Agent interview: James Macdonald Lockhart
James Macdonald Lockhart is a literary agent at Antony Harwood Ltd.
James Macdonald Lockhart is particularly interested in non-fiction, including history, travel, science, politics and natural history. His authors include Alastair Bonnett, Bob Gilbert, Roy Dennis, Caspar Henderson, Gwyneth Lewis, Amy Liptrot, Fraser MacDonald, Guy Shrubsole and Hugh Warwick. He is also the author of Raptor: A Journey Through Birds.
What is your favourite nature writing book, and why?
A book I admire greatly is Alasdair Maclean’s memoir, Night Falls on Ardnamurchan. An elegiac, sometimes funny, often angry book about Maclean’s relationship with his parents and the croft he was brought up on, the last working croft in Sanna, a township in the far west of Ardnamurchan. First published in 1984, it is an unflinching, often bitter view of the harsh economics of crofting. A book which shakes with sadness and rage. Some of the best writing in the book is where Maclean analyses his often difficult relationship with his parents. It also contains some of the finest writing I know on the legacy of the 19th Century Clearances. Is it nature writing? It’s a book about the author’s complex relationship with a place and the tensions inherent in that relationship. It’s one of the saddest, most beautiful books I’ve read about our relationship with and connection to the land.
Who is your favourite nature writer, and why?
Two poets I admire, both of whom write about the natural world, in different ways, are Michael Longley and Alice Oswald. Longley for the ways he sets the natural world knocking against our own, so that its presence, evoked through precise, startling imagery, lights the darkness of our human ways. Oswald because her writing strikes me as a whole new way of paying attention to, of listening to, of inhabiting and rendering, the natural world.
What first attracted you to the submissions/books/ideas of nature writers you represent?
A clarity of purpose. Freshness and authenticity of voice. A different approach, a different way of seeing. Immersion in and passion for the subject. A feeling of energy and excitement I get when reading something I like, and a clear sense that I could confidently represent the work.
What is the mark of a successful proposal for narrative non-fiction, and what do you look for particularly?
I’m impressed by those proposals which are substantial, which contain a detailed outline for the book and which feel well organised in terms of detailed chapter synopses + at least one sample chapter, or a chapter-length introduction. I think it’s important, certainly useful, to be able to distil the book into a short, clear summary. I’m also impressed by proposals where the author has thought carefully about the market for their book. Also, those writers who can get across passionately, persuasively why they want – why they need – to write this book.
What advice would you give an aspiring nature writer?
Read as much as you can. Read eclectically (not just nature writing!). Write what you know, what you care about, what moves and inspires you. Approach the genre freely, disobediently, creatively, instinctively.
Where is your favourite place in the natural world to read, write or edit?
Reading in a tent at night with a head torch. I recently read a proof copy of Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful new collection of essays, Surfacing (Sort of Books, 2019) whilst camping. A sore arm from propping my head up to read it long into the night.