The literary agent Felicity Blunt modestly agrees that she has had a good run lately. Pick up almost any word-of-mouth must-read book or critical darling these days, flick to the acknowledgments, and it’s highly likely you’ll see the 41-year-old Blunt’s name there. “I think every agent sometimes has a year when it just comes together,” she tells me over lunch in London’s Soho neighborhood.
“Claire Keegan,” whom Blunt began representing in 2012, “is just extraordinary—the writer of her generation. Any generation, actually.” (The Irish author’s Small Things Like These was short-listed for last year’s Booker Prize—rare for a novella—and her 2022 novella, Foster, was made into the film The Quiet Girl, chosen as Ireland’s entry in this year’s Academy Awards.) “And Bonnie Garmus is an obvious example.” (The American author’s debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, is currently omnipresent in bookshops.) “Then my husband wrote a memoir that’s done all right.”
Blunt’s husband is Stanley Tucci, whom she met at the wedding of her sister, the actress Emily Blunt, and the actor John Krasinski in the summer of 2010. They started dating, bonded over a shared love of food, and married two years later. (The couple, who live in London, have two young children, and Blunt is stepmother to Tucci’s three children from his first marriage.) That makes Blunt the rare literary agent whose wedding photos merited a story in the Daily Mail.
But her famous family members have nothing to do with Blunt’s professional success. That comes down to a deep and unpretentious love of reading, and a deft set of political skills. She mentions that one of her favorite books is Robert Graves’s fictionalized account of the Roman Empire, I, Claudius, and it makes sense—it’s a novel that’s both deeply entertaining and suffused with the kind of deal-making that Blunt engages in daily at Curtis Brown, one of the world’s leading, and most cutthroat, literary agencies.
Not that you can imagine Blunt—English-rose beautiful, hair loosely pinned up, dressed in chic wide-leg trousers and a slouchy cardigan—getting up to the bloodthirsty stuff that happened in the Roman court. Although she is a dab hand at butchery: Tucci writes in his memoir that plucking pheasants with her was “one of the most romantic mornings I have ever spent sitting down.” When her main course arrives during our lunch, Blunt fillets her sole with one elegant sweep of her knife.
Stanley Tucci writes in his memoir that plucking pheasants with Felicity Blunt was “one of the most romantic mornings I have ever spent sitting down.”
Blunt’s route into the book world was an unusual one.
She didn’t study literature, although she was a voracious reader from childhood on. Growing up in London, her aim on library visits was to get from the children’s section to the adults’ as quickly as possible. “One of the first things I picked up was Jilly Cooper’s Riders. My mum didn’t know what it was—she was like, Oh lovely, a horse on the front.” (Blunt now represents Cooper and is an executive producer on an adaptation of her 1988 novel, Rivals, currently in production for Disney+.)
For Blunt, books were always for pleasure. “I hated having to break down texts,” she says of her school years. “What did Shakespeare think? None of us really know! We’d be making it up, and it’s quite presumptuous.” Instead she focused on math, biology, and chemistry, followed by law at the University of Bristol. She originally intended to become a criminal barrister, like her father. Then, just as she was about to start a pupillage (the final stage of training for a barrister), she realized she was on the wrong path.
“I hadn’t thought about publishing as a career until I was faced with the barrel of going in to work as a barrister and thought, I really actually don’t want to do this,” Blunt says. She joined Curtis Brown as an intern and has been there for 17 years now. “As soon as I walked through the doors, I was like, I never want to leave this building. And clearly I never have.”
Blunt’s legal background is some help when it comes to the contractual side (though she stresses that she’s not an entertainment lawyer). Her favorite part of the job, though, is discovering and nurturing talent across genres: “That book that you didn’t sell for huge sums of money at auction—it got into the hands of an editor who loved it. They got the cover right; they championed it. How exciting!” Her submissions are open.
“As soon as I walked through the doors” of Curtis Brown, one of the world’s leading, most cutthroat literary agencies, “I was like, I never want to leave this building. And clearly I never have.”
The business has changed during Blunt’s time working, and many of those changes are welcome. “When I first joined, there were a lot of covers of women’s fiction with either shoes or handbags on the front,” she says, tartly. Publishing is no longer so dismissive of women, who, after all, make up the majority of authors and readers. There’s also an appetite for writers whose class or cultural background might previously have led to their being overlooked.
And while she’s glad to see the demise of some of the clichéd writing that was once perpetrated by the Great White Male school of authors, “I do feel wary of entering a phase of fiction writing where people only write what their lived experience is,” Blunt says. The rules, she points out, are slippery: “I could write a novel about a Roman centurion, but if I decided to write about a Black Roman centurion, would that be a problem?”
She worries, too, about how unforgiving literary culture can be. “This idea of cancellation is the thing that I find the most troubling.” There are, she says, crimes that are truly unforgivable, not to mention illegal—sexual abuse against children or women, for example—“but what about recovery? Are there different versions of fucking up? At the moment, any mistake, it’s all in capitals.”
Blunt’s recent triumphs bring high expectations. “What am I selling for the London Book Fair?” (which takes place later this month); “I don’t know,” she says, laughing. Pressure, though, is integral to the job. She describes agents as resembling swans—gliding elegantly on the surface for the benefit of their clients, thrashing wildly below water. When she sends off a sample or a proposal to an editor, “That’s where all the adrenaline comes from. That’s where the real fear comes.”
As we finish our mains, she points out that she’s eaten most of the potatoes I ordered. But then, she also gave me a large slice of her fish. Blunt is simply a natural deal-maker, and she’s at her best making deals over the things she loves, whether that’s food or books.
“I can’t believe my luck,” says the empress of the London publishing scene, and from the way she smiles, you can tell she means it.
The London Book Fair will take place April 18–20
Sarah Ditum is a London-based journalist