Lisa Lang’s debut novel, Utopian Man (Allen & Unwin, dist. by Trafalgar Sq.), is a fictionalized biography of the real-life Edward William Cole, who in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1880s established Cole’s Book Arcade, a wacky institution with more than one million books, a Chinese tea room, wall-to-wall mirrors, monkeys, and more.

Lang herself lives, in her words, “in a converted milk bar, an Aussie kind of general store, in the very bookish city of Melbourne.” She took about six years to craft the manuscript, adding layers to an initial “really skinny draft” and only switching from first-person to third-person narration in the final version.

Lang, 37, is also the author of the nonfiction book E.W. Cole: Chasing the Rainbow. She explains that she discovered the story of Edward Cole “during a particularly nasty time in Australian politics, when I was feeling powerless and disengaged. Funnily enough, the same issues, migration and racism, were also being thrashed out in Edward’s time, around 1900, and Edward really stood up for his beliefs. He campaigned against the government, and his arcade became an experiment in racial harmony.”

Publisher Annette Barlow says she expected great things from Utopian Man when she received the manuscript: in 2009 it had won the Australian/Vogel Literary Award, which goes to an unpublished manuscript by an author under 35 years old. Barlow continues, “But imagine my pleasure as Lisa Lang’s poetic writing style easily caught my imagination. The eccentricity, humor, and evocative atmosphere of Cole’s Book Arcade and the man behind it were captivating.”