Welcome to It’s Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who’s reading what.
"I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read," says Kate Loftus-O'Brien, a literary scout for film and television. Her early love of stories led her to study literature and film at university, where she struggled to pick a favourite. A chance encounter meant she didn’t have to. Previous It’s Lit interviewee Sharmaine Lovegrove was sourcing books for producers when they met. "Scouting wasn’t a job I was aware of until I started doing it," explains Loftus-O’Brien. "Here was someone telling me that a job existed slap bang in the middle of both film and literature?" She couldn’t believe her luck.
Loftus-O’Brien launched her consultancy KLO Scouting in 2016. Seeking the best storytelling opportunities, she scouts novels, long reads, nonfiction titles and even podcasts that are ripe for adaptation. "I’m my clients’ eyes and ears in the publishing world… It’s a job that’s part spy and part matchmaker," she says. Her finds include Adam Kay’s bestseller This is Going To Hurt, John Marrs’ self-published success story The One and Stephen Fulcher’s true-crime memoir Catching a Serial Killer, which airs on ITV this month as A Confession. "This year so far I've had clients option a brilliantly juicy Korean thriller, several fascinating nonfiction projects and a supernatural YA mystery with a kickass heroine. Hopefully some of these will be greenlit in the coming months so I can tell you more about them," she laughs.
We visited her at home in east London to find out more about her unique job and discovered a love of coming-of-age stories, secondhand books and Tony Soprano.
Who taught you to read?
I’m sure that both of my parents were equally responsible but as a child I read a lot with my dad. My mum is a very high energy person and whenever she would put me to bed as a kid, the whole process would somehow just be too exciting! We’d still be up chatting when I was supposed to be asleep and inevitably my dad would get called in. I think at some point she just relinquished bedtime duties to him. For years we would read together every night – we both loved stories with a little bit of magic, so all the Philip Pullman books, early Harry Potter, Garth Nix. One World Book Day I dressed up as Lyra from Northern Lights and he made me an alethiometer out of a compass and some protractors spray-painted gold. We stuck Wingdings characters all around the edge and made up a little key as to what each symbol meant, and I wore a bracelet with magnets so I could manipulate the needle! I feel really lucky to have grown up in a house where reading was encouraged and celebrated like that.
What are you reading right now?
It can be hard to fit in personal reading and I feel like my attention span is not an infinite resource, so when I’m reading purely for my own pleasure I tend to be responsive and pick up whatever it is that most interests me in the moment. I’m so used to holding several books and plotlines in my head at once anyway, I don’t think I’m ever going to be a person who diligently reads and finishes one book and then picks up the next – unless it’s Elena Ferrante! On my personal pile right now are: Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror and Darcey Steinke’s Suicide Blonde, which was a recommendation from a writer friend, Saskia Vogel. I feel like writers give the best recommendations because they’re such attentive readers. I’m really enjoying all three of these, for very different reasons.
Where and when do you read?
Pretty much everywhere. I get a lot of good reading done on the bus, on my sofa and on the armchair in my office – although I wish I could fit more of my reading time into normal work hours! I like reading outside when it’s sunny but I’m often reading manuscripts on my iPad and the glare is annoying. I don’t really go in for baths, and I read less in bed now than I used to – if I am reading in bed then it can’t be something I’m reading for clients and it has to be a physical book.
Where do you buy your books? Do you have a favourite bookshop?
My local bookshop is Pages of Hackney. I share very similar taste to one of the main booksellers there, which is a mixed blessing because most of what she recommends to me I’ve already read but then we can just geek out over it. I like Burley Fisher in Dalston; I feel like they host the best launches. I also have a soft spot for Skoob, a secondhand bookshop in Bloomsbury. When I first moved to London at 18 my halls were on the same street, so I bought lots of stuff in there. I love buying secondhand books and seeing little annotations and love notes inside. Plus they smell good.
Which book or literary character do you relate to the most?
I’m such a sucker for a coming-of-age story. I keep thinking I’ll grow out of it but it hasn’t happened yet. So now I’m thinking maybe every story is a coming-of-age story in one way or another? I love Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. I avoided reading it for years. I didn’t go to private school and never had boarding school fantasies, and I had this perception of her as a bit fluffy – it’s a perception she comments on so cleverly in a New Yorker short story, Show Don’t Tell – but I love that book and its main character, Lee Fiora. Sittenfeld is such a perceptive, smart, funny and engaging writer. In that novel she so deftly explores issues of class, gender, friendship and what we owe our parents and our peers.
I do think it’s worth thinking quite critically about the way we uphold relatability as a key quality to look for in fiction, though. As a white woman, so much of literary culture caters to me, and I think it’s crucial that as an industry, and as readers, we’re making more of an effort to engage with stories that we might not immediately think of as relatable to our everyday experiences. Everyone deserves the pleasure of feeling seen. Of reading a sentence and discovering that someone else has articulated a messy, murky feeling you can recognise but perhaps hadn't found a way of vocalising yet.
What’s your favourite book-to-film adaptation?
Oh that’s so tough! I didn’t necessarily get into scouting because I love adaptations (although I do); I think I’m just a story addict. I love all those teen movies based on classics: Clueless, Cruel Intentions, Ten Things I Hate About You. It’s kind of genius to transpose those books, which are so concerned with class, hierarchy and matchmaking, to the world of high school, where teenagers are totally preoccupied with social standing and who they might make out with. Lately I’ve loved things like Call Me By Your Name, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Sisters Brothers and Killing Eve. Maybe an all-time favourite for me is The Talented Mr. Ripley. I can’t resist a character who messes with your moral compass and pulls you in as much as they repulse you. And that movie is just so ridiculously lush. It’s like overdosing on a pure Amalfi lemon-scented summer.
What are you looking for when you’re scouting?
I feel like I’m always looking for stories with a really strong sense of tension. I don’t necessarily mean like somebody’s been murdered and we need to find out who did it before they strike again, although it’s often appealing if a character is against the clock in some way. Usually it’s an internal tension within a character or a set-up, or something that tackles a key question that you can’t help but keep worrying at, the same way you wiggle a tooth when it’s loose. I think for an audience the moments of a story that really draw you in are where the character has a difficult decision to make; we like seeing people who are torn and pulled in different directions because it forces us to get involved and wonder what we’d do in their place. It’s also about finding characters that an audience is going to love, or connect with, or be sort of horribly compelled by. I’m basically always looking for someone that gives me that Tony Soprano feeling, the kind of character you could scream at from the sidelines because you wish they were behaving better but who you can’t help but root for anyway.
How do you organise your bookshelves?
One bookshelf is just fiction and it’s vaguely alphabetical, then there’s a shelf for short story collections and a shelf for classics but a lot of my classics still live at my parents’ house in Manchester. I have separate shelves for nonfiction, poetry, reference books, food writing and cookbooks and then one shelf for new things that come in that I need to read.
I don’t really know how useful it is to have things alphabetically organised. I used to just group things together intuitively or depending on what looked nice or wherever there was space. Probably that’s what I’ll return to. What it was good for though was making me realise all the books I’ve lent to friends and never got back! If anyone is reading this and they have my copy of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, can I have them back?
What do you use as a bookmark?
My auntie actually gave me a really cute bookmark with a lino print on it as part of a Christmas gift. I wish I could say I use it but I just dog-ear pages. I am a really messy reader and I'm forever folding down pages so I can refer back to particular scenes, or sentences that blew me away or made me laugh.
Which magazines are you faithful to?
I’m probably not exactly faithful to any! I have a subscription to The New Yorker online for work, but also for fun. I kind of want a subscription to the physical magazine but then I know they would all pile up and make me feel bad if I didn’t get to them. I buy The Paris Review sometimes, depending on who is in it. I love reading interviews with writers about their process, how stories come together and the deep thinking behind them. I get The Stinging Fly quite a lot. I love The Believer magazine but it’s hard to find it in the UK, and I mourn the loss of Lucky Peach, which was just a slice of pure joy. I’m a big fan of food writing.
Have you ever belonged to a book club?
No. Sometimes doing this job kind of feels like I’m in a giant book club? It’s such a privilege to spend most of my days talking about stories and story mechanics but I think I’m too fiercely protective of my personal reading time to be in a book club and have my reading dictated by other people – I just don’t know how relaxing I’d find that, given what I do for a living.
I do think it’s good to chat to people outside of the publishing industry about what they like and what they’re responding to. A fun thing about this job is that when people ask you what you do, they’ll often then want to tell you what they’ve recently read and loved.
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
I pride myself on being good at matchmaking a reader with a book they’ll love, so it’s hard to be so general! A novel I’ve been really evangelical about is In The Distance by Hernan Diaz. It’s set in the 19th century and follows a young Swedish boy who loses his older brother en route to America. Once there, he sets out from San Francisco heading east against the tide of westward migration, in hopes of being reunited. It’s such a moving portrait of migration and the experience of foreignness. America is rendered in almost surreal terms with lots of sensory detail – the texture of animal skins, the acoustics of the canyons. It’s incredibly cinematic.
I think I’d also pick James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk: it’s exquisite, romantic, political and a beautiful portrait of a family. Finally, I think everyone should read the stories in Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour at least once but preferably multiple times.
Kate’s Reading List
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Suicide Blonde by Darcey Steinke
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
In The Distance by Hernan Diaz
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill