Anthony Sheil - a loyal and ferocious champion

Benjamin Woolley and Harriet Tuckey • 12 January 2017

Benjamin Woolley and Harriet Tuckey recall the literary agent, whose death was announced on Tuesday
Benjamin Woolley writes
Books were in Anthony Sheil's blood - the gambling as well as the published sort. Soon after he had graciously agreed to act as my agent in the early 1990s, I was struggling with a biography of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Byron and reputedly the world's first computer programmer. Letters revealed that towards the end of her life she had opened a book on the 1851 Epsom Derby, a venture that had resulted in financial catastrophe. As a non-gambler, I had no idea of the risks involved, so, knowing Anthony had an interest in horse racing, I rang him to see if he could throw any light on the matter.

A deep passion was exposed, one that went back to his Anglo-Irish roots in the world of horse breeding. He expertly explained the technicalities, could even recall the sensational result of that year's race. But our conversation also revealed a great deal about his approach to books of the published sort. It explained his mastery of the strange alchemy of calculation and instinct that the publishing world demands, the ability to be both hard-headed and audacious, to have a discriminating eye with a glint of mischief. As the agent who had represented authors ranging from John Fowles to Catherine Cookson, it was also obvious that he knew how to pick a winner.

For those lucky enough to be in the Sheil stable, he was a loyal, and, when necessity required, ferocious champion. Once a BBC representative negotiating with him about a documentary rang me to ask if I would call him off and deal direct. I respectfully demurred, and suitable terms were duly agreed. But Anthony could be demanding of his authors too, a casual question or remark about a draft revealing with uncanny precision its flaws before they had a chance to propagate.

For those of us who became familiar and comfortable with his raffish charm, erudite conversation, impish humour and easy laughter, who have enjoyed his hospitality and benefited from his generosity, not even the political upheavals promised in 2017 will relieve the duller prospect opened up by the loss of such a splendid gentleman.

Harriet Tuckey writes
"I never go to publishers' parties," Anthony Sheil told me, "but I went to this one quite by chance." He was telling me how, against all the odds, he had managed to sell my book in 2012 and to do so very well.

"I got talking to her," he explained, "and I knew after four minutes that she was the one." "She" was the commissioning editor from a well-known publishing house about to be hooked on his fly.

"But don‘t think I didn't work for it… don't think I didn't work for it," Anthony insisted, a Mephistophelian smile creeping over his face as one of his hands grasped an imaginary fishing rod while the other wound in the reel energetically. "I reeled her in," he remembered, with obvious delight; "Oh yes, I reeled her in!"

The book, a first book about an unknown scientist by an unknown, middle-aged female author, was hardly an attractive prospect for an agent to sell.

I had first met Anthony when I sat next to him at a local event in London. Tall, very thin, with tousled hair and 1960s designer stubble, he was wearing an imperfectly tucked-in billowing white shirt with open neck and unbuttoned cuffs, and looked rather as if he had been gently dragged through a hedge backwards. He had a pleasantly attractive - almost pretty - face, a languid, amused manner, and a drawling, upper class voice. I had no idea that he was a famous literary agent, but I started telling him the story of why I was attempting to write my first and only book. He listened intently, then said: "When it is finished send it to me." I only discovered who he was later, and I did send him the finished book.

I got no response for about four months, after which he telephoned and said in a kind but brutal way: "I can't possibly read it, I can't possibly see what the story is, it's far too long. Why don't you try vanity publishing."

I rewrote the book, helped by an editor, and sent him a new synopsis over a year later. Replying at once, he called for the whole book, read it and accepted it, telling me it would be exceedingly difficult to sell but "a fascinating challenge". I think it must have amused him to see if, now semi- retired, he could still do it.

Shortly afterwards I went to his office with my editor to talk about the book. "It needs cutting," he told me. And furthermore, "It's got some pretty tough stretches." After various other negative, though no doubt deserved, comments, I came away from the meeting thinking, "Wasn't there anything good you could say about it?" It was his wife Annette who took me aside at a dinner at his flat a few weeks later and whispered to me: "Anthony thinks very highly of your book." She clearly knew that where Anthony was concerned there might be a call for a few "warm fuzzies" to encourage the insecure, slightly deflated author.

Anthony and I went out to lunch together a few times during the publishing process, and while he was always completely honest about his view of my work, he was also encouraging and supportive, sometimes inspiring, and always amusing; but there was a slight yet pervasive atmosphere of melancholy about him too. Occasionally he spoke about himself. His first girlfriend, for many years the love of his life, would have been 104 years old if she were still alive, he once told me. But more often he spoke of how lucky he felt to have found Annette. He was a wonderful, fascinating, subtle man with a gift for words, who ought himself to have been a writer, I always felt. Though many people knew him far better than I did, I felt it was a great privilege to work with him, and fun. He was kind and truthful. He knew how to be nasty nicely. I will feel bereft without him.

Anthony Sheil dies