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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Interview with Julie A. Crisp (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Julie Crisp is a literary agent, freelance editor and script doctor after having most recently been an editorial director for fiction at Pan Macmillan UK heading up the UK arm of one of the largest global brands of science fiction and fantasy, Tor. She is an editor with over fifteen years’ experience working for three major houses across a broad spectrum of commercial titles within fiction, non-fiction and children’s. Julie has worked on bestselling and award-winning authors such as Ann Cleeves, Peter F. Hamilton, China MiĆ©ville, Neal Asher, Amanda Hocking, Naomi Novik .

I've been fascinated with her work and that of her authors, some of whom loom over the SFF genre, most of whom are favorites over here at Fantasy Book Critic. I was excited when she said yes to being interviewed and so read ahead to know how she began her professional journey, what makes her tick and what plans she has for the future...


Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic, You’ve been involved in the field of editing for over a decade and half. Where does your love for writing/editing arise from and what events led you to pursue a career as an editor?

JC: My love of literature started early. I’ve always been a reader. The local library was something of a haven for me and I used to get through a book a day as child. And I read everything. Anything that could be used as a form of escapism and I devoured it. At first I decided I wanted to be a writer. I believe my first story involved a magic cottage and a time travelling mirror. I was seven. When I hit ten I discovered my Dad’s bookshelf, reading Stephen King’s IT and then went on to discover Frank Herbert, Ben Bova and David Eddings. That’s when my love of SFF really grew – it’s the ultimate form of escapism. While other girls were falling madly in love with New Kids on the Block and Bros, my first crush was on Peter Davison’s Doctor Who. It says a lot.

I studied English at University, everything from the classics through to modern literature. My particular passion being African-American female writers and the Golden Age of detective fiction. I knew when finishing my course that I wanted to work with books – and publishing just seemed to be the perfect fit for me.

Q] Early on in your career you were a senior editor and since July 2006 you had ascended to the position of an Editorial Director, how many responsibilities increased with this shift?

JC: The biggest shift was that I moved my focus from broad spectrum fiction publishing, working on crime, thrillers and upmarket women’s fiction to concentrating solely on genre. I loved genre so it was fabulous, although I did miss being able to have a more widespread commissioning brief.

The other thing I was tasked with doing was building the genre list and imprint. Over the next seven years I doubled the turnover, implemented the website and blog, built Tor UK as an identifiable brand within its own right and commissioned some absolutely fabulous authors. I had a great time and am pretty proud of what was achieved during my time there.

Q] Could you please describe a typical day in your professional life? How much of your work do you bring home with you?

JC: Well as I now work from home full-time I bring all my work home with me. I actually have an office set up, my library. Wall-to ceiling books, wooden floor-boards, a comfy reading chair and sunny bay window that looks out into the garden. It’s a nice spot!

As I’m currently balancing a duel role of freelance editor and agent, it’s pretty busy and there’s no 9-5 about it (not that there ever was!). I start at 8.30 a.m. – emails are always checked first, responded to and filed. Then if I have a freelancing job on I’ll spend the next nine hours working on that. The evenings are spent reading through agency submissions and I usually finish about 10.30 p.m.

At the moment I’ve shelved my freelancing so I can concentrate on editing my first client’s novel. I also have another couple of scripts which I’m seriously considering for representation. Then there’s always admin, blogging, social media, market research to keep up with. I’m also attending conventions and having London meetings with publishers so it’s all very busy. Much prefer that to being bored!

Q] You wrote a blog post about female writers and their participation that ruffled more than a few feathers. What are your thoughts about it after 2 years? Do you think that post attracted so much attention because it blew a lot of holes in to various theories about women writers?

JC: You know I never in my wildest dreams expected that post to have the effect it did. On the whole the reaction to it was positive. I think I was the first publisher to actually provide some facts and figures for context as to what we’d actually been receiving from authors. I’d written it, to begin with, as part of the ongoing conversation that was happening about genre at the time – and still is. The under representation of women in the area. While I do think things have moved on in the last two years a little – of course there are still areas that need a lot of work. The Hugos are, sadly, a prefect reflection of many of the problems still inherent within this particular area. The one thing I take away from that unfortunate situation is that it’s recognized, discussed and fought against in a way that many other areas of literature aren’t.

My original post had wanted to show that there were other factors involved as to why women weren’t being published. The most straightforward factor of all for genre editors (many of whom were women and actively looking for female writers) was that we weren’t, at the time, getting many submissions in from women. I do think that’s changed a lot. More women submitting genre and so more women are being published and recognized for their work.

Look at just some of the fabulous female writers out there: Sarah Pinborough, Ann Leckie, Sarah Lotz, Laura Lam, VE Schwab . . . I’ve had a lot of submissions in as an agent now and I’d say the split is about 50/50 as to who’s submitting and what’s being submitted. That’s not to say the market still doesn’t need a nudge here and there. While women do buy as much fantasy as men, they’re still lagging behind on picking up SF or horror.

Maybe I should do an updated post . . . ;-)

Q] With editing being your profession, you must often get very little time for personal reading. But if & when you do, what are the genres you like to read in? Also who are your favorite authors besides the ones you work with?

JC: Personal reading. I remember doing that once. To be fair, much of what I read for ‘work’ would be the type of book I’d pick for pleasure reading so in that aspect I’m lucky. I don’t read anything now that I think I’m not going to enjoy. As for my favourite authors – my ‘go to’ in times of stress are Terry Pratchett and Stephen King. I’ve re-read them so many times that they’re like old friends. I still have a passion for Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston and re-read those every few years just for the sheer love of their voices. I adore losing myself in China MiĆ©ville’s playful prose and, like the rest of the genre crowd, am eagerly awaiting the next George R R Martin behemoth.

Q] Last year saw the launch of The James Herbert Award for Horror Writing. Can you talk to us about your involvement in its inception and your thoughts on the inaugural winner?

JC: It mainly came about through thinking about all the great talent in horror out there; specifically I’d been thinking about Adam Nevill, S. L Grey and Sarah Pinborough. It seemed unfair that there were so many avenues for SF and Fantasy to be nominated for awards but so little recognition for good horror writing. We’d also recently lost Jim and so it felt like there really need to be something that recognized the legacy he’d left behind. The two then kind of came together naturally.

I thought that Nick Cutter’s The Troop took traditional horror and did something really interesting with it. It’s exactly the sort of book that James Herbert would have liked.


Q] What are the factors/elements that you look for in any new submission which you receive? Are they genre-specific or something, which work across the spectrum?

JC: I take each submission on its own merit. I have an open brief so it’s really anything that really grabs me. The writing has to be good and flow easily and the characters need to be well-defined and interesting. But, as with any submission, it’s the ‘unputdownable’ factor that I’m looking for. If I’m still desperate to know what happened at the end of the three chapters then I’m going to be requesting the full script. If I’m rather laissez-faire about it then it’s not going to be for me. That’s not to say another agent might not love it to bits.

Reading is a very personal endeavor and what might work for me may not be someone else’s cup of tea. But yes, I also always have one eye on the market. What I think will work and what I think will have a wider reach. You have to unfortunately. It’s no good loving something if you think no one else will.

Q] Do you have any specific reading habits or methods for evaluating submitted manuscripts?

JC: I read mainly in the evenings. That way I’m a little tired, need to concentrate and something really needs to grab me to keep my attention. It’s almost a natural selection process.

Q] While evaluating manuscripts in the past few years, did you ever have a conflict between your personal preferences versus that of being the Editorial director? If so how did you resolve it?

JC: That happens all the time. You read a script you absolutely love but know that, in that particular area, the market has slumped and doesn’t look to be recovering. So you have to decide whether this could be the book to revive the market – or it’s just not going to happen. It’s a balancing act – while the book itself may be brilliant you do have to be commercially savvy enough to know whether it’s got a hope of selling or not. At the end of the day publishing is a business. It has to make money otherwise it doesn’t work.

Q] What is your opinion on an imprint having an "image"? Is it advantageous as that means you have a stable of committed readers, or is it sometimes limiting in a way or another?

JC: Part of my job at Tor was to build it as a ‘brand’ and it’s a great thing to do. Look at Voyager or Gollancz as imprints – they’re recognized for a certain style and type of quality genre. The editors behind the imprint have a lot to do with that in the way they shape their lists. Most readers don’t give two hoots what the ‘imprint’ is – they wouldn’t recognize a Picador title from a Tor title concentrating instead on the author name or book title. But genre readers are a bit different – they’re so involved and so much more aware of imprints and what’s published on them. I think genre editors/publishers play a big part in that, being vocal on social media and inviting reader engagement with their books.

(The TOR UK Imprint brains)

Q] When you offer editorial suggestions, how extensive are the changes you usually request? Do all authors implement the changes you suggest, or have you had instances of someone refusing to make the edits?

JC: It very much depends on the author and manuscript. Some authors I’ve done extensive structural and lines edits on. Other authors I’ve barely needed to touch. It changes with each author and each book they write. But all my authors have always been aware that any notes or changes I make are suggestions rather than dictatorial commands. So I’ve never had anyone refuse to make any editorial changes. I’ve had authors come back and negotiate with different ideas than I’ve provided, Mark Charan Newton was always a fun vocal negotiator, we had some very entertaining discussions ;-), and that is fully to be expected. Editing is just one long dialogue between author and editor. John Gwynne wrote about being edited recently.

Q] Who is the one author (either living or dead) that you would give a limb to work with? And what is it about her/his writing that makes it special for you?

JC: Probably have to be Maya Angelou just because not only was she an amazing writer with a voice that just sang from the pages but she was also the most fascinating person with a life and history that few could rival. I’d be as intimidated as hell to work with a talent like that but wow, what a privilege.

Q] After over a decade with Pan Macmillan and specifically Tor UK, just a few months ago you decided to branch out on your own. Can you talk about your decision to go solo? What lead to it and what lies ahead?

JC: Yeah that was a tough few months and it was really hard leaving all my fabulous authors behind. Many of whom I considered friends rather than just authors on my list. But being an agent was something I’d been considering doing for the last three or four years and I decided if I didn’t do it now then I never would. The thing I’d always loved most about publishing was the authors and their writing.

There are so many other aspects to the role that you have to fulfill as a publisher working traditionally, that it sometimes it can be quite limiting and you don’t get the time to spend on what you really want to be doing. This way I can concentrate on finding a great bunch of talent – from a wide range of genres (not just SFF) and work with them one-on-one to develop their novels before approaching publishers. It’s incredibly satisfying being my own boss and being as enthusiastic and innovative as I like without any restrictions.

Q] Please tell us about your new gig as a literary agent and what type of genre books and authors are you looking for?

JC: So I’m looking for a bit of everything really. I’m a very eclectic reader – always have been – and while I adore genre, I’m also looking outside of speculative fiction as well. I am actively looking for exciting new novels in science fiction and fantasy, crime/thrillers, book club fiction, historical, young adult and middle-grade children’s fiction.

I love stories that have heart, and I adore the unexpected, books that start off one way and then defy all your expectations and preconceptions to do something totally different.

Q] Any particular words of advice for writers who might be salivating to submit their manuscripts to you?

JC: Please send the first three chapters, double-spaced, in a word document with a brief synopsis and a short bio to "". My response time at the moment is about 6-8 weeks.

NOTE: James Herbert picture courtesy of Antonio Olmos (The Guardian). Sarah Pinborough picture courtesy of Mike Brooke (The Docklands and East London Advertiser). Ann Leckie picture courtesy of SF Strangelove. Laura Lam Picture courtesy of Alex Silver. Sarah Lotz & Victoria Schwab author pictures courtesy of the authors themselves. All other pictures courtesy of Julie Crisp.


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