Canadian agent riles stodgy Torontonians

Some say Anne McDermid is the "Jackal" of the north. And that may be good for Toronto's writers.

By Craig Offman
Published August 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The literary scene in Toronto may be quiet, but it has served up a lot of big literary names over the past few decades: Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Wayne Johnston and Barbara Gowdy. Lately, though, Toronto's literati have been abuzz over Anne McDermid, a Welsh-born literary agent who moved to Canada three years ago. McDermid has won impressive advances for Canadian novelists previously considered to have been richer in repute than commercial prospects. But she is also -- according to an unflattering profile in Toronto's Globe and Mail in June -- the subject of uncharacteristically heated criticism and resentful rumors.

In the two years since she's set up shop, McDermid has cut a swath through the ordinarily stolid Canadian literary scene. "There's a tradition of the quietist poetic prose that turns into poetry -- a whole raft of subsidy-funded writers in this country," says Noah Richler, book editor at Toronto's National Post. "She seems to have a more commercial edge." Adds Juliet Waters, the Montreal Mirror's books editor, about the new presence, "It can make writers take themselves more seriously and demand more from their publishers and agents. Or it could turn Toronto into a city of Truman Capotes. Either way, she's certainly made the scene more interesting."

McDermid, who describes herself as "birdlike and middle-aged," seems to balance both the commercial and the literary quite deftly, not only in Canada, but also in the United States, where the advances are much larger. (Many major Canadian writers retain agents in both Canada and the U.S.) She landed six-figure advances for such veteran novelists as Wayne Johnston (for his "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," which was on the cover of the New York Times Book Review two Sundays ago), and Trevor Ferguson (Random House's "City of Ice"). She made similar deals for younger writers, such as thriller author Andrew Pyper, whose "Lost Girls" will be published in the summer of 2000 by Delacourt.

Though it could not substantiate the rumors, the Globe and Mail article repeats allegations by rival agents that McDermid, in the manner of the notorious literary agent Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie, has attempted to steal major clients from her colleagues. "Some people think that if you're not stealing away clients, you're not doing your job," she said coyly. Before moving to Canada, McDermid worked at London's Curtis Brown Agency, where she represented Robertson Davies, Brian Moore and Pat Barker. "People say I moved to Toronto to be an agent," McDermid told Salon Books. "That would be a lunatic idea! I came here to live with a bloke."

Although McDermid said that she didn't know the New York-based Wylie (famous for plucking Martin Amis from Pat Kavanagh's stable), she appreciates his style: "I think very highly of Wylie," she said. When asked by Salon Books if she had ever stolen a client, she responded with a seasoned agent's panache. "Not that I'm aware of," she said.

Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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