I would like to meet a literary agent for a face-to face discussion. I’ve never met one. I’ve corresponded with dozens of literary agents, some of whom have even been kind enough to send me brief notes of refusal. Therefore, when I saw the obituary of David Miller, literary agent, who died, aged 50, on December 30 last year, I had to read it. What sort of person was he? Would I have gotten on with him? More importantly, would he have liked my books?
My pre-conceived notion of the ‘standard personality’ of a literary agent is: a slightly unattractive, introverted, intelligent, sensitive, artistic person with an emotional intelligence approaching zero. I would expect him or her to look up from a cluttered desk, behind which the shades are drawn, peer at me over half-moon spectacles, and inquire, “Yes?”
Having read the obituary of David Miller that appeared in the Daily Telegraph two days ago, I have concluded that my ‘literary agent standard personality’ is – at least in David Miller’s case, pretty far off target.
The obituary says: “The son of a chartered surveyor, David Miller was born in Edinburgh on February 6, 1966, and educated at King’s School Canterbury, and at Girton College, Cambridge, where he read theology. After a short spell at a City recruitment consultancy, where he learned his formidable telephone-bashing skills, Miller joined the literary agency Rogers, Coleridge & White in 1990. One of the many ways in which the agency bucked tradition was to hire a succession of presentable young men to take calls and occupy the front desk. Miller, in his slender, younger days, equipped with a matinee-idol forelock and an expression that was somehow both sardonic and guileless, fitted the bill perfectly.
“He quickly became an agent, and set about building a stable of authors. His first client was the Booker-shortlisted novelist Nicola Barker. She later described him as ‘too wayward and funny and complex either for fiction or for real life. An absolute one-off.’ Some (of his clients) enjoyed considerable sales, notably Victoria Hislop, but Miller had the rare gift of seeming to care about money neither too much, nor too little. And if this was something of an act – posthumous revelations about him having one phone for his ‘wonga’ clients and one for the rest would have pricked several authors’ amour propre – it was a useful and educational one.
“Business was generally conducted over lunch. Miller would arrive all of a kerfuffle, like the White Rabbit. His personal style had evolved into a rather Doctor Who-ish blend of elegance and scruff _ moleskin, swirling scarves, on occasion even a fedora hat – a certain clerical sleekness combined with a tangible air of mischief, he would . . . after a rapid gossip download, produce a book proposal or a chunk of manuscript, marked up with a proper fountain pen. In the conviviality of what ensued, at the end of which authors would find themselves deposited on a pavement somewhere in west London, the late afternoon sunshine stinging their eyes, it was easy to overlook the rigour that Miller had brought to the preceding couple of hours.
“Ferdinand Mount writes: ‘David Miller wasn’t just and agent, he was a personal battery charger. Just to hear his thrilling stage whisper over the phone or to see him bounce round the corner in a huge jersey too heavy for the time of year with a bundle of manuscripts under his arm set you up for the day. He always knew how to persuade you to write a book you hadn’t particularly thought of writing, or how to rewrite it when it didn’t work, because he knew more about books than any publisher and himself wrote better than most of his clients. . . . He was fearless, unquenchable and the kindest man you could ever hope to meet.'”
I would say that David Miller was attractive, extroverted, intelligent, brash, artistic, with a sky-high emotional intelligence. I would have loved to have lunch with him even if he turned down my book proposal!