Philippa Donovan expert

Our expert this week is Philippa Donovan who founded Smart Quill in 2011, which offers bespoke author services, allowing for manuscripts to be edited to ensure they are ready for submission and publication. She has also been a reader for several television series, selecting manuscripts to develop for the screen and preparing them for filming. During her career, Philippa has worked with some of the most popular TV shows of the decade, including; The Handmaid’s Tale, House of Cards, The Walking Dead, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Wentworth. Here, Ultimate Library ask our expert about her desert island book choices, the journey from the page to the screen and some of her most memorable experiences of reading abroad.

What made you want to start Smart Quill Editorial? 

I was commissioning fiction for a publisher but having less to do with authors and more to do with spreadsheets! I decided there was space for earlier interaction with authors – helping them to edit their work before they found a publisher, or even an agent. It was the age of “disintermediation”, when digital was just peeking above the threshold, so it made sense to see if editorial could be taken out of the context of a publishing house and made available for everyone. The business developed from editing, to recommending books to literary agents (now called pre-agenting). I then started recommending books to film and tv producers, and now I scout books for them directly.

Which 3 books would you want to be stranded with on a Desert Island and why?

Oh wow. What a question! Middlemarch, because it reminds me of what it is to be human; with its facets and nuances, it stands up to multiple rereads.I Capture the Castle, because it is just utter joy and hope. And anything by John Le Carre, because he uses such unusual narrative formations, it makes me read slowly! 

What factors make a book eligible for converting to the screen and what is your favourite book-screen adaptation?

Scope is very important – i.e how long the timeline runs, and setting – i.e. where it runs. Also the POV. First person is notoriously difficult to adapt without a clunky voiceover, and unreliable narrators are especially tough to translate from book to screen. I heard once that it is extensive characterisation that makes for good tv, and extensive plot that makes a a good film. And roughly speaking, I think that is true. My favourite adaptations include Arrival (so bracing, so intellectual, and developed from a short story!), Wolf Hall (I adore anything historical) and Game of Thrones. The latter because it shows that literally anything can be done if there are enough readers/viewers clamouring for it.  

When traveling, what value does reading add to your experiences of a place?

Reading for me is quite meditative – it sort of puts my brain into a state of suspension. So if I happen to be in a place where a book was written, it somehow heightens the immersive experience. Honestly, it feels a bit like magic. I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet while I was in Italy and it was some sort of alchemy – the characters and vistas and dialogue and observations became real. Now whenever I travel I try to read something set in the same location. For example I just read Circe in Greece, and before that I read Return to the Dark Valley in Colombia. 

What have you read recently that you would want to see adapted to screen? 

An American Marriage – the characterisation is so precise, it is practically surgical. I think I read that Oprah’s production company got the rights. Also A Gentleman in Moscow, glorious in its imperial Russian detail, and Less by Andrew Sean Greer, because it made me laugh and cry. And a rather older one, that I know was optioned, but not sure where it is at in terms of adaptation – The Night Circus. It would be just sensationally luscious on screen.    

Ultimate Library want to express their gratitude to Philippa for offering us an insight into her career and reading habits for ask the expert in August 2019.