Saturday, 17 September 2016

RIP Carolyn Whitaker, literary agent extraordinaire, by Elizabeth Kay


One day in 1986 I opened the Writers and Artists Yearbook, shut my eyes, and stabbed at the agents’ section at random. It came up with London Independent Books, which sounded like a nice unpretentious title. I’d had a number of short stories published in magazines, and five radio plays broadcast, so I wasn’t a novice. But I’d always dealt with those concerned direct.  It didn’t seem like the way to go with a book. I sent off my manuscript, and that was the start of a relationship that lasted thirty years until Carolyn’s death on the 17th June this year.

 Carolyn Whitaker
Things were different in those days. Everything was done by post, which took time, and agents didn’t get you to sign a contract. They just read your work, suggested some alterations, and then sent whatever it was off to probably no more than three publishers. After that you waited. It was, in fact, seven years before Carolyn sold a single thing I wrote, and then it was a short story, which agents don’t seem to handle any more. A publisher had asked her to provide a number of erotic stories for an anthology, and so she’d suggested I have a go. It was a long one, and fairly literary – 11,000 words. Then they asked for another one. Gosh, I thought, I can’t do that again – so I simply made a list of everything you could possibly include, set up a suitable situation (lorry carrying sex aids that gets stuck in snowstorm on the M6, so the driver and his hitchhiker have to climb in the back to keep warm), and wrote it under a pseudonym. I thought was a bit of a joke to be honest. They bought it. Carolyn always used to give the good news by phone, and the bad news by post. A month after the anthology was published she rang and said, “I think you’d better sit down.”  I sat down. “I’ve had an enquiry about the film rights for one of the stories,” she said. Oh good, I thought, the literary one would make an excellent film. Of course it wasn’t that one, it was the other. The company exercised the option, and then everything went quiet. Until one of my students phoned and said, “Your story. It was called The Plain Brown Envelope, wasn’t it?” I agreed that it was. “It’s on cable and satellite tonight.” I didn’t have that facility, so I had to go next door, armed with a video tape, and with no idea what it was going to be like. Fortunately, my neighbours thought it was a bit of a laugh. It was, in fact, a Ridley Scott production, and it was introduced by Terence Stamp as part of series called The Hunger, which became a bit of a cult. It was beautifully filmed in Canada, and although they altered the ending the dialogue was word for word what I’d written. My first book, therefore, was for Black Lace, at Carolyn’s instigation. She was an absolute one-off. Her straight-to-the-point advice wasn’t always printable, as she did handle a huge variety of material in a number of different genres that required… let us say… a broad-minded approach.
Carolyn became a huge part of my life. Whether it was exploring glaciers in Iceland, celebrating with bubbly when one of her racehorses won, sitting glued to the seat with terror when she took me out in her speedboat or chilling out in her house in Yalikavak in Turkey she was the most enormous fun to be with. She said that her life had divided into sections. The first part had been very horsey indeed – I imagine her to have been an intrepid and competitive rider. We did go out once
together, in Turkey, which was the first time she’d been on a horse for over thirty years. The second part was after she married her cameraman husband Pat, who was ten years older than her and into motorboats, not horses. They spent their summers travelling round the Med in their boat, and were very happy. They didn’t have any children. The third part was after Pat died, in 2001, by which time she’d become a successful agent and escorted her authors to different parts of the world on their book tours. Although she missed him very much she got on with things, buying the house in Turkey which she’d visit every six weeks or so with a pile of manuscripts to read. She remained a Luddite to the day she died, refusing to use texts and avoiding emails as much as possible. The fourth part was when she discovered she had cancer. She fought it with more energy and determination than anyone else I’ve ever met, but as things became progressively more difficult she turned her attention to horseracing, and part-owned a number of horses. Going racing with Carolyn was always a delight – especially if her horse won!
She was a perceptive and ruthless editor. The greatest success she enabled me to have was with The Divide. Unusually, she didn’t read it all the way through. She simply said, “Get rid of the parents, and make it funnier.” And it was the scene where I got rid of the parents that probably sold it. It’s a fantasy in an alternative world, but just as here, kids want to be at the heart of the action. At that time Harry Potter had just reached the second book, and there were a lot of dead parents around. I needed to find a different way of achieving my objective. What I did was this:

The five of them had been standing in the yard, talking about the latest spell her father was testing. “It’s going to be a real winner,” he said. “Knits bones together and makes them as strong as stone. Lasts twenty years.”
As he spoke there was a rumbling sound from the top of the lane. They all looked round. The family cart was trundling down the slight incline, and gathering speed.
“You forgot to put the handbrake on again!” yelled Betony’s mother.
There was nothing anyone could do. As they watched, the cart passed the gate and hit a tree. The tree toppled across the well, and knocked the bucket from its hook. The bucket bounced across the yard, and dislodged a pile of logs. The logs rolled in all directions, and as Betony’s father tried to stop them he lost his footing and fell into the pond. When he climbed out, he was holding his arm and his face was creased with pain. “It’s broken,” he said.
"We’ll use the spell,” said Betony’s mother.
“But you haven’t tested it properly yet,” said Tansy. “And you haven’t worked out the counter-charm if it goes wrong.”
“It’ll be fine,” said Betony’s mother. She put her hand on her husband’s arm, and recited the incantation.
And as the three children watched, their parents turned to stone.
Ramson looked at Tansy, a horrified expression on his face. “What on earth do we do now? They’re going to stay like that for twenty years.”
“They’d look quite nice either side of the rope ladder,” said Tansy. “Garden furniture, you know?”

I owe Carolyn so much. She was thoughtful and generous and incredibly fair. I can’t quite believe I shall never pick up the phone again and hear, “Oh hi, it’s Carolyn.” I miss her more than I can say.



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