Kate Johnson from the Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agency represents authors in both the US and the UK. Kate was previously an agent and Vice President at Georges Borchardt, Inc. She has edited and reported at StoryQuarterly, Bookslut.com, New York magazine, and elsewhere, and graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Her authors have won the PEN Faulkner Award, Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, Whiting Award, Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize for Fiction, National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, Whitbread Award, the Nigeria Prize for Literature, and have been longlisted for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the PEN Open Book Award. Kate regularly visits literary festivals, courses, and events, and has chaired the judging panel for the Bristol Short Story Prize.
Kate represents literary and upmarket / book club fiction as well as a range of narrative nonfiction, with interest in food, running, feminism, obsessives, unconventional families, social history, art, travel and international stories, mental health, medicine, and the environment. She loves working with journalists. Across all her projects, she looks for authentic voices and books that uncover something off-kilter in the everyday, or conversely something relatable in the extraordinary. Kate handles contemporary, realistic YA on occasion.
Interview with Jude
- In the description of what sort of manuscripts you are looking for in submissions you say you would particularly like to see “authentic voices and books that uncover something off-kilter in the everyday, or conversely something relatable in the extraordinary”. Would you say these are the type of short stories you also like to read
Absolutely: I love quiet heroes and settings and situations that look a bit askew at what we take for granted. Shirley Jackson is brilliant at this, taking simple domestic dilemmas – the new neighbours next door, say – and using them to shine a light on our consistently odd behaviour.
- What books you have taken on that demonstrate this type of authentic voice?
Patty Yumi Cottrell’s ebullient and strange novel Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s mischievous Call Me Zebra, and Jan Carson’s fizzing, gritty The Fire Starters are three recent novels that just would not have been the same story in anyone else’s hands. These writers are utterly assured in their own voices, and this lets a reader trust them (even if you don’t always trust the narrator!) to take the stories to bizarre and ultimately enlightening places. I’ve also recently started working with the writer Chloe Wilson, who was on the 2019 Bath Short Story Prize shortlist and is published in the 2010 BSSA anthology. I find her voice so enchanting, even as the stories are occasionally, delightfully, quite horrifying.
- Your agency represents both UK and US authors. Do you think the US voice and the UK voice is distinctly different in fiction?
I can think of exceptions to every attempt at pinning down an American or British voice, but perhaps the outlets for certain kinds of voices are different: there seems to be more risk-taking in America, and more of a short story community, and so this inevitably encourages more experimentation. But there are so many new publishers and literary journals popping up in the UK and Ireland that are hungry for fresh new things, literature is becoming more and more a global conversation (with much more work to be done on that front!
- Can you recommend a few of your authors’ books for readers to buy?
- Oh, dear, this is like choosing a favorite child, so I’ll stick with story collections: Sam Allingham’s The Great American Songbook; Tania Hershman’s Some of Us Glow More Than Others; Bryan Hurt’s Starcherone Prize-winning Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France; Hasanthika Sirisena’s The Other One and Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late
- As an agent, do you accept submissions of short story collections? And do you think the publishing market is changing with regard to short fiction?
I do, and I also think there’s more openness to short fiction in the publishing market these days. Having said that, it remains a harder sell than longer fiction, and helps if the author also has a novel in the works (but sometimes novel-writing and story-writing are different skill sets, and not everyone can do both). It also helps to have a common theme in the collection: Chika Unigwe’s Better Never Than Late, for instance, centers around the same Nigerian immigrant community living in Belgium.
- You have been the Chair of the Bristol Prize for the last two years and must be steeped in the short story world. Has this immersion brought you any new thoughts about short fiction?
I continue to be awed by what can be achieved — especially in terms of creating character and empathy — in just a few thousand words. Judging the prize has also taught me a little more about what I personally like and value in short fiction: especially when reading so many all together, I respond more to surprise and innovation than a perfectly executed but well-trodden narrative. Those are the stories that linger.
- The word limit for our Award is 2200 words. What do you think writers should pay most attention to in writing to this length?
I use the word “efficient” an awful lot when describing a good story. If you can get across a character, a setting, and an arc in 2,200 words or less, that is a true achievement. And that short word count gives you an opportunity to develop a voice — giving us a real sense of the storyteller’s point of view — and run with it, rather than just letting those words act as delivery vehicle for plot.