Joël Dicker's The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, a huge bestseller in France, was one of the most talked-about books at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. When Penguin Books acquired the novel last year, it boldly announced that the deal marked the “biggest acquisition in its history.” With the book bowing in paperback on May 27, PW talked to Dicker's editor, John Siciliano, about high expectations, the difficulty of importing blockbusters and the fact that, occasionally, something French can be fun.
PW: When and how did you first hear about this book?
JS: It was during the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, where the novel inspired bidding wars around the world, and where the English-language rights were bought by Christopher MacLehose, the British publisher who acquired The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I continued to hear about it from editors from various countries—when it hit #1 in France, and then in Italy, and then in Spain, displacing Dan Brown’s Inferno from the top spot. This past November I was in Paris, having by then read the novel in its English translation—it was the most exciting submission I’d ever received, I told my colleagues—and I was still hearing about it, a full year after its French publication. In my meetings with French publishers, people would light up at the mention of it; something I heard repeatedly was, “Finally, a French novel that’s fun to read!” At that point we were in the midst of a heated auction for the book, and I knew I had to publish it.
PW: Aside from the impressive international sales, what drew you to the novel, as a reader and an editor?
JS: I loved its energy, its spirit—its exuberance, and the evident joy the author took in telling the story. I loved the cleverness of the plot—its intricacy and dizzying number of twists. I loved its celebration of books and writers—the world of the novel is an America in which a young, bestselling writer can become a household name, and in which a book has the potential to save someone’s life. And, perhaps curiously for an editor who has published books about so many different parts of the world, I loved its depiction of small-town America, and how it called to mind some of the fictional portraits of America that I’ve found indelible: those of Twin Peaks, of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, of Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, of American Beauty, John Irving's Hotel New Hampshire.
PW: So you clearly loved the book. And it was a bestseller throughout Europe. Still, what is it that merits such a big advance?
JS: Well, we certainly had competition for the rights! But aside from that I think it’s a vastly entertaining novel with massive commercial potential, a book that can appeal to both a thriller readership—several New York Times bestselling suspense novelists have spoken up for it, among them Lisa Gardner, Steve Berry, and Linda Fairstein—and also to readers of literary fiction, being a novel whose two main characters are novelists, and who grapple with the question of how to write a successful novel.
PW: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was mentioned in Penguin's initial press release about the acquisition of this book. I'm guessing that's no mistake. Do you think the young author of this novel, 28-year-old Joël Dicker, could be the next Stieg Larsson?
JS: I certainly do, although my protective instincts, as well as the hungry reader in me, want to see him live to write many more books!