An agent for change

5th December 1997 at 00:00
When I wrote my first, unsuccessful, novel in the Seventies, I got an agent in London. Soon after that, she went to the Frankfurt Book Fair and met up with Albert Zuckerman who was just starting out as an agent. They made a deal whereby he would represent all her authors in the US.

I was working for a publisher and trying to write a bestseller when he came over to London. At first I thought he was a bit of a smart-arse, actually. There he was, telling me what made a bestseller, and he was no big success himself. He was just a guy who wanted to be a hotshot agent. But he sold my first novel in the US - which was quite a feat because it wasn't very good.

Anyway, I wrote my next novel and he couldn't sell that, and I wrote the next and he couldn't sell that either. This went on for a while. Then I wrote The Modigliani Scandal, and he wrote back saying: "The trick ending belongs in the short story, not in the novel. If you have held a reader's attention all the way through a novel they don't want to find in the end that they have been fooled for two or three hundred pages and have spent a week being misled. "

At the beginning I thought "I probably know as much about this as he does". But gradually all this stuff started to sink in and I began to learn from Al. He would say: "Nobody in this novel has a past - you never find out about their Mum and Dad or brothers and sisters." I would go tearing straight into the action like a railway train. I didn't know, until he told me, that that was what I was doing. But I began to realise that he was right about these things and began to do the things he said I should do. It was quite against my will because I found that I had to work 10 times harder.

Al also taught me that there should be a story turn every four to six pages. If you read Jane Austen or Dickens, they follow that rule instinctively, but I had to learn how to do it.

Al studied English and did his PhD on Hamlet. He was a literature professor for a while at Princeton, but he left to join the navy where he read all of Proust in French, which is quite an achievement in itself. He produced a few shows on Broadway - he never had a big hit - and then became a writer on what, in those days, was known as afternoon television. We now know it as soap operas.

He wrote a couple of novels - which were published but not hugely successful - and then decided to become an agent. His father was a hat manufacturer so I'm not sure where he gets his love of literature from.

Apart from Al, I am really self-educated in literature. I have been a lover of thrillers since I read Casino Royale when I was about 12. I was absolutely blown away by it, even though I had no idea about gambling and had never met anybody who knew what a Martini was. There was also a teacher at school called Mervyn Jones who taught me poetry when I was 15. He was very inspirational and it is because of him that I still like and read poetry. It's good for a novelist to read poetry, because it reminds you how powerful the careful choice of words can be. If you really work on a line, it can have a big impact.

Al - who's about 20 years older than me- has a strong romantic streak. So his focus in literature is often on the emotions of the story. He'll often say to me: "You've thought about what happens but you haven't thought how the characters feel about it."

He is the opposite of me in political attitudes - he votes Republican - so he represents my rather conservative readers. He's also religious which I'm not. He's fairly Orthodox Jewish; kosher on the weekends.

He's lived in New York all his life so I'll probably see him four times a year. We both like the theatre and often go together. And we both have broad tastes. We read a lot of contemporary bestsellers, thrillers, classics; something we have been doing for 35 years so we have an enormous shared library of literature in our heads.

There are thousands of agents who are good at making a deal but I hadn't found anybody who was good at practical guidance and criticism of literature. There are probably 100 other people in the book world who could say "this book isn't working" but there are few who could put their finger on it. When we met, it wasn't really a case of personal warmth so much as professional respect. The respect grew before the warmth did. But he still is a bit of a smart-arse!

Ken Follett worked as a reporter and book editor, writing several unsuccessful novels before his first bestseller, Eye of the Needle, was published in 1978. A series of popular thrillers followed including The Key to Rebecca, The Man from St Petersburg and The Pillars of the Earth. His latest book is The Third Twin. He is married to the Labour MP for Stevenage, Barbara Follett

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