A novel relationship: Paul and Susan Feldstein of The Feldstein Agency
He's from the Bronx, she's from Bangor. He plays poker, she plays the piano. They got married twice and run Northern Ireland's Feldstein literary agency, which represents many well-known names
When a Bangor-born publisher met her future husband, he was her business rival. Now their romance reads like the plot of one of the many books they seek to make bestsellers.
Susan Feldstein (50) is one half of Northern Ireland's only independent literary agency, the Feldstein Agency, which she runs with Paul (59), who is originally from the Bronx in New York.
"Deciding, as a couple, to work together is a bit like deciding to get married or to live together - you are basing your decision on a gut feeling that it will work out and work well. But you won't know what the reality is like until you live it," she says.
For the couple, launching their low-key business from an unassuming office on Bangor's Abbey Street was a calculated risk they were happy to take.
Both successful publishers in their own right, having amassed a vast collective experience in commissioning, editing and selling books to audiences across Europe and the United States, the couple took a professional leap of faith after tying the knot in 2006, having met while pitching and networking for their respective employers during the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2004.
"We actually got married twice," Susan recalls with a grin. "Once in Paul's front room in the States, with his parents as our guests, and once in Crawfordsburn, which otherwise became known as our 'real' wedding, even though we were already married."
Subsequently, the happy couple chose to settle down in Susan's native Bangor, a world away from the pressurised, conveyor belt environment of the inner-city publishing houses they had both worked for in New York and London.
For many years, both harboured ambitions of running their own literary agencies - of discovering and developing new authors, setting their own work hours and ultimately deciding their own professional and personal destinies.
Since setting up the Feldstein Agency, Susan and Paul have played a part in the publication of scores of books, including the acclaimed Celcius Daly crime novels by Co Tyrone author Anthony Quinn, and Dream On by John Richardson. Those initial months of working in each other's pockets, however, perhaps unsurprisingly proved rather difficult to navigate.
"In our previous premises, we each had our own office, and a couple of spare rooms, too, so sharing a work space together was fine. However, in our current space we share a big office space, so it has been a bit of an adjustment," Susan explains, before joking: "For the first week, I frequently found myself in spare moments Googling 'room dividers' and trawling the Ikea website for stud walls.
"Now, though, things are fine. Maybe it's because we didn't get together until a bit later in life, but I think we both have a really good sense of who we are as individuals, and this really helps when living and working together."
Having blazed trails in their respective fields - Susan in marketing and commissioning in London and finally with Belfast-based publishing house Blackstaff Press, and Paul as managing director of Vermont's Trafalgar Square Publishing, working on marketing Irish and UK titles in America - both achieved great things as worker ants climbing their individual career ladders.
Downsizing in order to gain greater creative control as a terrific twosome was appealing - no more office politics to deal with, no uncomfortable bonding sessions in far-flung conference centres to muddle through, no boring Christmas parties to suffer and no relying on others to get the job done. This way, both Susan and Paul can work on projects that genuinely interest and inspire them on a personal level, rather than having to polish whatever is thrown on their desks.
"The biggest reward in launching our own agency has been finding new authors," Paul beams, "and then getting them publishing deals. Holding their finished books in our hands is always such a thrill.
"How do we choose which ideas to go with? Our tastes differ slightly. For pleasure, I primarily read crime fiction and thrillers, whereas Susan loves the classics of English literature - Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence - but at work, our opinions rarely conflict.
"We give each other relative autonomy in terms of signing up author clients, and we trust each other's judgment."
Paul fell in love with literature as a boy growing up in the tiny village of Dobbs Ferry in Westchester County, New York, near the mighty Hudson River. Creativity ran in the family. "My only sibling, my brother David, lives in Toronto, Canada, and was a piano prodigy as a child," Paul says. "He went to the Juilliard School of Music from age six. He is now happily retired."
Susan, meanwhile, comes from a family of six and enjoyed a happy childhood in Co Down along with her elder sister, Tanya, and two younger brothers, Peter and Fergus, who sadly passed away aged 21.
"We don't have any children ourselves," Susan says, "but family is really important to both of us. We try to see as much of my parents as possible and also love to spend time with our gorgeous nephews and nieces.
"As well as that, we visit New York three to four times a year to see Paul's mum, Sandra, as well as Paul's friends and other family."
With the Feldstein Agency, Susan and Paul now provide some much-needed support for Northern Irish authors writing in fiction, non-fiction, memoir and more.
They represent well-known names such as journalist and BBC Northern Ireland presenter Mark Carruthers - the author of Alternative Ulsters - and comic memoirist Tony Macaulay, whose Bread Boy, Paper Boy and All Growed Up have proven to be incredibly popular in Northern Ireland and across North America. The Feldsteins have also brought novels, history, true crime and self-help books to the market.
Deadlines, edits, word counts and contracts can take their toll, however, and so regular holidays abroad help to relieve the stresses and strains of running their own business. Travelling is another part of the literary life that both Susan and Paul are passionate about.
"We travel a lot, mainly through our work, visiting book fairs in cities across Europe every year, but also during our downtime," comments Paul. "We love immersing ourselves in different cultures, eating great food, seeing new sights. Susan loves visiting New York and the surrounding area, while my favourite destination is Venice.
"I've been to Venice 20 times and I still find it magical. The first time I was there, somehow I could find my way around without a map, as if I'd visited in a previous life.
"I love Italy generally, but before I started travelling there, I visited Ireland on holiday many times, the first time being back in 1984, on a Yeats pilgrimage."
"I'm happy that we settled in Bangor, though," adds Susan. "I lived away from home from the age of 18-31, studying in Scotland, living in Germany, France and England, as I'm of the generation who were encouraged to get as far away from Northern Ireland as was humanly possible, to escape all of the political problems and get a broader view on life.
"However, when I came back, I realised just how much I actually like this place. With the ceasefires and then the Good Friday Agreement, the mid to late Nineties was an exciting time to be in Northern Ireland, and it really felt like things were opening up and changing here at that point.
"Thankfully, Paul loves Bangor too. We usually spend Christmas with my parents and extended family, although this year, we're hosting for the first time."
It helps that their home, a ground floor apartment on Bangor's Princetown Road - "five minute's walk from the Coastal Path, where we go walking quite a lot", says Susan - has never proved to be a dumping ground for work-related paraphernalia, with hallways and spare rooms piling up with published books and unread manuscripts (of which they receive around a thousand each year in the post).
Ever astute, Susan and Paul determined from the beginning to keep their personal and professional lives separate, and thus have always managed the Feldstein Agency from a separate office in town - although switching off in the evening and at weekends is not always easy to do.
"Working with your partner/spouse can be challenging anyway, of course," Susan acknowledges, "but we both realised just how much more challenging it would be if we were to work together in our shared living space.
"Sometimes we do find ourselves discussing a work issue last thing at night, or first thing on a weekend morning (not good), but one or both of us will soon suggest that we should leave the discussion for another time. We try not to let our projects encroach too much on our home lives."
Away from the office, and the cut and thrust of 21st century publishing, both Susan and Paul spend their time indulging in other pursuits. Paul is a veteran poker player, who regularly takes part in competitions in Dublin and further afield, while Susan likes nothing more than to search for finds at vintage fairs and play piano at home.
"The perfect night off," Susan concludes, "would involve a cocktail or two at our favourite bar in Bangor, The Salty Dog, followed by a lovely Italian meal, as Paul is a bit of a foodie. Who knows, at some point, he may get to publish a cookbook."