Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Conversation with Heather Flaherty

As we transition out of last month's topic, Conferences, we're bringing you another new feature that you can expect to see on the blog regularly – an interview with one of the TBA agents.  We're starting with Heather Flaherty, who joined the agency earlier this year.  We had a couple questions we were dying to ask about Heather's previous work as a scout, her favorite movies, her dog, and... well, you'll see.  If you read on, you'll understand how happy we all are that Heather's now part of the TBA team.  She's the bee's knees!  More on what she's looking for here and here.  And now for the questions...

In your bio, you mention that you started working in NYC as a playwright!  I’m fascinated!  What can you tell us about that?  Did you perform as well?  Were some of your plays produced? 
Yes! I did. It’s actually what lead me to writing novels, which led me to publishing! I will always appreciate my playwright beginnings for the solid handle on dialogue they gave me. And yes, I did have a couple produced – one was even off-Broadway (literally, not technically… lol!) And—this is something I have kept to myself for a very long time, but—yes, I did perform. I even had an agent here in NYC. 

You also mention some country-hopping, which sounds very fun.  Where did you go?  I guess you lived the longest in London; anywhere else you stayed for a while?  Any place you can imagine another life in, Sliding Doors style? 
I have so many sliding door fantasies! I’d visited a lot of places when I was in my teens, thanks to my folks. But my first independent move was when I was 21: I moved to the west coast of Ireland and worked as a pony trekking guide in Connemara (I know, right?). I spent some time with the Irish boy I was dating when I was there, then moved back to New England and married him. We then moved to London, because at the time I was like, “What the hell! We need to do that because we CAN!” Then we moved to California, again for the same reason. I feel like in our younger years we were constantly searching for the place to make our lives better, or perfect, instead of looking within ourselves. We moved back to England again, to Bath and the West Country for a bunch of years… it was beautiful. Then after a year or so in North Carolina, which was super fun, we put roots down in NYC so I could ramp up my career.

Some folks might not know what a scout does.  Can you explain?  Can you tell us about some exciting books you read/were involved in as a scout?
Oooo… the mysteries of scouting revealed! Dun dundun! Okay, so scouts are hired by Hollywood and foreign publishers as sort-of consultants to advise them what upcoming books they should be buying for filming and publishing. They ALWAYS want to know scouts’ predictions for the biggest books (which they compete with other similar companies with scouts for), but also they have specific tastes themselves for smaller books that we have to keep an eye out for. Basically, scouts act as a filter, cutting down the mass numbers of books out there, to a smaller amount they should consider for their own particular lists. And… we also try to have inside knowledge of the bigger books, books being positioned as lead titles, books set to go viral, and especially books recently sold and being produced for film – we try to keep our clients ahead of their competition. To do this, we of course read like crazy, read super fast, get everything we possibly can as early as humanly possible, and of course keep an ear in Hollywood to know what’s recently been bought for film adaptation. 

The most exciting books for me were those I was able to directly help my clients acquire, like All The Bright Places, An Ember In The Ashes, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, A Study In Charlotte, Riders, and The Walls Around Us.

People are always curious about trends.  Scouting likely gave you a great sense of that.  What can you tell us about trends in YA and MG? Elsewhere in books? 
Trends are funny and complicated, some are decade-long waves that go in and out of popularity forever… I kid you not, come 2030, we’ll be craving our vampires again! Others come and go quicker than we expected due to UTTER saturation (hello dystopian!). And there are those trends that are forever, they just gain and lose in popularity through the years like Christmas-cookie weight – i.e., YA contemporary.  Right now, the trending I find most interesting isn’t in genre, it’s in audience age-range. Kids are reading above their proposed ranges, and expecting far more mature themes and topics. Middle-graders are expecting more grit in their reading, and even some darkness, something they can relate to, because they’re growing up way quicker each year. That’s not to say that a cute, fun adventure story is no longer valid; it’s to say that those books need a little more oomph in general.

Before becoming an agent, I marketed children’s books, so that’s a lens that I look through as I consider new projects and building a client’s career.  How does being a scout inform your approach to agenting?
Scouting takes into consideration every part of the business: the house and imprint who bought the initial book, how they bought it (auction, pre-empt, etc.), sale price, list-position, marketing backing, foreign territory sales and position, film interest, where it lies inside or outside the current trend, how the acquiring house will treat their next books and that author, what the future trends will be, cultural mirror/impact, and generally how books fair against one another… and so much more I'm leaving out. I feel all these aspects of being a scout mirror being an agent. The difference is, a scout banks on a book for a moment in time, whereas an agent banks on an author for the indeterminable future. (Generally speaking, of course).

What's your dream project to find?  What are you really hungry for, as an agent?
I’m looking for a lot right now. My wishlist basically changes daily with my mood. But right now, the thing I find I’m most yearning for, is excellent YA contemporary with a very specific character voice, dealing with teen issues – these issues don’t have to be extreme, they can be normal high-school BS, because frankly, those are extreme as it is. Especially when you’re there.

You're building your client list, and have taken on your first writers.  What can you tell us about their projects? 
They’re so awesome… and varied. MG and YA contemporary, magical realism, fantasy, gothic horror, period, and uber pop-cult, to name just a few. I am insanely excited and grateful for such talented people to have saddled up with me. 

Finally, can you tell us about some of your favorite books, authors and movies?  Is there a book that made you want to work in publishing? 
Ahhh… Best. Question. Ever.  So… I’d been knee-deep in classics for FOREVER, especially when I was on the grad-school track. I remember looking in a tiny bookstore’s window one day while passing through a crookedy old town and seeing this amazing cover… all black with what looked like Snow-White’s hands offering a red apple. And it hit me: I don’t read enough popular fiction. Hell, I don’t read ANY popular fiction. So I bought it, and fell in love with YA right then and there. Yup, Twilight was in fact the book that introduced me to YA… and for that I will always appreciate it. Other nostalgic faves: 13 Reasons Why, Before I Fall, The Hunger Games, Mortal Instruments, Maximum Ride, The Maze Runner, Divergent, all of Roald Dahl, The Book Thief, The Mists Of Avalon, Jane Eyre, and Watership Down (I have always loved those damn bunnies).

But I have to say… there’s some remarkable stuff coming out next year that have already trumped my faves… sadly, I can’t talk about those!  

Movies!  Oh God, movies shaped me, and I still struggle with the fact that life is not like them. Goonies has to be my #1 all-time favorite. Otherwise, The Secret of NIMH, The Last Unicorn, all animated movies ever, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Legend, Star Wars (the oldies), Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow... I also was a big gamer (and still am) – I love how far the industry has come, these games have become interactive movies basically, on an epic scale!

What’s on the bedside reading table?
Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke.

If you weren’t an agent, or involved in books at all, what would you be?  I think there’s a secret opera singer in me somewhere….
Looks like we got a karaoke night in front of us, Susan. I’d be a large animal vet.

Ok, true confessions time…please tell us five silly or unusual things about yourself!

  • I wish my love of bluegrass music came from something deeper than seeing the movie O Brother Where Art Thou.
  • I secretly dream of being a sheepherder, in like 1430. Then I think of toilets and gender equality.
  • I’m a gamer, favoring RPGs because I truly live vicariously through my little person running around on the screen. Escapism much?
  • Sometimes I listen to Gregorian chant in the morning, and pretend I’m in a medieval church.
  • This is my dog on his birthday…  yes. I did that to him. I’m THAT person.

And finally, if you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?
Allie Brosh. Love her. Love her sense of humor, her experiential way of writing/blogging, and her inward struggles.