Curtis Brown recently launched a new division to manage its literary estates. The duo heading up the venture tell Tim Relf why – and about how representing dead authors can be both thrilling and terrifying
"It was as though Laurie was in the room with us," says Norah Perkins.
She’s recalling working with Laurie Lee’s daughter on a new book of uncollected material by the author.
"It was like we were having a conversation with him – making the decisions about what to include and what not to."
Making such choices and, ultimately, creating such a book engenders "a profound sense of responsibility" – a sentiment with which Perkins says agents dealing with literary estates are well familiar.
"Without the authors there to speak for themselves, we must try to speak for them," she says. "Once a writer dies, we’ve got to become their voice. Their life as a writer doesn’t end when they die. We are responsible for their reputation."
Perkins heads Curtis Brown Heritage, the newly launched division which aims to 'celebrate, nurture and preserve' its 150-plus estates, spanning everything from modern classics and crime to poetry and history.
The move marks a desire on the part of the firm, due to celebrate its own 120th anniversary next year, to put even more focus on bringing this "treasure trove" to new audiences in print, audio, film and TV. "It’s about finding new ways of drawing attention to – and celebrating – these extraordinary authors and making their work a living and breathing part of our literary and cultural world," says Perkins.
Literary estates can be seen as, she acknowledges, a "slightly strange corner" of agenting, with different kinds of pressures. "The crises are less immediate, less intensely personal, the successes are at a slight remove. And there’s the crucial difference, of course, that when the phone rings, it’s not actually Lawrence Durrell or Vita Sackville-West calling me – which is sad and a relief in equal measure."
Agents in this field also have a slightly different relationship with the work, points out Becky Brown, an associate agent in the Heritage department. "You’re seeing that person’s life’s work as a whole, whereas if you’re dealing with living writers, their work is not done yet, so you don’t know how it’ll change or develop. Obviously, you still work very closely with people who care deeply about it, but it is different when you haven’t got the creator themselves sitting in your office."
There is currently a huge interest in old books, reflecting both a cultural shift in reading tastes and the new opportunities presented by the internet, according to Brown. "We’re at a really exciting time technologically for making old books new again," she says. "There are more and more opportunities – such as via Netflix and Amazon – to get brilliant and forgotten work back on screens and back in minds."
While the digital age has brought more space, more options and better access to a bigger audience, it’s "absolutely not just a case of simply sticking stuff online", she says. "Just as with frontlist books, applying editorial, intellectual and cultural taste – plus having market knowledge – is vital. If you are going to talk to a publisher, a production company or a director, you have to know the books and know the writers, just as you would if they were alive."
Part of ensuring they do this is through the relationships the pair forge with whoever owns the copyright, which could be anyone from be a writers’ immediate family or descendants to a university or charity.
"Nowadays, generally, a lot of business is done on email, but there’s a transformative effect of going out for lunch or coffee or to somebody’s house," says Perkins. "Taking the time to speak to somebody and hear about the writer brings a much wider sense of that person and of what is valuable.
"We have some wonderful authors whose families still live in their houses – the writer’s bookshelves might even still be there. It’s such a joy to spend time in a space that was once occupied by the writer and hear someone talk about that person with personal knowledge and affection even though they might have been dead for many decades."
"We try to be transparent and really communicative about the realities of the business and the market because, if you’re in a different profession, you might not be well versed in the books industry. A lot of it is making sure people understand what we’re doing," says Perkins. "Even if people have nothing to do with the books business, it doesn’t mean they won’t have great ideas and great taste, so we take a lot of inspiration from the people we work with."
The pair are acutely aware that what they’re looking after is a "legacy", points out Brown. "It’s a body of work that changes only through the lens of now. So in 10 years’ time, it could be viewed differently to how it is today. But what we are concerned with at any point is: What are people thinking about today? What are they talking about? How is this interesting, how is it relevant, how is it important?"
In from the cold
Writers, of course, come in and out of fashion – so patience is a necessary attribute if you’re involved with literary estates, stresses Brown. "There are some who that sit for years unloved, you can’t get an editor to pay attention to them, then something will shift in the wider culture and suddenly it’ll be interesting and relevant again. That interplay between writers and their work and the wider culture is fascinating.
"We’re trying to curate and preserve what is often a large body of work by bringing to the fore the aspects of it that are relevant now. It’s about thinking: How can I open up this world to a new reader? As a writer, you react through your work. We are constantly thinking: What do we have here that we can react with?"
Anniversaries, of course, can provide a good opportunity in this respect – and a raft of activity is planned to coincide with the 2019 centenary of Iris Murdoch’s birth, including re-issues with Vintage, TV and radio, plus festival appearances by people who love her novels. "We’ll be celebrating this extraordinary, modern, transgressive, brilliant author," says Perkins.
Alongside events, 'outreach' opportunities are available through digital technology. "Books are absolutely about what’s in them, but they are also just beautiful objects – and Instagram is exactly the sort of place you can celebrate the beauty, as well as the content," says Brown. "It’s a wonderful visual medium to share history through."
The pair’s paths first crossed when Brown was at Pan Macmillan – a role she had after a post-university year "knee deep in dust" as an antiquarian book cataloguer and two years at AM Heath assisting Bill Hamilton. Working on its Bello imprint, Brown bought a CP Snow (one of her "all-time favourite" authors) from Perkins. "It was always fated that we would end up working together."
Perkins, who was with Canongate prior to the six years she’s been at Curtis Brown, says: "We both read old books, but we read slightly different old books, so between us we cover a lot of ground. It’s definitely a meeting of minds. We both like old things, too – our office is full of items we’ve picked up in antiques markets!
"Ultimately, though, it’s not so much that there are old books and new books – there are just stories. Some become dated, some don’t – but the fact is this is a huge continuum of storytelling and we get to intersect with it. I love knowing we are part of that huge tradition.
"This new division is in some ways an extension of what we’ve always done – but giving it an identity and putting additional resources into it will help us trumpet these lasting legacies and make sure we fully recognise their cultural, literary and historical value."
Perhaps the greatest joy of the job, concludes Perkins, is getting to deal with the estates of her literary heroes.
"I grew up reading Rumer Godden’s YA books and they were life-changing. Suddenly finding that I was responsible for making sure that other teenagers get to read those books and make sure that they have a profound effect on other readers too is extraordinary and a real honour. It’s thrilling and terrifying."
For Canadian Perkins, dealing with work by big names such as Elizabeth Bowen and William Faulkner is all a long way from her first steps into the industry. "I started my career as an intern at a regional publisher in Vancouver, working on books about local food, wellbeing and travel. It was about as far from literary estates as you could get and so I feel a bit like a Canadian Dick Whittington, come to London to find my ridiculously good fortune. But I think any career in books is a bit like that – a combination of toil, passion and bloody good luck."
Norah Perkins (left) and Becky Brown