Emma Shercliff founded Suffolk-based Laxfield Literary Associates last year. Here, the co-organiser of this Sunday’s Low House LitFest talks of making the move out of London and why she’s keen to represent the under-represented
I can probably sum up my life in 10 words: happy, exciting, books, languages, publishing, authors, travel, friends, family, Suffolk.
I’m a Suffolk girl through-and-through so although I have lived and worked in many different places, it was wanting to come back to my roots when I had my own children that led me back here. When I left Suffolk aged 18 to go to university I couldn’t wait to get away and never imagined I would ever end up back in the county! And yet, the further afield I lived, the more precious those Suffolk links became. I love that I can trace the roots of my father’s family in Peasenhall back for many generations – there’s something very special about that.
It’s quite hard to remember life pre-pandemic now, as things have changed so significantly for me as a result. At the point that the first lockdown occurred, I had just returned from a trip to Ukraine, where I’d been undertaking a review of the publishing sector for the British Council. I had had the most stimulating 10-day trip and was very fired up about going back to Kyiv for a literary festival in May, as well as a trip to France in March and an African literary festival in Berlin in April. And then the world shut down.
Lockdown gave me the time and space I needed to establish the agency, although the catalyst for doing so was a report from the University of Northumbria, Common People, calling for more agents to set up outside London as part of a drive to increase accessibility for writers based outside the M25. My aim with Laxfield Literary is to provide representation for authors in Norfolk and Suffolk, and for those from under-represented backgrounds, and to do what I can to increase transparency around agenting and demystify the publishing industry. Part of my ethos is also to support other local businesses – I made a deliberate choice to use female-led local businesses for website design, PR and accountancy.
With Zoom one can be based anywhere! I love the fact that I can meet with local authors in Framlingham or Halesworth or Diss, without the need for either of us to schlep to London. It was actually helping to organise the first Low House Litfest in 2019 that made me realise what a wealth of talent there was within an hour’s drive of Laxfield – and started me thinking about setting up the agency. Whilst we may be a deeply rural area, there are some incredible writers based in the county, and of course Norwich is home to both the National Centre for Writing and the UK’s most prestigious creative writing MA, at UEA.
My local authors include Victoria Panton Bacon, Richard Negus and Luke Wright. But I have authors based all over the world – in Malawi, Zimbabwe, the US and Germany, as well as elsewhere in the UK. I am very keen to hear from early career authors who feel that they may need a particular degree of support that they may not get with other agents, and from writers based in Africa and the Middle East, as well as Suffolk and Norfolk. And I’m particularly eager to receive a submission from any author who has the next Booker Prize-winning novel up their sleeve! My submissions are open year-round, except for a month in August, when I try to take a little time away from my inbox.
The New Anglia Manuscript Prize, which was kindly sponsored by the National Centre for Writing in Norwich, was a competition I ran when I launched Laxfield Literary Associates, to raise the profile of the agency, and also to connect with writers based in Norfolk and Suffolk. It was won by crime writer Lucy Dixon, from Lowestoft, with a fantastically chilling page-turner set on the Norfolk/Suffolk coast. We’re editing the manuscript and I’m really looking forward to sending it out to publishers soon.
I’m not sure that reading has helped me more this year than any other as I have always read a lot and this year has been no different in that regard – although perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first two books I read during lockdown were An African in Greenland and A Month in Siena, both remarkable travel books. Perhaps an even greater help was the fun and friendships I found in the two book groups I am a member of – we continued to meet remotely, and it has been a real joy to keep up those regular get-togethers, with the aim of discussing something other than the pandemic!
I can’t wait for the mini Low House LitFest! We’ve got a wonderful programme lined up this year – our guest authors include Esther Freud, Wendy Holden, Richard Mabey and Gaby Wood, the literary director of the Booker Prize. We aim to keep the tone light-hearted, whilst ensuring that the discussions are entertaining and informative. We’ve got a ‘Pathways to Publishing’ panel this year where we’ll take questions from the audience about how to find an agent or a publisher, and I’m also really looking forward to hearing Lesley Dolphin talking to Charlie Haylock about his work to preserve the Suffolk dialect, and his role coaching the cast of ‘The Dig’.
I help organise the festival in conjunction with the fabulous Abbie Clements at the Halesworth Bookshop, as well as the wonderful team at the Low House – who all give of their time voluntarily, as do our guest authors. It is enormous fun working on the festival and I’m so pleased that we’re able to stage it again this year, albeit with a one-day programme rather than the full weekend that we have originally planned pre-Covid. But hopefully we’ll be back to full strength in 2022!