Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Interesting Job You Guys Have

I’ve come to know many literary agents over the years, and have even been represented by one--London’s Curtis Brown--back in the 1980s. These agents are often very informative when it comes to tracking new developments in the genre that comprises crime fiction and thrillers. And one of the biggest names in that field is Jane Gregory, owner of the UK’s Gregory and Company.

For those who don’t move in this circle, Gregory is not only a literary agent but a pillar of London’s publishing community, and a huge crime-fiction enthusiast. She and her team handle sales to publishers in Britain and the United States, as well as to film and television producers. Before setting up as an agent, Gregory was a rights and contracts director for publishers. She’s a co-founder of the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction, sits on the programming committee of the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, and co-founded the career support group Women in Publishing.

I have known Jane Gregory for many years now, and have found her to be a larger-than-life personality--warm, generous, and very, very funny. So I was flattered to find myself invited (along with Shots editor Mike Stotter) to last week’s 20th anniversary celebration of Gregory and Company, held at London’s Fulham Palace.

The invitation said that the dress code for this affair was “Drop-Dead Gorgeous,” and that there would be a band and dancing late into the night, fueled with champagne and canapés. So, mischievously, Stotter and I decided to make a special effort for this literary soirée. We wigs, false mustaches, and matching sideburns to go with our sunglasses, black ties, white shirts, and black suits. The idea was to arrive first as the Men in Black (that’s us in the photo above) and, after tipping back a few to get our courage up, donning wigs and other pieces of hair to transform ourselves into the Pulp Fiction duo.

While preparing for this event, I wondered which of Jane Gregory’s notable clients would show up. Maybe even the controversial Tony Blair? Or perhaps his successor in the Prime Minister’s office, Gordon Brown, who--little-known fact--is a big crime-fiction enthusiast. (Brown appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book last Sunday to talk about his passion for the genre. That program is archived here.)

Sadly, neither of those gentlemen was in attendance. But as the cab dropped us off at the Fulham Palace gate, we were greeted by Julia Wisdom from HarperCollins UK and the award-winning novelist Val McDermid (Beneath the Bleeding), who were leaving early, since McDermid had to be off to the Continent for a literary festival. And no sooner did we say our good-byes and enter the palace, than we were handed flutes of chilled champagne and directed to a giant marquee, where we just caught the end of Gregory’s speech welcoming everyone and explaining that this fête was her way of thanking us all for supporting Gregory and Company over the last couple of decades. A huge round of applause erupted and we raised our glasses in celebration.

There must have been 200 to 300 guests at this party, a Who’s Who’s of British publishing notables, together with some international names. I had a chance to chat with the managers of next month’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, as well as Natasha Cooper (A Greater Evil), this year’s events organizer. I was amazed to hear that at this stage, there have already been more tickets than ever before sold for the festival, which means it will be a crowded but exciting event.

A bit later, I fell into conversation with Chris Simms, whose work I’ve followed ever since the 2004 publication of Outside the White Lines, his debut novel about a serial killer who stalks his victims on the motorways veining Great Britain. Simms was there with a representative from his German publisher, the pair discussing the recent promotion of Simms to a spot on the list of Waterstone’s top 25 new talents (a rundown that also includes both Nick Stone and Richard Morgan). This subject apparently makes the Manchester author blush, but only makes me more excited to see his next novel, Savage Moon, which is due out in the UK this fall.

Roaming the crowd, I saw some of Gregory’s more established authors, including Mo Hayder (Pig Island), who wound up at one point dancing with her agent (see the photograph above, with Gregory on the left), as well as such up-and-coming talents as Dreda Say Mitchell, a John Creasey Memorial Dagger winner, and Caro Ramsey, whose debut novel, Absolution, has been enjoying terrific press notices. One interesting thing about crime fictionists such as Simms, Hayder, Mitchell, and Ramsay, is that while their stories might be dark and menacing, they’re actually the most genial people you’re likely ever to meet. They just kill and maim in their imaginations.

Also putting in a showing here were Zöe Sharp and her husband, Andy Butler, who were preparing for a trip to the States, during which Sharp will be promoting her latest offering, Second Shot, and attending ThrillerFest in New York City.

By the end of the evening, Stotter and I were exhausted. So, after thanking the Jane Gregory team for their hospitality, he and I headed off in our Pulp Fiction getups, bound for our hotel and nursing the beginnings of world-class hangovers. I remember muttering, “We’re getting too old for this shit ...” in my best impression of Samuel L. Jackson. Stotter, though, was incoherent by this stage, and could only express his agreement with a single but loud belch.

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