A matter of time

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am


Book agents seldom get the glory. Authors earn the accolades, and publishers reap the biggest financial rewards (or at least, they used to), while agents remain mostly anonymous emissaries, known only within the publishing world. Hustling behind the scenes, they connect the scribblers with the dealmakers, playing a vital intermediary role, so that the reading public gets its regular allotment of food for thought.

Only occasionally does a literary agent pop up on the public radar. Maybe someone has a hand in discovering a great talent, as when Bonnie Nadell pulled 24-year-old David Foster Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System, from the slush pile. Or perhaps a book deal makes headlines as sheer business braggadocio: Washington, DC-based agent Robert Barnett holds this record with the US$15 million advance he netted for Bill Clinton's memoir, My Life, in 2002.

Marysia Juszczakiewicz - founder and owner of the boutique Hong Kong outfit Peony Literary Agency - has yet to sell an international blockbuster, but there's a fair chance she soon will. Juszczakiewicz (pronounced Yush-cha-kevitch) is already responsible for delivering an impressive array of China's best contemporary authors to the English-reading world.

Although Peony has been in business for just a little over three years, the stable of writers whom Juszczakiewicz has ushered into English publication includes Man Asian Literature Prize-winner Su Tong; Yan Geling, whose book Flowers of War has just received a boost from the Christian Bale-starring film adaptation; Chan Koonchung, author of the controversial The Fat Years, a dystopian send-up of contemporary Chinese politics and materialism, which has been translated into more than a dozen languages; and racecar-driving author, super-blogger and all-around Chinese youth culture phenomenon Han Han, among about 15 others.

Sitting down to coffee, Juszczakiewicz exudes the polite intensity and singularity of purpose of successful entrepreneurs everywhere - and her BlackBerry, of course, is always close at hand. Yet she's also generous with her laugh and quick to smirk in a way that conveys she has as much appreciation as facility for charm and clever mischief.

'There are so many interesting stories coming out of this part of the world, in a variety of different ways,' she says of the Chinese book market. 'And people are interested in what's happening here like never before. What I do is look at stories and try to present different voices from the region, in a way that people who aren't here can empathise with and appreciate.'

A suggestion of direct biography-to-career parallels might be a contrivance, but it's fair to say Juszczakiewicz has long experience in bridging cultural divides. Born to immigrants in a small Polish community in Zambia, she spent her first 12 years in Africa, before her family relocated to Britain, where she later decided to pursue a degree in Chinese language. It was the mid-1990s and interest in China was more of an eccentricity than the hot topic it is today. 'I was good with languages, and I just wanted to do something different than the usual French or German,' she says.

Her degree culminated with a year of study in Beijing: 1988-89. 'We were the students who got stuck in Beijing during the Tiananmen massacre or 'the June 4 incident', as it is now called,' she says. As the situation escalated, Juszczakiewicz and her classmates were evacuated from their dormitory to the British embassy located just off the square. She remembers the embassy staff burning reams of documents in anticipation of a civil war. 'I was 20 years old and shell-shocked,' she recalls. 'Another memory I have is of sitting in the embassy flat watching TV. The tanks were rolling by downstairs, and the only thing that was on the news were reports about how great the wheat harvest had been that year.' She left Beijing with little desire to return to China.

And for many years she didn't. After graduating, Juszczakiewicz worked in publishing in Britain. 'I loved reading so, typically, I wanted to be an editorial assistant.' She hoped to combine her knowledge of Chinese with her nascent career, but such opportunities were rare at the time.

A quirky situation arose while she was working for Mills & Boon. 'I was tasked with assessing whether their romance novels were being pirated in China. I was reading Chinese books and comparing them to our novels to see whether they were being pirated. In fact, they were. The stories were identical.'

The same pattern was rampant in Russia. 'My father speaks Russian, so I got him to read some Russian romance novels for us too,' she recalls, laughing.

Juszczakiewicz took a break from the book world when her husband accepted a job posting in Hong Kong. She had children, dabbled in local journalism, and didn't rekindle her interest in publishing until she heard that the principals behind the Asia Literary Review were also interested in starting an agency focused on regional literature. 'I thought it was a great idea, so I said I would help out a bit - but I soon ended up doing quite a bit more.'

For two years she ran the agency known as Creative Work, which she later took over and rebranded Peony. While the opportunities on the mainland and the interest from publishers abroad were remarkably promising from the outset, Juszczakiewicz found that breaking into the Chinese scene presented myriad challenges.

'The concept of an agent isn't as developed in China, or Asia really, as compared to the West. And there's been a history, unfortunately, of agents in China ripping off their writers. So some authors would already have a negative idea about agents before I came along.'

When Juszczakiewicz first began reaching out to potential clients, Creative Work didn't even have a business card or website, not to mention a brand or a reputation. 'Being a blond white woman didn't make it easy either,' she says. 'So I would just go out there and talk and explain, and talk and explain some more. At some point, like all business in China, you build a relationship of trust. It's challenging, but that's one of the reasons I do it.'

Peony's first success came in 2009 when Su Tong won the Man Asian prize with The Boat to Redemption. Juszczakiewicz had first taken him on to get some of his unreleased short stories translated and published in English. She later sold the international rights to his award-winning novel.

'When he won the Man Asian prize, that was a great thrill - it was great for him and Chinese literature, and very good for us,' she says.

Juszczakiewicz's next clients - first at Creative Work, and later Peony - came via word of mouth, from unsolicited submissions, or through the recommendations of friends and associates whose tastes she trusted.

And unlike most agents, she has chosen not to specialise in a particular genre or form. Peony has taken on writers working in Chinese literary fiction, short stories, young adult, graphic novels, expat women's fiction, non-fiction essays, translators, and even a photo book.

What has eluded her so far - although perhaps not for long - is the undisputed international hit, say, a Chinese Haruki Murakami. 'Some people will say the literature that's been produced in China is rubbish,' she says. 'I wouldn't agree. There is interesting work here, but it can't be compared to the literature of the West - because there is no comparison; China is really something quite different.'

So what might the Great Chinese Novel look like, when it does arrive? 'Ideally what you want is something that is uniquely Chinese but is able to work in a global context - not a book that emulates something from the West, but something that creates its own special voice and bridges that link between here and there. That's what everyone is looking for. I will find it at some point.'