I was eating breakfast on Wednesday morning (26th October) when the phone rang. Glancing at the number at first I thought it was my oldest son – it began with the same digits. But when I answered, it was Isobel Dixon, agent at Blake Friedmann and a friend of long standing. She gave me the devastating news that my agent Carole Blake, had died in hospital the previous night from a pulmonary embolism.
Carole made no secret of the fact that she had recently been diagnosed with cancer but was expecting to make a full recovery and was still steaming ahead with her life. She used words such as ‘Surprise’ and ‘Interesting’ and ‘Adventure’ to describe aspects of her new challenge. Just a few hours before she died, she was still working and sent me and an e-mail about the new chapters of my work in progress.
After hearing the news I wandered back to the dining table in a daze and saw my last morsel of toast, now cold, still on my plate. We all know from Carole’s comments on social media during an earlier stay in hospital what she thought of cold toast! It seemed so surreal. To answer the phone from such a mundane task as eating breakfast, and between the first mouthful and the last for everything to change.
Yet before the ending, there was a beginning. Carole had many clients who loved her dearly and with whom she had very close bonds. My story is one of many, but here it is, in tribute to the best agent, mentor and friend an author could ever have.
One day in February 1989, while trawling The Writers Handbook and The Writers and Artists Yearbook for a suitable agency on whom to land The Wild Hunt, the most recent of my eight unpublished historical novels, I came upon the Blake Friedmann Literary, TV and Film Agency in Gower Street, London. The blurb said they dealt with commercial women’s fiction and were members of the Association of Author’s Agents, which meant that they had agreed to abide by a code of conduct and were not about to rip me off. My first letter to Carole Blake opened with ‘Dear Sir’, a detail that while a faux pas, she didn’t hold against me because she wrote back saying that she had read and loved my first three chapters, very much liked them and wanted to see the rest of the manuscript. She also offered to represent me. After 10 years of sending off my work to agents and publishers and receiving rejections, suddenly the miracle had happened and I had acquired an agent, and what an agent! At the time I was a stay at home mum, looking after two small children and working as a shelf filler in the local supermarket at night when my husband took over the childcare. I knew nothing about the publishing industry and except in my writing, had very seldom strayed outside my small hometown comfort zone. Carole was to change all that. I think she blinked a bit when she invited me to London and I asked if I could bring my husband along (not that she ever said anything). To me at that point even travelling to London was a huge and rather scary adventure. Last time I had been to the capital I had been 11 years old. Carole, on the other hand, was a woman of the world, accustomed to hopping on and off planes and completely at home and confident wherever she went. I learned from her; she raised me up. she was my mentor and my exemplar and she believed in me.
I remember being amazed by her big jewellery, but very quickly realised that it was an integral part of her charisma and personality and really anything else would not have looked right on her. She knew exactly how to wear it and what sort of impact it would make, and it said immediately ‘Here is a woman who is a force to be reckoned with.’ But she wore it because of the great pleasure it it gave her to do so. At the RNA Awards in 2012, I won the prize for historical fiction. Carole was wearing some gorgeous glass Murano rings, one on each hand, and clapped so enthusiastically that the rings shattered on each other and scattered an explosion of glass spangles far and wide. She told me it wasn’t the first time this had happened!
I remember Carole being slightly shocked that my decent shoes consisted of a brown pair and a black pair. At home she had a floor to ceiling cupboard crammed with leather and suede shoes in her favourite colours- purple, cerise, turquoise, pink – with the occasional black and brown pair thrown in for balance. Recently she had had the most wonderful cerise alpaca winter coat made for her and was so looking forward to wearing it. I am so sorry that she won’t do so now, but I do remember her joy in having the garment designed and her delight in sharing its progress with all her many Facebook readers.
Carole’s wardrobe was an external offshoot of her enormous personality. She was passionate about everything. Her loves, her hates, her curiosity, her generosity to others, and her boundless thirst for knowledge. All were writ large. She adored history and had an especial appreciation of Renaissance art and music. We shared several events together, including a memorable lunch at Middle Temple Hall, dining at a great oak table where Elizabeth I had also sat to dine. Another occasion we were treated to a personal guided tour of the Houses of Parliament by a friend who was an usher at the House of Lords. We were to have visited the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in a couple of weeks. True to form Carole had already seen it, but felt she needed to go again, this time with a magnifying glass. She told me I was not to worry, she had one for me too, courtesy of her doll’s house hobby, another of her many enthusiasm. I shall go to the exhibition on my own now, but Carole will still be with me every step of the way and because of her reconnaissance I shall take a magnifying glass.
Although Carole adored her history, she was keen to keep abreast of modern trends and new technology. She was always an early adaptor and was both amused and exasperated with me that I never quite got to grips with using a mobile phone and tablet with the unthinking ease that she acquired – although if things went wrong, she was known to have an emphatic vocabulary of swear words! She would never throw the baby out with the bath water, but was all for change if it was of benefit and regarded innovation as an exciting adventure.
One of the things I did give to Carole that was a totally new experience for her, was Meat Loaf. I have always written sound tracks to my novels. I take modern songs and use them as a tool to access moments of emotion, or set scenes or develop characters. Whenever I sent Carole a completed manuscript, I would also send her a copy of the soundtrack with notes as to what song featured where in the story. The year I handed in Lords OfThe White Castle, the grand finale song was For Crying Out Loud by Meat Loaf from the album Bat Out Of Hell. Carole was working in the office that weekend and had put the music on in the background. When she heard the Meat Loaf track, she was utterly blown away. She had never heard Meat Loaf before, confessing to me that she had been too much of a music snob to think that it would have any relevance to her. However, the music completely resonated in her soul and in typical Carole fashion, she dashed out and bought everything he had ever recorded. I had always been a fan of Meat Loaf in a general way, but Carole became a super fan. When she heard that Meat Loaf was coming to Wembley to perform, she was beside herself and asked me to come to the concert with her. So that was that. I stayed over at hers and off we went to Wembley Stadium, a couple of rock chicks of a certain age! Unfortunately, Meat Loaf was unwell and collapsed on stage, so we had to abandon that particular evening beyond the first song. A couple of months later when he was better, Meat Loaf reran the concert, so we were off again to Wembley for another night of operatic rock. If Carol loved something, she embraced it heart and soul without holding back. At the time of those Meat Loaf concerts, I had just been contracted to write my breakthrough novel The Greatest Knight about the medieval hero William Marshal, so it was a really memorable moment. Like Meat Loaf, William Marshal and his father John became another of mine and Carole’s shared passions. She used to laughingly tease me that she would get to them before I did because she was older than me and would go first. But I never thought it would be so soon.
Of course we had some differences. I could never persuade her to watch the Lord Of The Rings films about which I was passionate. For all her flexibility, she just would not go there. Even for Carole some things were off-limits. She viewed me as a lightweight in the drinks stakes when it came to alcohol and she thought my taste questionable. I loved sweet sherry which was anathema to Carole. I can still remember the look on her face when I asked for one. I didn’t actually like wine very much and had no notion/didn’t care what wine should go with what dish when eating. I always let her choose. She would buy a bottle and I would have one glass, mainly to be polite. She would drink the rest and then we’d go back to hers and more wine would come out. I would always opt for tea, which meant that we often sat up late at night talking, Carol with a wine glass and me with a mug. She would pour herself refills without any obvious signs of inebriation. Intermittently I would head into the kitchen and make myself more tea. Latterly when Carole took an interest in gin, keeping many different variety bottles in her freezer, we found common ground, although I was still lightweight when it came to the percentage of gin versus tonic in one’s tumbler.
Carol was a superb agent. She wanted the best for her authors and worked tirelessly in their interests, always fighting their corner but always being pragmatic. She knew when to push and when to rein back, when to accept and when to hold out. When to speak and when to be silent. She could be forceful in negotiation and knew there were times to be diplomatic and times to say what she thought but when done was done, a line was drawn and the slate was clean. She never ever held grudges. She was generous and kind in a very proactive way, but woe betide anyone who tried to take advantage. Decisive short shrift was the result.
A short while ago a routine test for bowel cancer showed anomalies and Carole was called in for further tests. The initial flag up was confirmed and Carole in her usual way set about finding out as much as she could and organising her life to fit around what was going to be two session of chemotherapy with an operation sandwiched in between. True to her nature, her main concern was for her clients and her colleagues. Although she was going to be receiving treatment, some of it uncomfortable, she wanted life for everyone to go on as smoothly as possible and set about making detailed plans for the future with both best case and worst-case scenarios taken care of in detail. When she had to tell people of her diagnosis she took time off to be at home to receive their concerned phone calls and to reassure them. It was their peace of mind that bothered her more than worry about herself. She was determined and independent and horrified at the thought of being swamped with sympathy or pity. While she had an enormous capacity to feel compassion for others, she preferred others to show their compassion by treating her as if nothing was wrong and nothing had changed.
I cannot believe such a force of nature, such a wonderful, dynamic, fun loving, intelligent, hard-working, hard-headed but compassionate, sensible and pragmatic woman has left the stage, and that I am never going to hear her fabulous, throaty voice at the end of the phone again. There is a massive hole where she shone. As mentioned above, we had arranged a meeting to see the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at the V&A Museum. I was going to stay with her the night before and we intended having one of our chats over tea and gin. I was going to give her a belated 70th birthday present of a journal with watermarked papers bound in purple leather, and some beautiful hand printed papers in her favourite colours for her craft activities, but those gifts will remain ungiven except in spirit. She was desperate to read my next novel which is due to be hand in by April 2017. Her last e-mail to me hours before she died was about the sample chapters I had put up on my website. I guess she knows the story anyway now that she has passed on, but it greatly saddens me not to be able to share it with her in the physical now. When she picked me from the slush pile, I became hers with a sense of nurture and belonging. It was a professional business partnership, but it was also a relationship of mentor, mother, sister, friend. Sometimes we did not speak for long periods, although Facebook and Twitter kept us is in swift touch. That swift touch is now no more, and I am going to so miss that daily contact with her marvelous, charismatic personality. I always looked forward to Carole’s daily scrapbook of opinions, photographs, announcements and articles. But I still have the memories and they are all joyful and meaningful whatever the grief endured at losing her too soon.
I am raising my mug of tea in Carole’s honour, and when life sends me lemons, I shall put them in gin.
Hale and farewell dearest Carole, and I hope you are enjoying those Marshal men.