my two favourite novels of last year – Emily St John Mandel’s Station Island and Closely Observed Trains – see my bit in our Blake Friedmann 2015 Staff Picks here and so far this year the searing Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Family Life by Akhil Sharma are leading the field.
For my holiday reading (when I’m not on client manuscript deadline) I’m about to plunge into JM Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus and Geoff Dyer’s book on (not writing a book on) DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage.
And all that’s excluding those very important people, the poets: there’s a whole other list of best collecteds which would include Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Louis Macneice, Emily Dickinson, Rodney Jones and Sharon Olds, to merely scratch the surface. Short stories (Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, for starters) and memoir/essay/non-fiction writers (Jan Morris, Joan Didion, Geoff Dyer, WG Sebald, Clive James etc). Where do I fit in Fernando Pessoa? And the playwrights … I’d love to include Macbeth, King Lear, Krapp’s Last Tape, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and others. Film adaptations of great books, anyone? I could go on, but I won’t!
Please tell us about your career. How did you get into the business of books? Any career highlights?
I got into literary agenting through the kindness of people in publishing, with a sprinkling of luck. When my husband was embarking on a master’s at UCL in London I decided to look for a job as an editorial assistant in publishing, which would be good experience for our return to South Africa (in a year or so, I assumed). Several editors who had no open positions nevertheless gave me time and advice and another agent forwarded my CV to Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann. She was away on summer holiday in France, but had just heard that her then assistant, Dido (yes, the famous Dido), was resigning to pursue her musical career (which turned out to be a very smart move). So there was soon to be a vacancy, just before the Frankfurt Book Fair. It was, as I said in my interview, “a job I would kill for”, and fortunately I didn’t have to.
I had my interview with Carole Blake and Julian Friedmann on a sweltering London summer’s day 21 years ago and have never looked back, except with amazement at how serendipitously things fall into place sometimes. We’ve moved office twice and the company has doubled in size, but the things that excited me then still keep me enthused today – an office that looks like home, with bookshelves on every wall; close and enduring working relationships with writers across a wide range of genres; congenial and interesting colleagues and industry partners; no two days ever the same, and certainly never a dull moment (even if there’s sometimes rather too much of everything, especially e-mails).
My father-in-law, Danie van Niekerk, is a retired publisher and was then the original publisher for Marita van der Vyver, Karel Schoeman and Etienne van Heerden – all writers I had read and loved. Carole Blake had sold some of these authors’ books, and so when I said that I already knew their work and could read Afrikaans, that was a surprising plus, and it was lovely to hear that she’d met and admired Danie too. Julian Friedmann is also South African and we all found we had a lot in common – mostly a passion for books – so I was very happy to land on my feet with the company. I handed in my master’s thesis on a Friday, started work at Blake Friedmann on the Monday, went to my first Frankfurt Book Fair 10 days later – and was hooked. My 22nd Frankfurt is coming up …
As for your question about career highlights, there are many heartening and even ecstatic experiences in the business of books. The ur-moment as a literary agent is when you start reading a submission and you have that sure, sudden physiological reaction to the words, and know there’s something special here, something you want to pursue and work with and share. As Emily Dickinson said to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
These days I get that feeling opening an e-mail attachment; back when I started in publishing, stacks of thick manuscripts arrived in the office every day (poor postman!) and I recall getting that goosebump feeling when I slit open an envelope, unfolded a letter in Tatamkhulu Afrika’s spindly handwriting and began to read the typescript of Bitter Eden. It was the same aha! experience one Frankfurt Book Fair when an editor from OUP shared Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying with me, and despite being seriously sleep-deprived I couldn’t stop reading that night back at my hotel. Ivan Vladislavić’s The Restless Supermarket also arrived as a printed manuscript (without a single typo, as befits a novel about a proofreader), while this time last year I was reading the first chapters of Sally Andrew’s Recipes for Love and Murder on my phone on my commute between Cambridge and London, ahead of signing her and selling the Tannie Maria series in many countries around the world. The medium evolves, genres may vary, but all of these narratives took me to an alternative reality in an instant, and I knew they could stir other very different readers in the same way.
I need that cold-shivers and scalp-tingling effect and also the certainty that I can find a publisher somewhere who will feel the same – hopefully many international publishers who will want to buy the book. Of course experience teaches it’s often a much harder road than one expects, but to take on a client I have to believe fully in that possibility and be prepared to fight for it, despite the market’s many obstacles. (Bitter Eden has been on quite a journey over the years, not always a smooth one, but great books do keep going, and it’s my job to help them.) So it’s a beautiful moment when you can call or e-mail an author with a first offer, just as it’s a joy when a draft cover comes through from the publisher and it’s perfect for the book (quite a rare slam-dunk, with no tweaking required, and more often that moment is instead the opening salvo in a long period of debate and wrangling!).
Other high points: the arrival of the actual strokable books, the first great review (among all the nail-biting and chasing and waiting at a time when review space is increasingly limited and retail space and general bandwidth are dominated by fewer, bigger titles), and ah, the prize shortlistings – and of course the thrill of a win. Last year two of my South African clients received premier international accolades, with Marlene van Niekerk shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and Ivan Vladislavić winning a Windham Campbell Prize – both the result of years of fine writing. Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Eden was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and I’m so pleased Pan Macmillan SA are bringing out a new edition of the novel in South Africa this year.
But prizes, pleasing as they are, are not the pinnacle: the ongoing privilege and pleasure of my job is the stories, the stimulation, the richness of ideas and the precious relationships with my clients. I am constantly in awe of what these writers achieve and grateful to be able to share the journeys. And people in publishing are pretty smart and a lot of fun too!
What does the work of a book agent involve? How do you choose which authors to represent and what do you do for them?
I think that’s partly answered above. The short answer to what literary agents do, is: we manage writers’ careers. The detailed answer is too long for this interview! (I have to get back to editing and submitting manuscripts, negotiating deals and arguing about titles and covers very soon …) But attempts at description might include the words talent-spotter, editor, psychologist, bodyguard, negotiator, mediator, money-maker … My aim is to find great writing and then help the writers to concentrate on that writing, by finding the right publishers for them and enabling them to make a living from their work. Our goals are mutual in sharing the stories more widely, and agents get paid on a commission basis, so earn for themselves only when they earn money for their clients. It focuses the mind.
What trends do you see in the market currently, and how does it influence what you do?
Of course, as an agent you keep your eye on trends, but for me it’s mostly about realising where there’s a glut in a certain genre, so you don’t take on a project in a field which has just peaked, and also know how to steer clients when they’re about to embark on a new book. I’m definitely not a trend-chaser. That way madness lies.
To torque your question slightly, something I’d like to see happen more in publishing is real openness to and action on diversity. We’ve taken some steps in South Africa recently, which you can see in what’s being published and in festival programmes, but the publishing industry around the world is still lacking in diversity, both in what is published and in employment. I’m on the Association of Authors’ Agents committee in London and for me it’s key to keep talking about this, among both the agent and publisher communities, and to take steps to make it a more inclusive industry.
You represent quite a number of South African authors, including several Afrikaans ones. Is it difficult to break through into the international scene? Which countries tend to enjoy the work of South African authors?
It is hard to break any author into the international scene! That’s why authors need agents. It can be just as tough for my Indian, Australian, Caribbean and even US and UK clients in the great literary lottery, though we do our best to help improve the odds.
I represent South African authors across the board, wherever the writing and the stories excite me and I feel sure I can sell them well internationally, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Zakes Mda, Finuala Dowling, Sisonke Msimang, Margie Orford, Tracy Farren, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Ivan Vladislavić, Denis Hirson, Sally Andrew, Achmat Dangor and others write in English, but I am completely bilingual so can read the work of Deon Meyer, Marlene van Niekerk, Karin Brynard and Etienne van Heerden in the original, which is a great practical advantage: I am able to judge the quality of translations, am often involved in editing as well, and have translated novels in the past. That gives me an angle on the Afrikaans side, but of course, no matter what the source language, it is usually harder to sell work in translation than it is to sell work that originates in English, given the availability (or not) of skilled literary translators in different markets. South Africa needs more trained literary translators for all its languages as well.
France, The Netherlands and Germany tend to be more adventurous regarding fiction from and about Africa in general, both literary and commercial. Deon Meyer is a big bestseller in those markets, for instance, and they’re often the first beyond South Africa to acquire a literary writer’s work, often regardless of whether the author has a UK or US publisher yet or not. I think there’s a mix there of being countries with a history of interest in Africa (stemming from the colonial eras, of course), and the Germanic-Dutch links too when it comes to Afrikaans. Some countries, like China or Japan, are much harder to sell South African work to. Then there are certain market quirks you come to know – Dutch and Scandinavian publishers aren’t that keen on the more gothic or ghostly, the Dutch don’t like “cosy” crime and Brazil is one of the few places in the world where it’s hard to sell crime fiction at all.
What are the qualities of a successful international author?
Brilliant writing and storytelling ability, of course. Passion for the work and a great deal of patience and perseverance. Enough self-belief to keep going against all the setbacks and obstacles that the business side of publishing throws at you, but not so much ego that you’re unpleasant to work with. It’s a very social and collaborative industry, though generally a very narrow-margin one; people in the trade tend to work very hard without huge salaries and it takes a large number to make a good book sell well – the most successful authors I know are very professional and appreciative, and editors and booksellers and publicists will go the extra mile for them.
Anything else you would like to share with us?
A lot of people ask me about managing both an agenting career and a writing life as a poet and which one comes first. Well, I was writing poetry long before I knew what a literary agent was, but my job is also pretty all-absorbing, so there is a fair bit of juggling involved. I need the stimulation that this fascinating profession affords, and my clients are a great source of inspiration. I’m constantly in awe of what they achieve – some of them also spinning many plates at once.
I love collaborations too, as it gives me productive deadlines to spur me on. I’m looking forward to new performances of The Debris Field, a multi-media poetry, film and music show on the sinking of RMS Titanic, written, produced and performed with poets Simon Barraclough and Chris McCabe, and to Birds, Beasts and Flowers, my collaboration with artist Doug Robertson on a project inspired by the travels and nature writing of DH Lawrence.
I come back to my home in the Karoo about three times a year, and on this trip, after the Open Book Festival, I am looking forward to having the Little and Great Karoo launches for my new collection Bearings, (published by marvellous Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books), along with The Leonids, a short pamphlet of poems about my mother, Ann Dixon, who died last year. This is published by Edinburgh publisher Mariscat and was launched last month during the Festival there – so I’m thrilled now to have a Little Karoo launch at my sister’s art gallery ArtKaroo on Wednesday 14 September, and in Graaff-Reinet on Saturday 17 September.
Photo credits: Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, London, UK