Debut author lands £1.5m publishing deal for 'sensational' historical novel

Debut author lands £1.5m publishing deal for 'sensational' historical novel

An American debut author has secured a £1.5m advance for her “sensational" historical novel, with Hutchinson winning the UK rights after a 12-publisher auction. 

The Bookseller can reveal that Lara Prescott has scooped a publishing deal understood to be worth $2m (£1.5m) with Knopf in the US after Jordan Pavlin, v.p. and executive editor, bought North American rights in a 14-way auction to We Were Never Here, based on the writing and publishing of the novel Doctor Zhivago, negotiated by Jeff Kleinman and Jamie Chambliss of Folio Literary Management.

In the UK, Penguin Random House publisher Selina Walker won UK and Commonwealth rights to the title excluding Canada in a high six-figure deal following a 12-publisher auction managed by Lorella Belli of the Lorella Belli Literary Agency.

Hutchinson will publish the debut in spring 2020. The work has sold in more than 11 territories including France, Italy, Norway, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Israel, Sweden, Poland and Serbia, with sales in six more international territories pending. Lucy Stille at APA holds film rights.

Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago takes place between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Second World War. It was refused publication in Russia because it was considered anti-Soviet, but smuggled to Italy where it was released in 1957. The CIA quickly realised the novel presented an opportunity to embarrass the Soviet government and set out to publish a Russian-language edition, arranging for it to be distributed at the 1958 Brussels world's fair. Pasternak went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature that year.

Prescott’s novel tells the story of how Doctor Zhivago was written and published through the voices of those involved, including Pasternak’s mistress and muse, Olga Ivinskaya, the women of the CIA typing pool, college graduates and former spies who were all involved in smuggling the book back in to Russia "in a clandestine mission to weaponise literature". 

Walker said she "loved this book from its very first sentence and read it all in one gulp knowing we absolutely had to publish it”. 

"It’s the best type of historical fiction that enlightens the reader while keeping us gripped to the page,” she said. "It’s about hidden heroes, secret passions, heartbreak and suffering, and the power to endure. Most of all though it’s about an extraordinary book, and how its contents had the power to change readers’ lives – something that resonates with us today as much as it did in the 1950s when Doctor Zhivago was first published."

“Lara Prescott has written an irresistible literary page-turner,” Pavlin told The Bookseller. “A suspenseful, deeply romantic novel of soaring emotional intensity about the love story between Boris Pasternak and his muse, and the heroic women in the CIA’s typing pool who became spies charged with helping Doctor Zhivago to make its journey into print around the world."

She added: "Lara Prescott’s command on the page is stunning, and her portraits of the women around Pasternak are unforgettable. This is the beginning of a major career, and we are elated to have Lara Prescott on the Knopf list.”

Prescott's intensive research involved travelling to Russia and procuring obscure items related to Doctor Zhivago on eBay, including a miniature copy of title in Russian produced by the CIA and covertly distributed behind the Iron Curtain as well as original articles on Pasternak and Zhivago from the late 1950s.

Formerly a political consultant, Prescott lives in Austin, Texas, and has an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, where she began writing the novel. She grew up in Pennsylvania and studied political science at American University in Washington, D.C. and international development in Namibia and South Africa.

Prescott has previously been published in journals such as The Southern Review, The Hudson Review, Crazyhorse, Day One and Tin House Flash Friday.

She described feeling “humbled and thrilled” by the response to her novel.

“The incredible story of the writing of Doctor Zhivago and its clandestine distribution—of how governments once believed books could change the world—is one that needs to be told, perhaps now more than ever.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with Jordan Pavlin at Knopf in the United States and Selina Walker at Hutchinson in the United Kingdom to bring that story to readers worldwide."