A #DVpit Success Story:
Namina Forna and Alice Sutherland-Hawes

Namina and Alice, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your partnership! To start, Namina, I’d love to know more about your book and why you wrote it.

NAMINA: The Nine Graves of Geraldine Grey tells the story of Geraldine Grey, a 12-year-old girl who must protect the oldest graveyard in Louisiana from a powerful witch. I originally conceived of the novel as centering on a diverse, Addams Family-like cast of characters living in a Louisiana graveyard.

When my grandmother died, the story became more of a rumination about death and what happens immediately after. I wanted to write a story that reassures kids that there are all these processes that kick into place when you die, and that there are all these very caring beings that lead you on your journey.

I wanted to express in fantasy form what my grandmother expressed to me before she died—that you don’t have to be scared of death because it’s a natural part of the circle of life.

Alice, what was it about this manuscript that sealed the deal for you?

ALICE: It’s so atmospheric and Geraldine is a wonderful character with bags of gumption. I fell in love with it within the first few pages. Namina is wickedly funny and it comes through in the manuscript. She’s got a lovely, accessible writing style and the manuscript was so polished it read like she’d had a professional edit done. I was sitting at my desk chuckling away, loving the Southern setting and ghostly story. I knew within three pages I had to represent Namina! I requested the full MS almost immediately, and when Namina sent it through I was supposed to be meeting a friend that evening, but instead I read the whole book and offered representation the next day.

Namina, how did you prepare this manuscript for submission? Do you work with outlines, schedules, or deadlines? Do you have critique partners and beta readers?

NAMINA: This novel was actually not very planned out. I come from a screenwriting background, so I’m very good at plotting, which is why I just wrote the chapter titles as a general outline and then went in and filled out the chapters. I sort of had a general idea in mind of the arc of the story, but I wanted to leave room for discovery.

The physical writing took me about a month in total, and I just wrote when I could. The hardest part was getting the voice down, but I had help with that.

After I wrote the first two chapters, I read them out loud to my friends and they helped me make it way more kid friendly. I also have a strong group of critique partners and beta readers who really helped me shape the novel at every stage.

And how was the #DVpit experience for you, overall? Expectations? Doubts? Disappointments?

NAMINA: The #DVPit experience was amazing! The whole day my heart kept racing as more and more agents liked my work. And the fact that they actually replied pretty quickly to my query with the #DVPit header was pretty amazing.

Prior to #DVPit, I was used to waiting months and months for replies, so I was flabbergasted at how quickly everyone got back to me. It really boosted my confidence and made me feel like I had a voice people wanted to hear.

The most amazing thing about the whole experience, of course, was finding Alice. She liked my pitch on a Wednesday, read the first fifty Thursday, the whole thing Friday and by Saturday we were talking signing.

I knew immediately when she emailed me back that first day that she was the agent for me. Not only did she have the perfect sense of how I envisioned Geraldine Grey, she also had a plan for my career as a whole.

Even better, she was very about feminism and diversity, two things dear to my heart. The minute I read the email, I knew it was a match.

How was the experience for you, Alice?

ALICE: Delightfully hectic! We had no internet in the office that day so I drained my phone battery going through everything! There’s such a broad range of talent out there and having something like #DVpit to channel it is brilliant. It ended up being fairly stressful because when I came across Namina, I spent the next few days refreshing my emails waiting for her submission to come in. I’m not very patient when I’ve found something I love!

It was my first time taking part and I will definitely be doing it again.

Namina, did you receive pitch help or tips? Any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to future participants?

NAMINA: I received a lot of pitch help. I actually have to shout-out to Stephanie Diaz, the author of the Extraction series, because she offered to do query critiques on Twitter one day, and I jumped at the chance. She helped me a lot with polishing my pitch.

From there, I got into #Pitmad and was on the awesome Team Ice Cream Sea. During it, Brenda Drake and Monica Hoffman both helped me with my pitch, as did my amazing teammates—some of whom are now my most valuable critique partners. By the time I got to #DVPit, my pitch was pretty much flawless, but it took an entire village to get me there.

Along the way I learned that if you can’t distill your novel into two sentences, you probably have to spend more time thinking about it and developing it. Also, a good pitch—especially for twitter—is thirty-five words or less. This is my film background talking, though.

And Alice, do you have any advice for querying authors and/or for anyone planning to participate in a future #DVpit?

ALICE: Make sure you’ve honed your pitch tweets so you’re doing your book justice, and be prepared to find yourself spending all day on Twitter! Also, don’t be downhearted if it doesn’t happen for you this time round. A lot of this process is down to timing and luck!

Tell us about The Call, Namina!

NAMINA: We did the call via Skype because Alice lives in London, and I live in LA. I was nervous the whole time, but I was also very prepared—I’d had a manager before Alice and knew what I wanted out of representation.

I asked her all the difficult questions about what she had in mind for my career, and money matters and all that. I think as writers it’s very important to ask these questions and be up-front about expectations so everyone’s on the same page.

Alice was amazing. She came prepared to answer my questions, and had all sorts of suggestions. The most important thing, however, was that we had the same idea about where we wanted to go with my career.

Alice liked the same type of things I was interested in writing, and I made sure I pitched her all the things I was working on, because I didn’t want to go back to the drawing board after Geraldine Grey and find another agent.

Thankfully, they were up her alley, so it was a match.

The other important thing was personality. I’m one of those awkward people that takes a bit of time to warm up, but from our conversation, I could tell Alice was the sort of person I could actually be friends with. This made a huge difference for me, because, again, I’m super awkward.

ALICE: The call was kind of hilarious for me because I was sitting in my kitchen in my pyjamas! (It was evening, my time.) I was so nervous about speaking to Namina, being a new agent and knowing she had a lot of people interested in her, but within minutes I knew we’d be a perfect match.

Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!

NAMINA: “12 yo Geraldine must protect a Louisiana graveyard & its ghosts from a power-hungry witch determined to open the underworld gate #MG #F #DVpit”

Alice, what was it about this pitch that caught your attention?

ALICE: Louisiana! Graveyards! Ghosts! Witches! Underworld gates! It screamed “new Neil Gaiman” and appealed to the emo/goth teenager in me.

What else are you looking for these days? Is there anything specific on your wishlist that you’re hoping to find, maybe at the next #DVpit?

ALICE: I’m particularly keen on finding more diverse voices in middle grade. It’s an area which (especially here in the UK) needs growth and I’d love all children to be able to see themselves in books from an early age, not just when they’re teenagers. I love adventures, gutsy girls, strong friendships, alternate universes and just a hint of magic. I’m also keen on younger books tackling mental health.

Warm congratulations to Namina and Alice for finding each other! I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Follow them on Twitter so you can do the same!

Namina Forna (@NaminaForna) is a middle-grade novelist and screenwriter based in LA. She graduated from USC School of Cinematic Arts with an MFA in Film and TV production, and is committed to telling whimsical and unexpected stories for the MG and YA audience.

Alice Sutherland-Hawes (@alibelle) is the Rights Agent at Madeleine Milburn Ltd and is also growing the children’s & YA list at the agency, including illustrators.

She began her career as a bookseller before working at The Agency for three years, where she gained an invaluable insight into the publishing industry. Whilst at The Agency she negotiated multiple UK deals and helped sell rights across the world in titles including A Kestrel For A Knave, the Paddington books and Malorie Blackman’s books. Along with books, she has a passion for films and spent some time as a film critic.

Alice edits an online magazine dedicated to Young Adult literature, part of her mission to help people of all ages discover the joys of reading.