In conversation with

Emma Paterson

Literary Agent

Emma Paterson



Behind every book there is a team. The writer whose creativity sparks an idea, editors who push the work to its edges, the publisher who gets the finished product into people’s hands. And there is the literary agent, who nurtures the writer and guides their process.

Emma Paterson is one such guide for writers like Bernardine Evaristo, Mary Jean Chan, Paul Mendez, Otegha Uwagba, Vicky Spratt and Lou Stoppard. Is there a common thread that unites them? She says: “an interest in form; political intention; emotional vitality”.

“I am drawn especially to the formally ambitious, the radical, the irreverent and the unsentimental,” Emma says in her profile for Aitkin Alexander, where she’s been a literary agent since 2018. “And to a sentence ‘as clean as a bone,’ to borrow one from Baldwin.”

We spoke to Emma about her authors, what draws her to them and their work, and who we should be reading in 2020 and beyond.

Question and Answer

What books were you reading growing up?

Strangely, I don’t remember much about my childhood reading. In my late teens I read a lot of Americans and Nigerians, which happened to be what was available at home: Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe.

What skills and characteristics are most important in your role as a literary agent?

Resilience, perspective, curiosity, fussiness.

Your roster includes Bernardine Evaristo, Olivia Sudjic, Otegha Uwagba and Mary Jean Chan. What quality or energy do your authors have that makes you want to work with them?

An interest in form, political intention, emotional vitality.

Are you drawn to a particular category of literature – or is it less about the format and more about the writer?

The novel and all that it can do. Increasingly poetry, too.

Whose opinion do you trust when it comes to finding new authors?

My own. I don’t intend that to sound facetious; what I mean is if I’m unable to trust my instincts, I can’t really do my job. Also invaluable are the opinions of my assistant, Monica MacSwan – a very talented reader – and those of my authors.

Can you tell us about a book or author whose use of language has really stuck with you? 

I think of Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica very often. It is wild, mordant, compassionate. Just this week, I read her book-length essay, Lost Cat, which is being published by Daunt Books in November. On the profound tension between hope and circumstance, she is peerless.

“I trust my own opinions. I don’t intend that to sound facetious; what I mean is if I’m unable to trust my instincts, I can’t really do my job.”

What three questions do you ask yourself when you’re reading a manuscript?

There are maybe only two questions: is this author doing something new, and does what they are doing feel purposeful?

Can you recommend a book or author we should be reading in 2020?

Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, a staggering novel about whiteness, the violence of speech, the consolation of family. Also: Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise and Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal.

Emma's Storylist


  1. In The Cut by Susanna Moore
  2. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
  3. The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk
  4. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  5. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner


  1. The New Yorker
  2. The Gentlewoman
  3. The Strategist

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