Alix Christie was 10 years old when she wrote her first novel. It was about horses. She went on to hone a teenage interest in letterpress printing, which would later provide the inspiration for her debut novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Sept.). Christie studied philosophy in college and worked as a copywriter and a journalist before returning seriously to writing fiction. “I’ve always earned my living through my pen, but it’s a miracle to me that I’ve achieved my childhood dream of publishing a novel,” she says. “I attribute it to those little pieces of encouragement that kept me going: a few published stories, an honorable mention here, an award there, crumbs that kept me going on a path through the woods.”

Gutenberg’s Apprentice is extremely ambitious: it chronicles the birth of printing in 15th-century Germany and is filled with period detail. Balancing historical material with the human drama of the characters was Christie’s biggest challenge. “Research can be a pit from which one never returns,” she says. “Particularly since I worked for many years as a journalist, I had to beware focusing too much on the facts. Writing alternated with bouts of further research—the process was like a spiral in which each new draft required deepening in a particular area.”

It was this attention to craft that made HarperCollins so eager to sign Christie. Gutenberg’s Apprentice is “an impressive and powerful first novel, and the historical and technical detail give it unparalleled authenticity,” says Terry Karten, Christie’s editor at Harper. Karten first read the book on submission from Dorian Karchmar, the author’s U.S. agent, and was immediately struck by the similarities between Silicon Valley garage startups today and Gutenberg’s struggle to print the first book in his basement almost 600 years ago. Though it had nothing to do with Karten’s decision to sign the novel, she was pleased to learn that Christie has trained since her youth as a letterpress printer. “Alix is enormously knowledgeable about printing and its history, and fluent in German and French,” says Karten. “But it was the book itself that won me over.”