Freya Berry on the Art of Pitching and Perseverance – Jericho Writers
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Freya Berry on the Art of Pitching and Perseverance

Freya Berry on the Art of Pitching and Perseverance

We were thrilled to chat to author Freya Berry about her second book, The Birdcage Library, and hear all about how she quit her job to write her first book and how she ended up meeting her agent at our Festival of Writing.

Thank you so much for catching up with us, in midst of what we expect is a very busy time for you.

I sort of been recovering since The Birdcage Library came out on the 22nd (June), and I’ve just been trying to lie down in a dark room. I always feel like publishing a book is slightly like a slow motion nervous breakdown, so it’s nice to be sort of blinking in the daylight again. And yeah, getting back to my normal life and thinking about book three.

After your well-deserved rest, what is next on the horizon?

So I had to book contracts with The Dictator’s Wife and the and The Birdcage Library, I’m sort of coming out of that for the first time since my career started. I’ve got the idea for the third book, which I’ve been working out with my agent, and next it’ll be taking it to my editor and seeing what she thinks and all that absolutely not nerve wracking stuff.

Can you tell me a little bit about how your first book came about?

So I used to work in journalism and now I think I really love taking fact and making that into fiction. The Birdcage Library is based on real life people, real life animal dealers who lived in New York in the Gilded Age and the Dictator’s Wife is very much based on real life dictator’s wives and those kind of people. So, I was working in journalism and realized that wasn’t for me. I preferred making stuff up (to a point).

So, I gave myself a year to write a book. I had been working in journalism for about four years and I spent a year and a half of that writing a first novel, which was terrible. I’ve never gotten back to it. But I think it was a good way to understand what the process involves, at least. I sent that novel out to a few agents not really knowing what I was doing and I got some feedback which was really helpful. It kind of made me understand that the book was never going to work. I kind of knew that, but it was helpful in encouraging me to try again.

So, I quit my job. I gave myself a year. I lived off savings and was able to live my parents’ house for a few months.

That’s amazing, such a brave move.

There was this one amazing agent who gave me pages of feedback, which was unbelievably kind of him. And so that did make me think that maybe this is something that I could do. I also spent a hell of a lot of time agonizing with myself. Should I quit my job to write? You can sort of reverse engineer it to make it sound like it was a plan, but it was a massive chance to give myself a definitive amount of time to do it. I’d saved up but it was definitely a leap of faith. It was a good thing I didn’t know what I was doing otherwise it would have been too scary!

So I took that year out, I just been reporting on the 2016 US election, which was obviously the one where Trump won for the first time, and it was Melania Trump, this sort of fake news concept and what is truth and so on, that became the roots of The Dictator’s Wife.

I didn’t know what I was going to write before I decided to quit, it just grew out of that experience. I wanted to set the Dictator’s Wife in a fictional eastern European country where I had spent a bit of time in the past. I went back and I spent four months researching.

I turned up in Bucharest in February. There was snow on the ground, it was ten o’clock at night and my Airbnb host was late arriving and I thought what am I doing? As I was waiting in this dark stairwell for him to turn up, he arrived and said ‘I’m so sorry. I’ve just been to the protest.’ It turned out they were having the biggest protest they’d ever had since 1989 that night. So I went along with him and 300,000 people in the square chanting against the government and ended up in an underground bar in this abandoned palace.

It became a protest scene in the book and was a real instigating moment for that whole process. So, I was in Eastern Europe for four months, writing every day and talking to people and learning about the area and immersing myself.

After about four or five months, I had that first draft. I did another two or three drafts before I signed. I thought I’ve taken it as far as I could go. And that was around the time that I found the Festival of Writing. I came up to York and scoped out which agents I was interested in and one of my one-to-ones was with James Wills. Then he became my agent. So, York was really integral to that. It got a couple of other offers from agents at that festival too. It was a real turning point for me to be able to feel like this is a real thing.

Amazing. So, you met with James for your one-to-one, can you tell us how the other offers came about?

Yes, so I sent I sent James and a couple of the other agents who were interested the full manuscript. James had read the first chapter already and the others I pitched to while I was there.

That’s amazing. So, you pitched agents whilst you were at the Festival of Writing?

I think the good thing about being a journalist is you have to be utterly shameless in going up to people. So I think that was quite helpful. I think writing, as I’ve learned, is more about hustling than you think.

If you can go up to people, be nice and not aggressive, just to tell them in a few words whether it might be something they might be interested in, I think that’s a really helpful skill to develop.

So, I went up to a couple of agents who liked the sound of it and they asked for the full manuscripts and I got a couple of offers off the back of that. But James seemed to really get the vision and we aligned.

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for those conversations! How do you go up to an agent and pitch in person?

I perfected a little elevator pitch. What it is at the heart of this book and what makes it unique. The art of the sell is very different obviously to what you’re writing. So, it’s just kind of understanding what is important about your story and taking enough of a step back to understand the things that make people go, ‘ooh.’

It can be really hard to distil a 90,000 word novel into a sentence or two, removing things you have your heart set on.

I think agents do understand that they’re not getting the full book in the sentence. For example, I think for The Dictator’s Wife, my pitch was – dictator’s wife stands trial for her dead husband’s crimes and weaves a web of secrets and lies around her young female defence lawyer – or something like that. And The Birdcage Library was: an adventuress discovers an old diary hidden in the walls of a Scottish castle which contains clues about this woman who vanished 50 years before, or something like that.

Can you tell us more about what happened after you signed with your agent?

Yeah, with, with my agent, we worked on the Dictator’s Wife for a good year. There’s no guarantees in this industry and so my work was very much focused on getting the manuscript to where it needs to be. And then James took the book and pitched it to editors.

What advice would you give to writers? It’s interesting to hear you wrote an entire book before The Dictator’s Wife.

I didn’t expect how much perseverance it takes to get a book published. You read the stories of people who say that they wrote a book on a whim, sent it off and got fifteen offers by the next morning. From the vast number of writers I’ve spoken to, that is not representative. I’m grateful that I didn’t know how long and arduous the process would be before I started.

It’s really important to be honest with yourself and make your book the best it can be. After I got an agent, I rewrote the entire book from third person to the first person. I remember it so well! I literally opened up a blank document next to the manuscript and just started.

You just can’t give up, that is the biggest differentiator. It might not be the first book or the second, but it’s just the people who don’t give up and are prepared to go through that mill who make it.

It is the only industry that I’ve ever encountered that talks about ‘positive rejections’ which tells you everything! It’s hard to put yourself out there. And then afterwards, it’s easy to say well done to you for coming through it. But at the time, no one is cheering you on, it’s only you and your self-belief, and hopefully your friends and family. It’s a big thing and I think anyone who is doing it is really brave and should feel loads of self-respect for themselves. No one will make you do it but that’s sort of the joy and the terror of it.

Freya Berry studied English Literature at Cambridge. She graduated with a double first and worked as a financial and political journalist at Reuters and the Daily Mail in London and New York. Her debut novel The Dictator’s Wife was featured on the BBC’s Between the Covers and was The New European’s novel of the year. Her second, The Birdcage Library, is a story about an adventuress, part-based on her namesake Freya Stark. Freya lives in London.

Freya’s second novel, The Birdcage Library, is out now.