We’re delighted that Norah Perkins from Curtis Brown has agreed to be our 2021 judge. She will select the winning entries from our 20 shortlisted stories.Norah’s interviewed below by BSSA team member, Alison Woodhouse and tells us more about her wide experience in publishing, judging awards and developing opportunities for writers. She likes simplicity in stories and also offers a very useful quote from writer George Saunders which indicates what she is looking for in winning entries: “A work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them.”
- You joined Curtis Brown from Canongate Books, so have moved from working for a book publisher to becoming a literary agent. Can you tell us how the two roles are different and what you enjoy about your current job?
I was a managing editor at Canongate, which is really more of a liaison role between the editorial and the production departments. I think I made the move over to agenting partly because I felt as though I wanted to get closer to the actual writing process for a while, rather than focus on the book as a physical, visual thing. I still miss the sense of a being part of a whole brilliant team of people working together to make a book, and of unpacking a box from the printers and holding a book for the first time. But then as an agent you often are the very first person to ever read someone’s writing, and that is the greatest honour imaginable. Nowadays I work with books that have, mostly, been read and published for many years, but it’s a great thrill to see a new edition, and to think of all the lucky people who will get to read that book for the first time, as though it were new. And of course it is, to them.
- You mostly manage Literary Estates for a wide range of authors, from Vita Sackville-West to Douglas Adams. Does this mean your own reading tastes are equally eclectic?
I grew up foraging in my parents’ wildly eclectic bookshelves, and I’ve always read absolutely everything I could get my hands on. One of the great joys of our Heritage list at Curtis Brown is that is so wide-ranging, in era and in genre, fiction and non-fiction, and that it reflects the expertise and passion of generations of agents at CB over the past 120-odd years. I should say that in some crucial ways it is not hugely diverse, and that is something we’re very aware of and are working to improve.
- You do represent a small number of living authors. What are you looking for in a submission?
Although I earn my keep managing the Heritage list, I have been lucky enough to take on some living writers – but it’s very rare now. However, I’m always tempted by writers with a distinct, rich voice and an unusual approach to the world. I love complex relationships, sharp social observation, vivid historical settings, timeslips and (subtle) magic.
- At Curtis Brown, you helped set up the Discoveries Writers’ Development Programme in Association with the Women’s Prize and Natwest. Could you tell us a little bit more about this?
I was so proud to work with an incredible group of colleagues to set up the Curtis Brown First Novel Prize in 2019, which was created to support and to champion emerging writers. We had an extraordinary number of entries last year and were blown away by the talent that emerged. The Women’s Prize Trust approached us to partner with them this year, building on our founding principles of regionality, inclusivity and accessibility to create Discoveries, which celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize and seeks unpublished emerging writers of any age and of any background from all across the UK and Ireland. Discoveries is open for entry now up until the 17th January 2021: https://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/womens-prize-discoveries-2020/
- You are a judge for the HWA Dorothy Dunnett short story competition. What do you like, in particular, about historical fiction?
I love the way historical fiction brings the whole of humanity into close proximity to one another, across time and place. I particularly love stories that play with the form in radical and challenging ways – I’m thinking of books like Maaza Mengiste’s THE SHADOW KING, Hilary Mantel’s A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY, Rumer Godden’s CHINA COURT. I also love Norah Lofts’s Suffolk trilogy, which is on the more traditional side of historical fiction: a complex family history told through the microcosm of one building, throughout the centuries – so clever. I’m really not as interested in the knights and crusaders and swashbuckling stuff, tbh…
- You are an active part of the Curtis Brown Creative Writing School and are listed as one of the tutors. Do many of your students write short stories and do you think the publishing world is keen to see more story collections?
I meet with our Curtis Brown Creative students in the context of their work on their novels, so that’s the focus for our conversations. I think most writers try their hands at short stories at some point? But it’s a very different form. Many of my favourite writers are short story writers first and foremost – Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Alice Munro, Ted Chiang, Carmen Maria Machado, Elizabeth Bowen, Kelly Link… While it is true that it’s harder to get a story collection published, it’s definitely not impossible. But they’ve got to be damn good.
- Finally, our prize has a 2200 word limit. What advice do you have for authors tackling stories of that length?
I guess there are as many kinds of short stories – from a handful of words to novella-length – as there are writers, and everyone is going to have their own approach. But I have some thoughts about it – definitely not my own but gleaned from listening to some brilliant authors talk about writing stories over the years. One is that a story, however short, needs a beginning, a journey, a climax or twist, an ending. George Saunders is one of the best describers of the writing process that I know, and he wrote a wonderful piece about process. I loved his line: ‘A work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them.’ I think that kind of gets at my point above.
I also think: simplicity. You’ve not got much space to play with, and I think that the more focussed, the more outwardly simple a short story is, the more ideas it – conversely – can contain. Don’t try to fit a novel into a story – if you find yourself with too much, write five different stories (I love interlinking stories). Or, you know, a novel.