Note: This is the final installment of our series focusing on the SCBWI Europolitan Conference. Author Catherine Coe interviewed agent Penny Holroyde and her client author-illustrator Chris Mould.
Agent Penny Holroyde started her career in publishing over twenty years ago working in the rights department at Walker Books and selling picture book co-editions across the world.
She then relocated to Massachusetts and worked as Director of Rights and Licensing for Candlewick Press before relocating to the United Kingdom and starting life as an agent.
After 10 years with the Caroline Sheldon Agency she founded Holroyde Cartey in 2015 with Claire Cartey, former art director at Hodder Children’s Books.
Chris Mould was born and raised in West Yorkshire where he still lives with his family.
He is one of twenty studio artists at the prestigious Dean Clough Mills arts and business complex. His published work ranges from picture books to young fiction, and throughout a long career he has also produced theater posters, editorial cartoons for major newspapers and character development work for animated features.
Chris has won the Nottingham Children’s Book Award and the Swiss Prix Enfantaisie Best Children’s Novel Award, and has been short-listed for numerous others including the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Sheffield Children’s Book Award.
Chris is the author/illustrator of many picture books and young fiction, including the hugely successful Something Wickedly Weird series, and he also illustrates for others, such as Matt Haig‘s A Boy Called Christmas (Canongate, 2015) and The Girl Who Saved Christmas (Canongate, 2016). He occasionally shares illustrations and publishing news on blog.
Penny, can you tell us about how you and Chris first met, and what attracted you to his work?
As soon as I saw the words ‘My name is Chris Mould’ in my inbox I was looking up train times to Halifax. I would need to bring my A-game because, as a talent seeking new representation, he would not be short of suitors. I already knew I loved his work and when we met, we got along really well plus we shared the same strategy for how his career should progress.
And, Chris, what drew you to Penny?
Although Penny was an ‘ideal world’ choice for me I’d never be so presumptuous as to say I chose her because it has to be a mutual agreement of two people deciding to work together and matching up their skills. But her reputation goes before her.
She has a publishing background that means she completely understands the foundations of children’s publishing and why, when and how it works, both at home and abroad. She can wrestle a contract into the ground and she will do it in a way that shows that she’s human and enjoys working with the people that she negotiates with. She’s always 100-percent respectful of publishers and their respective teams when she talks to me privately and I like that.
But what’s hugely and equally important to me is that we get on tremendously and we’re like-minded on the creative front. You should hear us nattering in the pub. We’re like two old men.
Penny, many of your clients are illustrators and/or authors of younger fiction, such as Chris. Is this an intentional direction for you, or has it just happened that way? When considering illustrators, do you look for those who can write too, or do you find that comes later?
This does appear to have become Holroyde Cartey’s brand and although this has not been a conscious thing, it reflects my and Claire’s respective fields of interest and has actually become a kind of USP for the agency. We don’t insist that illustrators can also write though.
Chris, how did you get into children’s books? Were you an illustrator or a writer first?
Illustration was my first port of call. I was in art schools for six years after struggling through school, directionless.
When I found what I loved they couldn’t get rid of me. From then on I dived head first into publishing. But the sketchbook process is a big part of what I do and it lead to me creating written content.
I’d draw characters and give them names or just write odd sentences that floated around mid-air but that definitely had the opportunity to develop into something. It grew from there.
I always say I don’t really separate words and pictures. Integrated text and image makes for more coherent storytelling and I love the idea that the two can seamlessly merge.
Penny, in your day-to-day working life, how does teamwork play a part?
It would be weird if 10 days went by when Chris and I didn’t talk on the phone. He is always busy so there is always stuff to discuss. Part of what I really respect about our working partnership is the trust. I might explain where I’m at with a contractual technicality and he will diligently listen and say that he trusts me to do the right thing.
We had a situation recently where he was approached for a high profile (read, celebrity) fiction series and we worked out our position, together, and stuck to it.
|Chris’ work space in his Dean Clough Mills studio|
Chris, are there other partnerships – aside from illustrators, your agent and your publisher – that are important to you in your creative work?
My studio sits in a large complex which is a mixture of art and business. We have art space, galleries,
restaurants and cafes mingled with office space that is home to over 150 companies.
It’s huge and it has a great vibe and the whole idea of it initially was that it would encourage business and art to mingle and mix and enthuse one another. It works well for me and it means that there’s a certain dynamic that allows and assists inspiration, creative thinking and interesting input from people connected, and not connected, to the arts.
Sometimes inspiration comes in the form of a sandwich and a coffee in the cafe. I’m a big believer in that.
Penny, before becoming an agent, you worked in international rights (for Candlewick in the US). How has that affected what you do and how you approach agenting? Do you always think internationally?
Yes, I do, particularly when it comes to picture books. My background in rights gave me a lot of field knowledge but I learned the most about contracts, rights, and technicalities (which I think are essential skills for an agent) whilst working with Caroline Sheldon for 10 years.
Chris, your books have been translated into over 20 different languages. Do you take into account the potential for international book deals when developing ideas?
Outside of publishing, people don’t realise how reliant we are on selling foreign rights and how small the U.K. market is. It’s not something you’d need to consider. And there are many things you’d like to ignore when you’re creating content because the whole idea of doing just that is that you can go anywhere you want to within your imagination.
But you do become conscious of what will travel and what won’t.
Pirates are a good example. Always a sure seller in the children’s market. Everlasting appeal guaranteed. And then consider the countries that have problems with modern day piracy and you can strike them off of your list of foreign rights options.
Penny, can you give us an insight into your professional mindset and what drives you as an agent?
I’m so happy to be running a business with Claire Cartey and, nearly two years in, we have some good successes and our client list is building very nicely. In terms of what drives me, I think it’s that thing of seeing a book go from a germ of an idea during a phone conversation with a client, right through to holding the finished book in my hand.
Chris, what drives you as an author/illustrator? Do you have any ambitions as yet unrealized? Is there anything you’d really love to work on/anyone you’d love to work with?
What drives me is the need (not the desire or the love of) but the need to draw and paint and tell stories.
It’s something we’ve always done. It’s as old as time and I’m endlessly fascinated by it. I always say I’d love to see something go to screen but being in this industry I am realistic. It’s about handing your work to someone else and very possibly feeling lukewarm about what comes back. So although that interests me and I’ve already got a waste bin full of popcorn on reserve, I’m acutely aware of the reality.
Also there are plenty authors I’d love to work with. I guess that’s fairly normal for most people like me. And I need to do a graphic novel.
Chris, you’re both an author and an illustrator, so in a way you’re your own partnership! Does that mean that when you’re working on a book you’re both writing and illustrating that your creative process is fairly solitary? Or do you still involve others – your agent/publisher? – and in what way?
I’d say I’m very solitary in the early stages until I roll something out there. I’ll harbour my thoughts in my sketchbook and then it would probably extend into excited conversations over the phone with Penny.
Usually I’d send her drawings and ask her what she thinks and we will talk about why something may or may not work before she takes it anywhere. Maybe with some adjustment aforehand. Sometimes we talk about ideas before there’s any content if it happens that way. Usually this needs wine or beer.
Penny, how involved do you get with Chris’s early ideas and the development of his projects?
When Chris and I started working together, Pocket Pirates was pretty much fully-formed and since then, he hasn’t had much time to work on his own ideas as he’s always being approached!
His sketch book is a cornucopia of delights and we keep promising each other that one of these days we’ll find a quiet corner of a pub and dig through for new ideas.
Chris, how do you find that writing informs the illustrating side of your work and vice versa? Where do you usually start when developing a new project? Do you experiment with different illustration styles depending on the concept?
It’s back to that idea of trying not to separate words and pictures. And just letting thoughts out and not being self-conscious of what something is before it’s formed into something concrete.
I always try and start with something that just interests me. But it can be something very simple. A written line, a character, even just words that I like the sound of and start playing around with. It’s a very back to front and inside out process. So yes, in answer to your question they do inform each other and I think, subconsciously, that’s why I work in the way I work.
Penny, do you think it’s the words or the illustrations that are more important to a publisher when considering a submission from someone who does both, such as Chris?
Chris reads a lot in his free time and so he has a good gut instinct about whether a text (someone else’s) is for him when he’s offered it.
He’s currently working on a very exciting new non-fiction book that was born when a publisher saw something in his sketch book. The publisher then worked up the idea and attached a non-fiction author to it so that was a very collaboratively process.
Chris, you’re best known for your Something Wickedly Weird series. Can you tell us where the idea for that came from and how you developed the concept?
Something Wickedly Weird was the beginning of me putting artwork and narrative together and at the time it was really just a vehicle for me to add all the elements to a story that I wanted to draw.
So, for example, I was always fascinated by all those animated sequences of people turning into werewolves in horror movies. I loved the idea of a character becoming another character within a plot.
I also loved the idea of a completely invented place away from anywhere else where anything could happen without cause for explanation. And I had to weave pirates in there just because they make for great characters and children love the sinister ones.
So it was a jumble of all the things knocking around in my sketchbook and all the nonsense in my head that I wanted to include and it became a process of weaving them into a coherent storyline.
Penny, why do you think Something Wickedly Weird has been so successful?
A hugely likeable hero in Stanley Buggles, recognizable fantasy worlds featuring pirates and three-legged dogs, etc., the writing is strong and perfectly pitched for the age group, plus, of course, Chris’s amazing pictures.
Chris, some of your most recent work has been illustrating Matt Haig’s Christmas novels – A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas. Can you tell us about how that came about and how the partnership works? Are there difficult things about illustrating someone else’s work? Is it easier or harder to illustrate someone else’s work because you are also a writer?
Canongate had looked around for an illustrator who would make visual sense of the Christmas books and needless to say we were very excited by the prospect when we were approached. I’d always wanted to do a book about Father Christmas and here on a plate was a ready-made tale by a significant author. And a strong one at that. A Christmas gift, in the middle of May!
Matt and Canongate are both great to work with because they weren’t prescriptive about how things should appear visually.
Sometimes authors can be very specific in this sense. That’s fine. It just means they have a clear view of the whole look of that world in their head when they’re writing. But obviously that makes the process a bit more backwards and forwards and less free for the visually creative side.
But the team embraced the visual interpretation with open arms and allowed me to develop it in the way I saw it, which was great for me and made the process all the more enjoyable.
I really believe that to get the best out of illustrators you have to let them do what they do. Myself and Matt also seem quite well matched in that we aren’t overly sentimental and we are both happy to deal with the darker side of things.
I love that his Father Christmas origin story has trolls in it. And that someone’s head explodes. Who’d have thunk it??
Someone said to me that they could tell that when my reindeers aren’t ‘in shot’, they’re round the back of the sleigh shed, having a cigarette.
Penny, can you give us your thoughts on why Chris and Matt make such a great combination?
Chris is a perfect choice for Matt’s Christmas novels and Canongate’s publishing of this franchise has been very talented. Chris is very good at portraying poignancy in dark situations, and Victoriana and the Gothic are very much his metier.
Thanks, Penny and Chris, for talking to me today and giving such interesting insights into your work. I’m very much looking forward to seeing you both at the Europolitan conference.
Catherine Coe is a children’s book editor and author with over 15 years’ experience. Having worked in-house for many years, most recently as senior commissioning editor at Orchard Books, Catherine went freelance in 2011.
Since then she has authored over 30 books, including The Owls of Blossom Wood (Scholastic, 2015), The Unicorns of Blossom Wood (Scholastic, 2016), and the Kid Cowboy (Orchard Books, 2012) series.
Editorially, Catherine’s clients include many major and independent publishers and agents, and she also works directly with writers, offering consultancy, mentoring and editing services.
When Catherine’s not reading or writing with a cup of Earl Grey in hand, you’ll most likely find her out running the waterside paths of Stockholm, the city she now calls home. On Twitter she’s @catherinecoe.
Huge thanks and appreciation to the amazing Elisabeth Norton, for organizing, coordinating and making the SCBWI Europolitan Con series of articles possible! Without her generous assistance, we would not have been able to share these in-depth interviews with you.