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 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
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.