Nadine Williams - How Selwa Became My Agent

Many years ago, when I worked at the Advertiser, I came across a feature in our Broadsheet newspaper about this exciting agent for Australian authors. It was in the 1990s, and for some reason I kept it, taken by the striking woman whose portrait took up half the page.

In 2004, I met a widower, a handsome French-born Australian with a melodic Gallic accent, who took me back to France, wooed me and won my heart. I had been a feisty feminist and forged a career as such at the Advertiser. I once wrote a column about the “romance myth” and here I was, a 50-something middle-aged woman, falling to his charms.

On our trip to France, as a working journalist, I took copious notes hoping to sell my work to the Advertiser – the practice of the times. However, after the paper published a four-page spread, the features editor said policies had changed and they were happy to print my travel material, but there would be no payment.

“What do I do with all the human interest stories I have gathered of French people across France?” I asked to no avail. “I might as well write a book!” I stated before walking off disgusted.

Then I remembered Selwa and picked up the telephone.

“I am holding a writers” festival at Darling Harbour in a few weeks, called “Australian Voices in Print”, why don’t you come over and we can discuss it further,” replied Selwa.

One of those two days, I was perusing the book shop section with my handsome 60-something beau when Selwa approached and took me to meet Kirsten Abbott, whom she introduced as the commissioning editor for Penguin.

“Tell her about your idea for a memoir,” instructed Selwa.

And so I waxed lyrical about how the lovely Frenchman by my side had shown me that love was possible in our middle years and how transformative an emotion it was. And that I had fallen in love with his wonderful country, too. But, it hadn’t been an easy ride driving 5000 kilometres around France with a widower who was really a stranger.

A few weeks later – on my birthday – and the very day I was made editor of the Looking Forward weekly supplements section of the Advertiser, Selwa telephoned me at 7:15pm in the evening to tell me that Penguin was offering to commission me to write my story. It was to be titled From France With Love.

Now, I could say that writing this first manuscript of mine, this wonderful memoir full of the sweetness of love and lust in the most beautiful country on earth, was a cinch, but I would be lying.

My first enthusiastic effort was rejected outright by Kirsten Abbott – and to make it most painful, she told me over a breakfast at one of Adelaide’s CBD hotels during Adelaide’s Writers” Week.

So dejected, I simply felt like putting myself back to bed, never to lift a pen again. However, once more, I picked up the telephone to speak to Selwa.

“Nadine, you are writing as a journalist, simply observing…you are not revealing yourself on the page. Readers can’t feel that empathy needed to write a page-turner. Your story is boring for the reader.” Selwa was being brutally honest. And yet, she threw me a lifeline before I drowned with disappointment.

“I believe in your story, and I would like to recommend an editor to help you change hats…to begin to write like an author that I know you can become,” she continued.

And so began the rewrite – and another edit – and after a full year with the freelance editor, Selwa telephoned to say that they had agreed the manuscript was ready to be re-presented to Penguin.

As people say. The rest is history.

From France With Love was the fifth best-selling book for Penguin for the Christmas sales period for 2007-2008, falling behind such stalwarts as Bryce Courtney, Jamie Oliver, Monica McInerney and Kathy Lette.

But there’s more. My second memoir – about recovery from grief after my lovely French-born husband, Olivier, died of cancer – would never have been accepted without Selwa’s astute knowledge of the publishing industry and her incredible “nose” for what story will interest which particular publisher or editor. Farewell My French Love is the memoir I had to write about returning to France with a woman friend to recover from that profound grief.

It was cathartic for me personally. However, once more, Selwa linked me to a freelance editor, who worked for some months with me to fine-tune the story and refine the dialogue.


Then, a few months after submitting the rewritten manuscript to Selwa, she phoned to say that Harlequin had bought the manuscript.

Two ideas for memoirs, two manuscripts, two published books by two of the great publishing houses – Penguin and Harlequin – thanks to Selwa’s unique skill in knowing a good story. But the real gift of a book agent is to know how to assist the writer to reshape, refine and flesh out the story for Australian readers.

It is hard to put into words how grateful I am to Selwa Anthony. Without her, I would not have achieved a later-life dream to become an author.