During a stay at Varuna Writers’ House in Katoomba in 2000, I met the writer, Loubna Haikal. We had a lot in common, including a strong desire to see our first books published. I’d recently been taken on by a small publisher and although I was initially thrilled to have my work recognized, I’d begun to have misgivings about the transaction I’d entered into. As a newcomer, I needed more attention than the publisher was able to provide and I poured out my fears to Loubna, who seemed to be in better hands than I was.
“You need an agent,” she said.
Her agent was Selwa Anthony.
Selwa, I was told, only took on new clients by recommendation. Loubna herself had been so eager to be represented by Selwa that she’d “ambushed” her at a public event and had somehow managed to get her manuscript into Selwa’s hands. As a favour to me, Loubna would ring Selwa. The rest would be up to me.
I was a mature woman with twenty-five years of professional working experience behind me, and yet, faced with making that phone call I was nervous and unsure. How do you sell yourself to a high-profile agent who knows nothing about you, nothing about the ten years of hard slog it took to write the words I’d be asking her to read? I stayed up half the night rehearsing my speech, then rang her very early in the morning – so early in fact that she hadn’t finished breakfast. I can’t remember if I made any sense, only that she was a warm, understanding presence on the line and that she agreed to read my manuscript.
“But what about the other publisher?” I asked.
“Did you sign anything?”
“Not yet, they were getting around to it.”
“Leave it with me.”
It wasn’t too long, about ten days, maybe less, before Selwa rang to say she loved the work and had secured a publishing deal with Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan.
The next weeks, months, are a blur. I signed contracts, was given an editor, had meetings with the publisher, discussions about book covers and publicity tours, all the razzamatazz that accompanies publishing (as it was then). At every step of the way, Selwa was there. I could ring her anytime, day or night.
My book, The Poison Principle, was released in 2001, became a bestseller, and went on to win the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award.
When I think back to that chance meeting with Loubna, which led me to Selwa’s door and the realisation of a long held dream, I count myself lucky in more ways than one. Publishing has undergone undreamt of shifts in the past decade. Job descriptions have changed. People have come and gone. My good fortune lies in the unchanging nature of my relationship with my agent: I am still Selwa’s client, still in safe hands.