Some publishing stories should begin with a cautionary aside to aspiring writers: This is not the way things usually happen. This is one of those stories.
Mira Bartók is an established and accomplished writer. Her memoir, The Memory Palace, won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and included in The Best American Essays series. In the 1990s, she authored a nonfiction series of cultural studies for young readers.
But she had never written a novel. Technically, she still hasn’t.
Nonetheless, The Wonderling, a novel she has started but not yet finished, has already been sold – not just to a publisher (Candlewick Press in a two-book deal) – but to Hollywood. Fox Studios paid seven figures for the rights and has already announced that Tony-winning and Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry will direct. Bartók will also illustrate the novel herself.
“The first pages were so strong that I did feel really confident that I could sell it as a partial,” said Bartók’s agent Jennifer Gates, a partner at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. So Gates shopped a detailed synopsis and 100 manuscript pages about the adventures of two groundlings (half-human/half something else) who escape from Miss Carbunkle’s Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures. Multiple publishers expressed immediate interest. She set a date for an auction.
One of those publishers was Candlewick’s Karen Lotz, who was vacationing in the southwest corner of England when the partial was being delivered electronically to editors. “We were staying in a cottage on a cliff with no cell phone reception and no Internet at a moment when I really wanted to be in touch with the office,” Lotz recalled. When her assistant was finally able to get her the manuscript, Lotz found that the book’s Gothic atmosphere eerily matched Cornwall’s stormy, seaside landscape. She read the story aloud to her children while they waited out a torrential downpour in a car outside Tintagel Castle, the legendary home of King Arthur. “It was actually the most perfect setting to read this book,” Lotz said. “I loved it from the very first page.”
Meanwhile, back at Gates’s office, two agents from CAA arrived for a meeting with someone else. “They happened to overhear me talking about The Wonderling to one of my colleagues as I was giving a very exciting update,” Gates said. The agents asked for the partial and read it overnight.
The next message Gates sent to editors who had expressed an interest in Bartók’s novel was a stunner: those CAA agents loved the story and sent the partial to filmmakers. Fox Studios came back quickly with a “seven-figure pre-empt.”
“Put that into your thinking for round two” of the auction, Gates wrote the editors.
Bartók, who lives “simply, and month to month” with her husband, a musician, in what she describes as an economically depressed region of western Massachusetts, suddenly faced an unprecedented situation: a movie deal, and a bevy of offers from some of the best editors working in children’s literature today. “All the editors I spoke with were amazing,” she said. “They were so passionate about the book and they had great suggestions. It was an incredible gift just to get to talk to all of them.”
Ultimately, Bartók chose Candlewick after spending an afternoon at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in nearby Amherst doing some hands-on research. “I went into their bookstore and asked the bookseller, ‘Can you just bear with me?’ I pulled out about 30 books, not looking at who the publisher was, but judging them by their design,” Bartók said. “All but about four of them were from Candlewick. I’ve never illustrated a book, although I’ve done every other kind of art. So I felt like I will learn to be a really good illustrator by working with their team. That was a huge deal for me but, believe me, it was still a hard decision.”
She also felt affinity for Candlewick because the company is employee-owned. Readers of Bartók’s memoir are familiar with her hardscrabble upbringing: abandoned by her father, abused and frightened by her schizophrenic mother, a classically trained pianist whose illness eventually lead to homelessness. As adults, Bartók and her sister wound up changing their names and hiding their whereabouts to avoid their mother’s harassment and violent threats.
“I come from such humble origins, growing up in a working-class neighborhood, and believing in strong unions, that I just love that that’s how they run their company,” Bartók said.
Being within driving distance of Candlewick’s offices outside of Boston was also a plus. “She can work directly with our art director, Chris Paul, in our office,” Lotz said. “The book will have every bell and whistle, and there will be lavish attention to the production specs,” she promised. A fall 2017 release date is planned.
Between now and then, Bartók has work to do. She’s already been to Los Angeles to meet with the Fox executives who enthusiastically embraced her story: now she has to finish it. Though she is a veteran writer, she has spent more than a decade recovering from a traumatic brain injury, called coup contrecoup, which she suffered when a semi-trailer on the New York State Thruway plowed into a car Bartók was riding in. She had to relearn how to paint, read, write, even speak.
Having to overcome so much adversity makes the serendipity that has greeted her first novel all the sweeter, said her agent. “There is no one more deserving,” Gates said. “She has worked so hard for all of this.”