It's Lit: Literary Agent Emma Paterson Shares Her Reading List

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins
Welcome to It's Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who's reading what.
If you bump into literary agent Emma Paterson at Heathrow, you can be sure you won’t find any 2 for 1 bestsellers from WH Smith peeping out of her carry-on luggage. “When I’m on holiday I have a rule about not reading any contemporary books,” she explains. “It can be hard to stick to but I think it’s really important to remind yourself of titles that have endured for the last 20 years that you might not have read.”
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Paterson works at Rogers, Coleridge & White, representing literary novelists, journalists and writers of narrative nonfiction. Her clients include former It’s Lit interviewee Olivia Sudjic and Refinery29 contributor Amelia Abraham. “My list is probably about 60% fiction; I’m looking for a really strong voice, literary sensibility and international appeal,” says Paterson. She is committed to increasing diversity and inclusivity in the publishing industry and is primarily interested in "people who write about different places".
For the first It’s Lit of the new year, we visited Paterson at her west London home to talk page-turners, scouting new talent on Instagram, the titles to look out for in 2018 and the book she just can’t stop talking about.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins
What are you reading right now?
I’ve just started Call Me By Your Name because of the film, and I’m also re-reading the first collection by Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which is really incredible. I saw him read recently at the Forward Prizes and plucked up the courage to go and say something to him, which I don’t usually do because it often ends quite badly! It’s just one of those things where you realise when you get to the person, what do I actually have to say? Anyway, I think he’s really very special and according to his Instagram he’s working on book number four so I’m looking forward to whenever that comes out. I’m also planning to read Javier Marías’ backlist after reading A Heart So White over Christmas, which was one of the best novels I’ve read in years.
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Did you read a lot as a child?
I don’t remember – I have two half-brothers but I didn’t grow up with them so I was an only child and I don’t have any distinct memories other than what might have been told to me by my parents…but I think so? I imagine so. What I do remember is creating stories on my own; either written ones or quite long, involved storylines between my Barbies.
So there wasn’t a favourite book from that time?
I mean, I was obsessed with Roald Dahl books. All of them – especially The Witches. That’s the only childhood author I have any memory of. A lot of my early adult reading came from my dad’s book collection, he had lots of Penguin Modern Classics – I loved The Sound and the Fury – so I have quite a few of those that I’ve inherited from him. It’s kind of strange to have read The Sound and the Fury in my teens and not fully comprehended it but because it was on my dad’s shelves it informed a lot of my reading.
How do you decide what to read next?
I take advice from authors because they are often more ahead of the game than other people who work in the industry are. I usually find that the authors I represent have similar sensibilities to me when it comes to books; something they like is something I would at least have an interest in. So I’ll discover new authors that way and the other way is through the industry momentum around particular books.
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Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins
Where do you buy your books?
When I was in east London I used Burley Fisher a lot, which is this really nice, relatively new indie in Haggerston. I really like Foyles on Charing Cross Road too, it’s just really nice. My husband is American and so there’s a lot of bookshops in New York that I used to visit when he was living there that I feel quite sentimental about. I like Spoonbill in Brooklyn and McNally Jackson is really chic. I run our agency Instagram (@rcwliteraryagency) and when I go away I do this thing where I put up pictures of different bookshops around the world.
Do you ever find new authors via Instagram?
Yes, I do. Twitter may be a more obvious place but actually it depends on the publishing that you’re interested in. Lots of really interesting bloggers use both but you can say more in the Instagram captions than you can on Twitter so from an agent’s perspective you can see more of the story, I suppose.
When and where do you read?
Hmm, good question. My ideal is on a beach, at 5 o’clock in the evening when it’s the perfect level of heat. I don’t really read in bed that much… I like reading on the sofa, in the bath, on a commute. Now I don’t have a commute but if I’m going for a meeting or something then I’ll read on the bus. At my desk.
Have you ever been a member of a book club?
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Well, we have an agency book club but I haven’t been to it for the past six months. The challenge with that is that I don’t necessarily want to read a book someone else has chosen but also they set two books per book club, which I was teased about for finding a problem but I mean, come on!
Do you use a Kindle?
I do but only to read manuscripts. I wouldn’t read a published book on one; I like underlining and folding pages for particular sections. I know you can get really sophisticated Kindles now but I still like a book for that.
Is there a book you read habitually?
There’s a book that I think people are fed up of hearing me talk about because I mention it all the time and it’s really bleak. It’s called In the Cut. It’s a New York novel by Susanna Moore and I read it every six months. I read it for the first time about four years ago and I have maybe three or four editions of it, including a first edition which my boss got me for my birthday. I’m obsessed with it for different reasons but mainly because I read a lot of unpublished work that I don’t necessarily end up working with, and it can be hard to remember what you’re looking for. This book helps reset the bar; it’s the quality of the writing and how ruthless Moore is with her sentences. I recommend it to everyone and I keep insisting that they reissue it here with a new introduction; I have no professional involvement or vested interest in it, I just think it should be read more widely. There was also a time I was reading The Sound and the Fury a lot, to remind myself what ‘good writing’ is. Then there’s a few books I have several different editions of, including Beloved and The Virgin Suicides.
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Fact or fiction?
I tend to read more fiction but I do read a lot of long-form in The New Yorker and the New Republic and, actually, that’s often where I encounter a lot of new writers who aren’t yet represented. Oh, and one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read recently is On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss.
What about magazines?
I read The Atlantic and I used to read Sight and Sound a lot because I’m interested in film. For the first time in about 10 years I’m going to buy Dazed because Rihanna’s on the front cover. Plus the GQ with Armie Hammer and Timotheé Chalamet. That might be the first time I’ve been out and bought fashion magazines just for the covers!
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
Beloved – I would put that at the top – then The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis and the James Baldwin essays.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins
Is there a book you like to give as a gift?
It’s a book that I think you’d be hard-pressed not to love, or at least love the experience of reading it. It’s Half of a Yellow Sun. I just think everyone can find something in it, and the storytelling and characterisation is perfect – it’s page-turning.
Which books should we look out for in 2018?
At the risk of sounding completely self-serving, I’m excited about five authors I represent publishing their debuts this year. In order of publication: Chris Power’s short story collection, Mothers; Zing Tsjeng’s feminist book series Forgotten Women; Sharlene Teo’s first novel Ponti; Elaine Castillo’s debut novel America Is Not The Heart, and Season Butler’s debut novel Cygnet.
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Emma’s Reading List
Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
A Heart So White by Javier Marías
The Witches by Roald Dahl
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
In the Cut by Susanna Moore
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis
Collected Essays by James Baldwin
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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