Laura Williams is agent to Jem Lester, author of the fabulous ‘Shtum’ (which I review here). In this guest post she explains what drew her to the novel.
Almost three years ago to the day I’m writing this, I went to one of City University’s City Nights readings. A monthly event above a pub in Clerkenwell, students on the university’s novel writing MA course read a chosen section of their work to friends, family, coursemates, tutors, and the odd agent looking for new talent. In 2013, I was an assistant at PFD, attending the event to scope out the submissions we’d be receiving in the summer as part of a prize we sponsor for the course. Each year we receive manuscripts of the final year students’ work, and the author we think has the most promise is given representation by the agency. So, I was there to get a jump on what we’d be reading that summer.
Three years later, I’m an agent at PFD representing my own clients. I’ve been to dozens of creative writing readings, and I’ve heard hundreds of students read their work. I don’t remember any as vividly as I remember Jem Lester reading the opening of Shtum on that rainy night in Clerkenwell.
When Jem started reading, I only knew it was a novel about a boy with autism. The book starts with an everyday scene in the lives of Ben and Emma and their ten-year-old non-verbal autistic son, Jonah. Ben and Emma’s morning ritual of bathing, changing and feeding Jonah, terrified to take their eyes off him for a moment unless he destroys the kitchen in his quest for ice cream, as happens in the opening of the book, leave his parents exhausted and despairing that anything will ever get better for them, or Jonah will ever get the support he needs. In an email I sent Jem the next day, I described his extract as “bruisingly raw, open and honest”, but it was also hilarious in its unflinching look at the realities of raising an autistic child.
I spend most of my time at my desk, reading manuscripts, figuring out my own feelings about a project. Readings are wonderful, because when I laughed at Jonah’s obliviousness to his own disastrous exploits, or when my breath caught when Emma broke down, I was so aware of the roomful of people in this pub in Clerkenwell feeling the same way, doing the same things. It was a first hint of the emotional impact that Shtum would later have on readers of the book, and I knew as soon as I heard that first few pages that it was something special.
Jonathan Myerson, who runs the novel writing course at City, gave me Jem’s contact details, and I emailed him the next day to tell him how special I thought the book could be. Jem told me what a morale booster that was, while he was finishing the first draft of the manuscript. A few months later, Jem was unanimously crowned the winner of the PFD/City prize for that year. By that time, I had been promoted and was starting to take on my own clients, and I was thrilled to start working with Jem editorially.
Two years after I first met Jem, I sold the book to Jemima Forrester at Orion, who has been an incredible champion for the book. The amazing team at Orion fell in love with the book the same way I did. Now, a year on from the deal, the book is about to be published. Shtum has grown from a few words read to a handful of people, to a book that even before publication has captured the hearts and minds of hundreds of readers. It’s been a privilege.
A couple of weeks ago, author, editor and agent went to listen to the audiobook of Shtum being recorded. Sitting in the recording studio, headphones on, listening to Jem’s characters come to life in a brand new way, while Jem himself sat there, mouth open, it felt like it had all come full circle. For a book about communicating through silence as much as through speaking, I couldn’t be happier that Jem gave voice to this story on that rainy night in Clerkenwell three years ago.
This post opens the Shtum Blog Tour. Other stops are detailed on the banner above, do check them out.