BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS | PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARETH SMIT
Isobel Dixon is an award-winning poet and literary agent based in Cambridge. Her collections of poetry include The Tempest Prognosticator (shortlisted for the SALA Award in 2012) and A Fold in the Map. Dixon studied a master’s in applied linguistics at the University of Edinburgh before entering the world of publishing in London as an assistant to the legendary literary agent Carole Blake at Blake Friedmann. Today she is a director of the company and represents authors all over the world – a list which includes many stellar voices from South Africa including Zakes Mda, Ivan Vladislavić and Margie Orford.
Let’s go back to the beginning: tell me about growing up in the Karoo.
I was born in Umtata. My father was dean of the cathedral in Umtata and taught at St John’s College, so was always very passionately involved in education. We moved to Graaff-Reinet because of his health, because he had very bad asthma. I think it’s the nicest place in South Africa – it’s a lovely small town, small enough to be intimate, but not so small as to have nothing to offer. It’s very pretty. I love going back.
You’ve been based in the UK for just over 20 years. How often do you come back to SA?
I went to Scotland to study, and my father was Scottish, so that was part of tracing his roots. I’ve come back at least once a year, often twice a year, and at the moment I’m coming three times a year, partly because my mother is getting old and frail. But I have a lot of reasons to come back for work – for clients. I’ve got a lot of fantastic clients like Finuala Dowling, Deon Meyer and Marlene van Niekerk. So they keep me busy. And then family and poetry stuff – festivals.
What’s life in the UK like?
I live in Cambridge which is very civilised, manicured place. I work in London which I love – I love the duality of the city and the country; I don’t want to jettison one for the other: I want both. I want both always – I want South Africa and I want Britain. Both my husband and I need to escape a lot to other places – and we love travelling. That’s one of the things I love about London and Cambridge – the choice of airports. You’re a short hop away from anywhere.
How did poetry find you?
It’s always been part of the heartbeat – from church: The Book of Common Prayer is a very beautiful work of poetry; and the Bible. My father, being a minister, meant we were really steeped in that – and hymns. I always used to make up rhymes and play with words. I love playing Scrabble. The love of books and wordplay was always there and I started writing poetry from the time I could write – if you could call what I wrote then poetry. But certainly the desire to write was always there.
Have you ever explored writing prose?
Yes – I find prose really hard work which is why I admire my writers so much. The writing and the re-writing – it’s the marathon compared to the sprints. I write dozens of drafts, sometimes, of poems. There are some poems that have taken me years to write and I’ve got 25 versions. When I was about 10, I decided I was going to write a novel (which I never finished). I’ve written a lot of essays and articles as well and I enjoy having written prose more than I enjoy the actual process of writing prose but I love the process of writing poetry.
Tell me about that process.
Different poems find different routes to completion. There are some poems like Back in the Benighted Kingdom – a short poem which I just wrote; you write it down and it’s there: you have the concept and it’s complete. I always keep a notebook and I’m always jotting down phrases from things I read and things I observe and overhear. The very process of writing generates more writing. Being in motion helps. I do a lot of walking in the UK – it’s a half-an-hour walk from the house to the train station and most days I do that. And then I think, and I often have lines of poems in my head and work from there, and then draft them sometimes in a notebook, sometimes on my BlackBerry if I’m travelling, sometimes straight onto the computer. It just depends where I am; I don’t have a fixed routine. My only rule is to grab every minute that I can to write in between – and that’s where poetry is better than prose for me: because I really think that for a novel you need an extended and concentrated period of time.
When do you know a poem is ready?
What you know is the sense of dissatisfaction when it’s not — when it’s not doing what it should or when it’s come out a little bit stiff.
What do you do when you’re stuck?
If you get stuck with something, change the font. Because you can get stuck in your own font: everything looks the same to you. And when you change the font it can make you look at the lines differently: you see things you didn’t see before.
Many of your poems deal with nature.
I feel really blessed to have grown up in such an amazingly beautiful country and with such extraordinary creatures. I would spend hours sitting in the garden watching the ant lions. We didn’t have TV all the time I was growing up – it was books and nature.
Tell me about some of the poets that have inspired you?
The Afrikaans poets were a big influence for me – Antjie Krog and Breyten Breytenbach. They gave you the sense that they are writing very much about the here and the now and in a language that is so uniquely South African.
You fell into publishing almost by chance. Almost two decades later you’re still here!
I absolutely loved doing what I did from the minute I started. I discovered I love business – I love negotiating and the strategy – as well as the creative side of the editorial. And then the people nurturing side of it: working with authors.
Tell me a bit more about what the role of agent involves.
You’re spotting talent. I always look for writing I love; the sentences have to sing. The writing has to have punch, and characters that feel real. I have to feel I can sell the book: my job is to spot what I love and I think I can sell, build a relationship with the writer in the course of selling their work, finding the right publishers for it. And then you’ve got to take the book through publication. That involves editing which often happens before the book is sold. Then, once it’s sold, of course the editor becomes the prime editor but I would still read another draft. Then you’ll have title, cover and marketing discussions. My job is to push on the marketing and the PR and make sure that the [publisher’s] promises are fulfilled. I’m not the bad guy – I’m not shaking a stick, but I’m on the author’s side.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Calling an author to tell them they’ve got an offer – especially when it’s a first-time author.
You’ve played a pivotal role in bringing post-apartheid South African literature to a global audience. Tell me more about this.
When I joined the agency there were a lot of [South African] writers that weren’t being given airtime because there was a sense that if Andre Brink, JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer were published, [the international publishers] felt that the bases were covered. There were no agents in South Africa; there had been this period of isolation during apartheid. I just think I was very fortunate to have access – both into this amazing pool of stories and writers and access to the publishers that I could sell to. And that’s what an agent should be: an agent is a conduit, and I was just a conduit at a time when it had been blocked for too long.
Did your strong links with South Africa help?
Yes, certainly I wouldn’t have been able to agent some of those writers as effectively as I do – the fact that I read the Afrikaans writers’ manuscripts in Afrikaans and give them editorial feedback in Afrikaans, and edit translations: I think that puts me in a unique position.
Can you give some advice to writers?
The secret is really persistence and passion. Take good advice; create good partnerships; find yourself a good workshop or a good mentor. If you’re a novelist, write a first draft – finish your book first, prove you can do it, get to the end, and then go back and revise; share it with trusted readers who are not just going to flatter you but who’ll give you constructive criticism. And then take it out to the world: try and find an agent.