Like our workshop, these faculty interviews focus on youth novels. To read all years’ faculty interviews, see our Directory.
If you have lovingly and painstakingly crafted a novel, few rewards rank higher than that of attracting a dream agent—one who will champion and eventually sell your book. Our faculty agent Fiona Kenshole offers top-notch representation to talented writers. Fiona brings with her an impressive film background, preceded by a 20-year career in editing—an asset for any agent, as well as for his or her clients.
In the UK, Fiona was Publishing Director at Oxford University Press Children’s Books. As Publishing Director at Hodder Children’s Books (UK arm of Little, Brown), her team developed a list that included David Almond’s Skellig. Fiona was nominated for Editor of the Year at the British Book Awards. Her authors have won or been nominated for every major British children’s literary award; several books have become million-copy bestsellers.
In the US, Fiona was Editorial Director at HarperCollins, where she published prize-winning authors such as Cynthia Voight and Lois Lowry (including Lowry’s The Giver). Later, as a film executive, Fiona acquired and adapted children’s books and original scripts into movies, including the Academy-nominated “Coraline” and “Paranorman.”
In the past year, Fiona made a transition to literary agent and is delighted to find new talent. She is a lively speaker who genuinely enjoys working with writers. Bring your polished opening chapters or full novel to our October seminar; we look forward to introducing you to Fiona!
I. GENERAL TOPICS
Why did you become an agent; what do you enjoy most about the work? What’s your personal (and agency’s) philosophy or mission?
I became an agent because right now, it is a really interesting time in the development of managing a writer’s career. With the growth of digital and multi-media platforms, and self-publishing alongside the more traditional models of reaching readers, the agent’s role has become more and more critical. After a career that covered many different aspects of children’s books—publishing, book-selling, feature film development, book festival event management—I felt I had at last learned enough to be an effective agent.
I love working with writers to bring out their best so the work they produce is the best it can possibly be, and taking it to as wide an international audience as possible.
Which genres are you soliciting in novels? Will you represent controversial and/or crossover genres (e.g., New Adult fiction)?
I am especially keen to find contemporary stories told with humor; animal stories; coming-of-age realistic stories; real children in imaginary worlds... [as well as] middle grade books for readers ages 8 to 11, which will turn them into lifelong readers. I am thinking of Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Charlotte’s Web, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians; looking for 21st century equivalents.
I am not currently interested in vampires, fallen angels or zombies,… inspirational texts, rhyming texts, short stories, poems, or educational work. Books that inspire me [include] A Wrinkle in Time, The Incredible Journey and Roald Dahl’s work. I have a small list of illustrators for picture books and graphic novels.
What’s the outlook on YA novel trends—or is YA evolving past trends?
Genres will always be part of YA publishing, but the retailers have some ennui over paranormal and dystopian stories, which they are feeding back to the publishers. Myself, I love a good romance. It will always be part of YA!
Your illustrious editing career precedes your transition to agenting. Name three novels you’ve edited/published. What makes them memorable?
1) The Dancing Bear by Michael Morpurgo (UK Children's Laureate, writer of War Horse). Exceptionally lyrical voice and powerful subject matter for a middle grade novel. We worked on it very closely as the original script was from quite an adult perspective, which was revised to give a younger POV. The first chapter was actually cut!
2) Skellig by David Almond. This debut children’s novel was acquired by an exceptional young editor, Isabel Boissier, who worked for me at what is now Hachette Children's Books. It became an instant classic. Unforgettable writing—grabs you from the first page.
3) The Stones Are Hatching by Geraldine McCaughrean. Geraldine is an extraordinarily accomplished writer whose books are loved by those who know them. She deserves to be more widely known. Every book she writes is totally different from the one before. She’s a superb storyteller.
Queries, Craft, Critiques
Many agencies are closed to unsolicited submissions. Do you consider unsolicited queries; i.e., those without a referral (not a workshop attendee, etc.)? What are your usual response times—to queries and to requested manuscripts?
I read all unsolicited submissions. My response time varies depending on workload. Usually 8 to 10 weeks. Due to the volume I receive, I only reply to submissions being actively considered.
Are query letters peripheral for you, or are they an important reflection on the author and manuscript? What makes a query irresistible to you—or not?
I go straight to the [manuscript]. That is what I am judging. Nothing is more frustrating than a great query letter with an unexciting manuscript. That said, a good query letter is more evidence you can write. I also love having tidbits that can help me sell the book—if you have won a Pulitzer prize, or are the granddaughter of Charles Dickens (both things from actual queries), I would like to know.
How many pages do you usually read in a manuscript before deciding to continue reading, request a full, or reject the manuscript?
I read until the manuscript stops holding my attention, in exactly the same way any reader reads a new book. If I read to the end and love it, I will request a full, and if I love that, I will request more work. If it has promise, I will send critique suggestions. If it doesn’t grab me, I reject.