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John F. Baker -- 1/31/00

New Word on Washington
That's George, the Father of Our Country, not the capital, and he is now the subject of a half-million-dollar preemptive buy, from agent Howard Morhaim, by Elisabeth Sifton at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She was paying for a new book by Henry Weincek, a noted historian whose The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White was just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. The new book seems likely to put George in the same context as recent books about Thomas Jefferson -- as an aristocratic Southern slave owner. It will be called An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America, and offers, said Morhaim, an unprecedented look at Washington's lifelong struggle with the slavery question and his eventual triumph over it. (Weincek also noted that up to 25% of Washington's Revolutionary Army was black.) The agent had planned an auction, but Sifton made her preemptive world rights offer well before that could happen.

The Starr Chamber
When the special prosecutor in the Clinton case, Ken Starr, signed to do a book, the obvious expectation was that it would be his account of the impeachment proceedings against the president. What turned out to interest Starr, however -- and persuaded Warner trade publishing chairman Larry Kirshbaum to sign him up (for a sum no one is talking about) -- was a book about the Supreme Court. The tentatively titled The Search for the Center: The Supreme Court in American Life is a notion Starr has been shopping around for some time, and will analyze how the Court has shifted in recent years from an activist to a restraining role. Starr served for four years a decade ago as solicitor general, arguing government cases before the Court. Les Pockell will edit the book at Warner for publication in fall 2001, and the North American-only deal was signed with Starr's agent, Glen Hartley at Writers Representatives Inc.

'Anonymous' Is Back
The author of the best-known, and bestselling, anonymous novel of recent years, New Yorker political correspondent J Klein, is about to launch another political novel on the world. It is The Running Mate, which Susan Kamil at the Dial Press will publish as soon as this April. This one is about a senator who is also a Vietnam War hero, and is forced to face off with an unscrupulous and charming opponent, as well as with a woman who loves him but disapproves of his political life. "It's about the difficulties of being a politician and a human being at the same time," said Klein. The deal was made with Kathy Robbins of The Robbins Office, who sold only North American rights and will be handling serial, foreign and performance rights herself.

Hot Buttons
A new book just bought by senior editor Dan Smetanka at Ballantine embraces a number of elements that currently interest readers, encouraging him to offer a significant six-figure advance to author Peter Stark for Last Breath: Death at the Extremes of Endurance and a second book, in a world rights deal. Smetanka excitedly describes it as "a How We Die for the Jon Krakauer set," and said it is an examination of worst-case adventure and sports scenarios. Stark's agent, Frances Kuffel at the Jean Naggar agency, said her attention was first drawn by his detailed account of the process of death by hypothermia in Outside magazine two years ago; that essay was included in the year's Best American Essays anthology and prompted her suggestion that he could expand it into a book. The deal with Smetanka wasn't the easiest to conduct, on both sides. Agent communicated with author, via a 13-hour time difference, in Bali (where priests did a good-luck dance for him), and editor Smetanka was sitting on packing cases in the middle of his house's move to the Bertelsmann building. Ballantine sub rights directors Terry Henry and Rachel Kind will be fielding an anticipated rush of overseas offers.

Short Takes
Diane Reverand
at HarperCollins/Cliff Street has signed novelist Michelle Chalfoun to a second book after last year's Roustabout scored a hit and was sold to the movies for Winona Ryder. She paid agent Mary Evans well into six figures for The Width of the Sea, a book about a New England fishing village and the challenges it faces... Eric Chimski at Houghton Mifflin has bought a new book by Paul Fussell; his Uniforms, described as in the tradition of Class, will examine the many ways in which uniforms reflect American culture and character. The agent, for North American only, was Chris Calhoun at Sterling Lord.
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