When Julie Barer, literary agent and partner at the Book Group, sent me the bound manuscript of Nick Dybek’s second novel, The Verdun Affair, I immediately thought of how many powerful World War I novels I’d read: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, and even a recent one, Not All Bastards Are from Vienna, by Italian author Andrea Molesini, who I saw at BookExpo in Chicago in 2016.
When Barer sold Verdun to Valerie Steiker at Scribner—which had made a great success of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See—she believed Steiker would “know where to put it, would know how to publish it.”
Verdun is a second book, and second books are always fraught. Dybek’s debut, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, was well received when it was released in 2012, but that will not necessarily translate into sales for the follow-up. But, Barer says, with that debut, “it was immediately apparent to me what an extraordinarily talented writer Dybek is and what a long career he had ahead of him, and I was so excited to be part of it.”
Verdun went to auction. There were two offers, and Barer says that Steiker impressed her because “she didn’t care about the numbers, she cared about the book.” She adds, “It’s frustrating that the publishing industry can be so fixated on track record; I really think the reading public couldn’t care less.”
I agree, and so does Steiker, obviously. She’s new to book publishing, having come to Scribner a little over six months ago from Vogue magazine, where she was the culture editor. Of that job, she says: “I often describe it as being a lightning rod. You fall in love—get obsessed really—with a new TV show or movie or play or book, and you want to share that passion with as many people as possible. I had that same electric feeling reading Nick’s book.” She adds, “Luckily, everyone who read it at Scribner”—including publisher Nan Graham—“felt the same way.” Steiker says when her husband fell for it, she was convinced the book would have a wide readership.
Barer sent the manuscript to Steiker on a Thursday in July. Steiker read it over the weekend and was on the phone Monday morning.
Dybek also felt the enthusiasm: “Valerie called me on a Friday afternoon. We all know about summer Fridays; she was the only one in the office. I thought it said something that she was talking to me when everyone else in publishing was heading to the beach. And I loved what she had to say, and that she was a writer herself.” (Steiker published a memoir in 2002, The Leopard Hat: A Daughter’s Story.)
The team was in place, and the contract was signed that month. Verdun is a beautifully written book. I see so many books at PW. Nonfiction can hook me with the subject matter: crossing the Himalayas on a skateboard; being the child of the 14th wife of a tribal headsman. Fiction is a different animal. My eyes glaze over when I read the jacket copy: “Secrets will be revealed...”; “In a shocking twist of events...”
But when I got this book and googled “ossuary at Verdun,” and read about the Douaumont Ossuary in France, I was immediately fascinated. The ossuary holds more than 130,000 unidentified remains brought in from that WWI battlefield (more and more unearthed and added to its vaults every year, and the field in front of it covered with thousands of crosses). I was ready to hear the story.
I love historical novels because I want fiction to transport me—to tell me something I don’t know, to make me imagine the past. Dybek transported me with Verdun. His writing stunned me with the way it captures the feel of a time and place. I tell him this, and that it reminds me of another story: a novella by Mark Helprin, Ellis Island, that I read long ago but have never forgotten. I could not believe Helprin could have written this without experiencing it, the way I can’t believe Dybek wasn’t in Verdun after the Great War.
As the narrator observes: “How could anyone tell these grieving faces that a direct hit from a shell could atomize a man? That the shelling was so persistent during the battle that a man’s remains might be buried and unburied and blown a mile into the distance and buried again? That we found hundreds and hundreds of bones every single day, scattered across the front, mangled and unmatched.”
Dybek gives me a quick rundown of the genesis of Verdun. It was in 2011, he says, when he was in the car listening to NPR and heard a story about the ossuary at Verdun. It made him think “about the macabre job of retrieving the remains of the dead.” As a writer, he says, he’s “always looking for a story, and this one just stayed with me.” And, he adds, “you’re always looking for a project to give yourself over to, to learn something.” A year later he sent Barer 60 pages, “for a reality check: Do I keep going? Is there a book here?”
Dybek visited Verdun and traveled through Europe. “To write about the past, you need a lot of different kinds of information,” he tells me. “For instance, what did things smell like?” He read journals, memoirs, novels, and letters, and spent time at the 42nd Street library in New York City. “I’d be looking at these books and thinking that no one else had held them in 50 years,” he says. “And how would I take all this history and make a story?” Up until the week before he handed in the manuscript, he says, he was cutting details that he loved.
Though The Verdun Affair is a historical novel, it feels timely to Steiker: “There’s also something about reading a book with characters who have experienced a collective trauma—in this case World War I—that feels very powerful right now. It throws into stark relief the things that really matter.”
Barer says: “I think that, especially in this moment, with the uncertainty of what’s happening with politics around the world, reading fiction set in the past can be a great escape. I also think there are several portentous moments that happened between WWI and WWII that come up in this book that, in these times, we should actually be paying attention to.”
The book, Barer tells me, is scheduled for June 2018 to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the end of WWI. In fact, the French publisher of Dybek’s first novel, Frederique Polet at Presses de la Cité (who had been asking for the book for quite some time and was the first to offer), says that she, too, is timing the publication to the anniversary. Corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown UK, will also be publishing the book.