Exactly 15 years ago, on February 21 1999, I read a piece in the Guardian by the author Jenny Colgan about how she had secured a £1 million book deal. She spoke at length about her agent, Ali Gunn, who she described as “blonde, glamorous and completely terrifying”. I was 29 and had not long before completed my first novel, an urban fantasy sort of thing called Hinterland, and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I’d rather randomly sent it off to a couple of publishing companies but not had much in the way of a response.
So I sat down and wrote a letter to Ali Gunn. I don’t have the letter but I can remember it well. “Hello,” I wrote. “I read all about you in the Guardian. I have just finished a novel and would also like a million pounds, please.” I packaged it up with three chapters and a synopsis, went to the library to find a copy of the Artist’s and Writer’s Yearbook to get the address of Ali Gunn’s then employers, the agency Curtis Brown, and sent it off.
Yes, I was pretty naive. I think I’d only just got my first PC not long before, and with it the wonders of dial-up internet. It was a simpler time for the aspiring author, when you sent off your three chapters and an stamped, self-addressed envelope and waited three months for it to plop back on the doormat with a form rejection. There was no following editors or agents on Twitter, not much chance of emailing people in publishing directly. It was what it was, and it took a long time. So I thought nothing more about it.
Until, one day at work (I was on the newsdesk of a local paper in Lancashire) I got a phone call. It was Ali Gunn. “Hello,” she said, cutting to the chase in a no-nonsense sort of way. “I’ve read the three chapters of Hinterland. Can you send me the rest straight away?”
Somewhat gibbering with excitement, I did. It was probably another three months – by which time my enthusiasm had waned and I’d forgotten all about it – that she called me back. “I like it,” she said.
“Um, what exactly does that mean?” I wondered, having no experience with literary agents.
Ali Gunn was very patient, as though explaining to a small child how to assemble a tower of blocks. “I am going to meet with editors and tell them about your book and why I think they should publish it. I am going to tell them that I think this could be marketed as a sort of contemporary blockbuster novel.”
I was silent for a moment, then said, “So I should get some champagne?”
“Not yet. Well, maybe, but don’t open it yet.” Ali asked me to send her seven copies of the completed manuscript and set me some homework. “Go and read One Of Us by Michael Marshall Smith. I’ll call back.”
So I ordered the book from Waterstones and went into work one Sunday to give the office photocopier some hammer. I sent off a crucifyingly heavy box of paper and sat down to read One Of Us. A few weeks later Ali called again. “Did you read it? What did you think? I’m going to pitch it as being on the same lines.”
Eventually I got what was to be my final phone call from Ali. “I’m afraid I couldn’t get anyone to share my enthusiasm about this book,” she said in a tone of voice that suggested this wasn’t what she was used to.
“Oh.” I said. “What should I do, then?”
“Keep at it,” she said.
And that was my involvement with Ali Gunn. I never met her in person and never had much contact with her again after that. I’m not really the ideal person to mark her passing – she represented a raft of highly successful authors all of whom are far more eligible than me to pass comment. But my brief encounter with Ali actually gave me some self-belief as a writer. Hinterland was eventually published by a small press, garnered some great reviews but sold next to no copies, and slipped out of print a year or so ago. I now have a wonderful agent in John Jarrold, and have started my publishing career in earnest. But my first brush with the proper world of publishing also gave me the best bit of advice any writer needs, and it’s this: Keep at it.