On being a Rising Star and Literary Agent: Ariella Feiner interview

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Ariella Feiner started working at PFD in 2006 before moving to United Agents and is now nurturing her own client list which includes many bestselling, critically acclaimed and award winning authors across fiction and non-fiction, including a million-copy selling author and ground-breaking non-fiction. In 2017, The Bookseller named her as a Rising Star. Here, Norah Myers interviews her about being included in that list.

1) Congratulations on being named as a Rising Star for 2017. What does it mean to you?

It means a huge amount. It’s no easy thing to build up a client list of authors you are passionate about and it was so touching to be nominated for it and then chosen. This is a job that is very much led by the relationships you build up over time and seeing messages come in from publishing peers in this way has been so very lovely. It’s been one of those rare moments where you take the opportunity to reflect on the past few years and how much has changed in that time.

2) What made you want to be a literary agent?

I knew from very early on that I wanted to do something in relation to publishing but I’d only ever really heard about being an editor. Most people don’t realise what a wide spectrum of jobs publishing has to offer and it was only in my second year at university that I learned that the role of a literary agent even existed. I did a huge amount of work experience in various publishing houses and whilst I very much enjoyed them all, the idea of working in one didn’t quite click. As soon as I started a month long internship scheme at PFD I knew that it was an extremely good fit for me. I love being able to have complete freedom to build my list according to my tastes, the thrill of negotiating a deal and the moments when I can advocate for my clients and feel as though I can make good changes on their behalves.

3) What was it like when you transitioned from PFD to United Agents?

It was a difficult but invigorating time. I was only six months into my first proper job when it happened so it was all new to me and it was bizarre coming into work one day to find everyone reading an enormous article about it all in the papers, but with hindsight I learned a huge amount in a very short space of time. Starting an agency from scratch in that way threw up a multitude of questions that I would never have normally encountered as an assistant and in many ways I probably learned more in six months than I would have done in a ‘normal’ ten years.

4) Tell us about a couple of other agents whose work you really admire. What makes them special?

I was lucky enough to cross over with Pat Kavanagh for a few years. Her clients were exceptional, from Julian Barnes, Joanna Trollope and Margaret Drabble to Ruth Rendell and Robert Harris, the list goes on and on. She was famous for her negotiating style of saying very little indeed, ensuring that her steely silence terrified the other person into offering more money. Simon Trewin gave me my first job in publishing and was very much a mentor. He has phenomenal taste which covers a wide range of genres and was always exceedingly generous with the time he gave me.

5) What do you most look forward to as your work progresses?

As an agent what I will always be searching for is that rare book, be it fiction or non-fiction, which can not only generate huge sales across the world, but also accomplish that even rarer thing of truly moving people, or ensuring a reader will think of things in a different way than they did before they opened that first page. That might sound a bit cheesy, but my favourite books, such as Room and My Sister’s Keeper, have always done that.  When I first started working for Simon Trewin, his client John Boyne was seeing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas take off. Simon had such faith in that book and I find it mind-boggling now that my best friend, as an English teacher, and my husband as a History teacher, both teach that book as a set text to students and I’m sure will continue to do so for years to come. That’s a rare story, but it’s things like that which made me want to go into publishing in the first place.

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