Applications are currently open for under-represented writers in London to receive feedback on their creative work from literary agent Samar Hammam at Rocking Chair Books. We spoke to Samar to find out a bit more about what she does, what she’s looking for and how you can make your submission shine…
Hi Samar! Can you start by telling us a bit about how your journey towards becoming a literary agent began please – when did you know this was the right career for you?
Hello to you too! It feels like so long ago now…how it all began. I had initially started working in banks in New York, which I never enjoyed, but there was a culture of prestige and money associated, so it was very hard to let go. But eventually I managed, and spent a year in Colorado, clearing my head, working odd jobs, going on road trips, but mostly reading a lot. I settled on publishing as a career one afternoon, feeling the gravel of a book jacket between my hands, the silky pages shuffling between my fingers, and I had this low-key epiphany that this strange object came from somewhere. And that was pretty much it. The answer – book publishing.
I started as a book scout in New York, which was dynamic and fun, then moved to Toby Eady Associates, a literary agency in London where I became a Director. Those years are probably my best memories in publishing, of getting into the bones of the work, but also being shielded by Toby’s vision and legacy. It was a great mix of exciting and comfortable. In 2013 I started Rocking Chair Books Literary Agency to drop that shield, let it all go again, and get back on the road with as little as I could to carry, and see where the next part of this journey would lead, what questions might come up, and what answers I might find. And I’m so glad I did!
New York – wow! How different is the publishing process stateside?
The process is pretty much the same as in London in terms of how the business works; acquisitions, negotiations, contracts etc. Probably the biggest difference is that New York can feel a bit more high-powered than in London.
What kind of books does your Rocking Chair Books represent and how would you describe your production list?
Well, the agency motto is ‘dedicated to original and page-turning books’. So I love original stories that work for a wide audience, and I work across genres. I’ve done commercial women’s, upmarket, gift books, narrative non-fiction and literary titles. Something stunning and accessible: I’m open to what that might be. The list is small but growing and I work carefully, slowly, and personally. I’ve had a chance to meet people from all walks of life and backgrounds who challenge me daily. I’ve worked on projects like the visual album Lemonade with Warsan Shire, which couldn’t have been more magical. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Mike Medaglia’s One Year Wiser grow from being a Gift Book to a Colouring Book and to a Gratitude Journal that I get to fill out every evening. I’ve made Stinging Nettle Tempura and Jasmine Gelato from The Edible City. I’ve driven backwards down a tunnel in Lebanon to experience how tough one of the characters in Beirut, I Love You had to be when she did it at gunpoint, and enjoyed chocolate boxes from the brilliant Valentine’s Day campaign for Amita Murray’s inter-cultural romantic comedy The Trouble With Rose.
I’m open to submissions and ideas and will be led by your voices. You know where you’re from, you know your own stories, and you know the most honest and powerful ways to present them. I really feel that these are transformative times. We’ll blink and voices and talent, their agents and publishers will come from everywhere – every colour background and continent. So I’m excited to be here for that, and more specifically excited to be considering your submissions.
What would you describe as the best and worst aspects of being a literary agent?
Haha! This is a great question. Ok. So, worst first. It’s not an even job. You’re sometimes selling and sometimes not, so you have to adjust the business model and your endorphins to this process. Also, running a Business means a lot of admin work that siphons time away from developing and selling and is never glamorous. It’s also probably why I’m writing such long responses, in order to avoid looking at the ledgers for as long as possible…!
On the best part of being a literary agent – I get to do what I love and what compels me.
You’ve offered to give six London-based writers the opportunity to receive feedback on their creative work – what kind of work are you looking for specifically? Which submissions do you think will catch your eye?
When you read a great book, you’re just sitting down quietly, in your mom’s old rocking chair maybe, but every part of you, every molecule, is somewhere else. You’re time-travelling, space-travelling, soul-travelling somewhere, which makes it impossible to come back quite the same. You’re rearranged. This is the kind of work I’m looking for. We all know it’s a trick. It’s done with smoke and mirrors and is actually quite a technical, painstaking, and long process. (hook – does it grab/voice – is it distinct/character – are they relatable /narrative – does it move/etc.) But when it works, you’re no longer in that rocking chair, you’re away, in a different world, listening, feeling and experiencing. So I guess I’m looking for work that doesn’t let you go. Not when you’re reading, and not when you’re finished either.
For aspiring writers out there, what can they do to make their submission shine?
A few of the things that I might look out for (but not so mechanically): Does the voice have character to it, is there a compelling and clear hook that is driving the plot forward, are the characters relatable? One tip to achieve these things is to be the reader. Put your work aside for a bit, then read it from beginning to end without editing, and ask yourself if it shines before asking someone else. Also, ask someone else, but someone who is invested enough to tell you the truth.
The deadline to apply for this opportunity with Rocking Chair Books is 11:59pm on Tuesday 30 April 2019.
Samar Hammam founded Rocking Chair Books Literary Agency in 2013 after six years as a Director at Toby Eady Associates. Prior to that she worked as a literary scout in New York City for Linda Clark Associates. She is a primary agent, but works with other agencies to represent their rights in translation. She lives in London with her fella and two kids.