By Edward Nawotka
Literary agencies are a relatively unknown quantity in China and almost all started as overseas operations, including Big Apple Tuttle Mori Agency and Bardon Chinese Media, which both started in Taiwan, and Andrew Nurnberg Associates, from the UK. The latest newcomer — Peony Literary Agency — hails from Hong Kong. Launched in November by Marysia Juszczakiewicz to replace the agency formerly known as Creative Work, Peony has offices in both Hong Kong and Beijing and has in just a few short months attracted numerous high profile clients, from literary lights such as Su Tong (author of Raise the Red Lantern and The Boat to Redemption, winner of the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize) to race car driving youth icon Han Han and romantic pop rebel Annie Baobei.
“What makes Peony different from the others,” says Juszczakiewicz, “is that we not only sell books into China, but we offer author representation for Chinese authors to the West, and are offering Chinese writers representation in China, which is rare.” As one example, she cites client Yan Geling, for whom the agency is managing business affairs within China and presenting her new novel to Chinese publishers. “We have five of the major Chinese publishers offering for the novel and promising print runs into six figures,” she adds.
Juszczakiewicz’s strategy to build the agency has been to “look at writers one by one” in an effort to try and discover which writers might be best suited to UK, American and European audiences. Some writers, no matter how popular in China, need an intermediary to help a Western editor understand their appeal.
“The classic example is Han Han,” says Juszczakiewicz, “In China, he is huge, a real brand. He’s selling millions of copies in China. His work really speaks to the younger generation of Chinese and their particular sense of displacement and dissolution. I’ve had publishers interested in him in the US, but they can’t get to grips with the way he writes. Chinese writing is structured in a very personal way in the first person and there’s not the psychoanalysis of the character. I think there’s disconnect there between China and the West. The key is finding the right translator for it, one who can get the right voice for it.”
She adds, “I think publishers are looking for Chinese writers who are emulating writers in the western genres, which is difficult to find.”
One such author may be John Chan (陳冠中) who has written a dystopian novel entitled The Fat Years. Set in a futuristic China, the title comes from the notion that 2013 will inaugurate a new era of material prosperity for the Chinese. Despite that, all is not well and the main character — a Taiwanese writer living in Beijing — discovers that a month (filled with rioting and other mayhem) has gone missing out of everyone’s lives…just disappeared. He sets out to find out exactly what happened. Already published in Hong Kong by Oxford University Press and scheduled for publication in Taiwan, it has become something of an underground phenomenon on the mainland.
“The book is reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and will not be published on the mainland. Copies have been smuggled in and are available under the counter. There is a buzz on the blogs about it. It think it’s the type of book that really taps into the China of today.”
Another writer Juszczakiewicz hopes to introduce to the West is Hong Kong writer Duncan Jepson, who is Eurasian, writes in English, and is the managing editor of the Asia Literary Review. He has penned a novel — Before You — which spans four generations of Chinese women over 80 years, moving from China to America. “He is quite a personality and would do well in the West.”
It is easier at the moment for Juszczakiewicz, who hails from England and previously worked at Hodder Headline and Harlequin Mill & Boon, to work with writers who speak or write in English. “I can speak Chinese, but not fluently, so I rely on readers and the recommendations of people I trust, to guide me. And if it comes to negotiation, I have help.”
Juszczakiewicz also works with a pair of Beijing-based partners, including Terry Tao (陶鵬旭), who functions as co-agent, and Tina Chou (周亭安), who is an associate agent of Peony and sells rights into Asia. Chou recently completed a ten-book deal to translate a series of ten lifestyle books published by Taiwan’s Warmth Press from complex Chinese to simplified Chinese for publication in the mainland by China Population Press. “Right now all the Taiwan-to-China deals tend to be in non-fiction,” says Juszczakiewicz
As for seeking out new writing clients in mainland China, Juszczakiewicz says she relies on word-of-mouth for introductions. “It’s quite a small community here,” she says, adding, “A lot of people are looking at Chinese literature at the moment and are interested in it, but you have to be patient. There still are some issues with the writing coming out of China and each author is really is a case-by-case scenario. With Chinese literature and publishing, there’s just no set way of doing it. But it is fascinating. I wouldn’t do what I do if it wasn’t.”
VISIT: The Web site for Peony Literary Agency.
READ: More about Jon Chan’s The Fat Years (Word document download)
WATCH: A video review of Chan’s novel (in Chinese)
DISCUSS: Which Chinese Books Do You Want Translated?