It’s not usual for an author to disappear after a prominent agent has responded to a query letter. But that’s exactly what Vera Kurian did when Rebecca Scherer at the Jane Rotrosen Agency reached out to her in early 2018. Scherer recalls the “biting wit and verve” of Kurian’s query and asked to see the whole manuscript. “She told me she wanted to revise it. Then it was another year before she sent it. But the pitch was still very vivid in my mind.”
Kurian’s Never Saw Me Coming (Park Row, Sept.) is a thriller set on a college campus in Washington, D.C., where seven students with psychopathic traits are offered scholarships if they participate in an experimental study. The story is told from the viewpoint of three of the students, with Chloe, the lead character, out for serious revenge, plotting the murder of Will, a former friend who wronged her in the past. But when one of the students is found murdered, the game begins. No one can be trusted, and the body count mounts as the plot twists.
Kurian knew the three main characters when she started writing. Chloe, she says, is “determined, intelligent, conniving. I started writing her snarky side and her funny side came out. Andre is kind of normal, almost a nerd, thrown into a situation over his head. He’s the emotional hook. And Charles is the tragic character who wants to be good but he’s awful, a poor little rich boy.”
A longtime fan of true crime and a thriller reader, Kurian wrote some literary fiction and science fiction and published short stories, but she says she didn’t really think about writing a thriller until she got the idea for Never Saw Me Coming. She has a doctorate in social psychology and works full-time editing and consulting in data analysis. Her methodical side was apparent when she held back her manuscript. She started writing this book in October 2017 and had a draft in six weeks. With no representation at the time, she then made a list of top agents based on what they’d sold.
“After Rebecca got in touch I stopped talking to agents because I wanted to revise, and that took a long time,” Kurian says. “I wrote the book and sat on it; I didn’t want plot errors. I’m very analytical and a serious plotter—including Post-its, colored pencils,” and even “cutting and pasting,” she admits.
“I knew the ending and kind of worked backward,” Kurian explains. “I knew that I liked the idea of a college campus setting, the insularity of it.”
When Scherer finally got the manuscript, she and Kurian talked for an hour. “I finally asked, ‘Are you offering me representation?’ ” Kurian recalls. They signed in November 2019.
Scherer says she was “obsessed” with the book. “Vera handed it in early in the pandemic, in late March, but publishing was weird and I wanted to wait for the moment that people had settled in and gotten used to pandemic life.” She submitted it in late May on a Thursday, and was hearing that several editors were reading and liking it when a few days later Laura Brown at Harlequin’s Park Row Books imprint came in with a preempt.
At the time, Brown says she was hunkered down in Florida and frazzled. “Reading was a challenge,” she recalls. “This book lifted it for me with the pleasure of getting lost. I read it immediately. Who was the killer? I was up until 2 a.m.”
Scherer arranged a quick call with Kurian, and Brown made the offer.
Kurian was leaning against accepting the preempt. “Rebecca outlined the options,” she says. “I was locked in my 600-square-foot apartment in D.C. and flattered, but I wanted other editors to see it. I wanted to go full-out, kind of like not marrying the first guy you date.” She didn’t accept the offer, and the book went to auction.
After the two-day auction, however, Brown prevailed, and, as Scherer says, “the first voice is often the loudest.” She adds that Brown had “a good pitch for positioning the book. It’s Park Row’s lead fall title. I like that it’s a boutique imprint, and Vera also liked the books that Park Row did.”
Brown says she was “waiting on pins and needles” and “was jumping up and down” when she got the news that the book was hers. “Ultimately, I’m glad it went to auction and Vera took calls from other editors,” she adds. “When it happened I knew she was so on board.”
The North American rights deal was made in June 2020 for a “solid six figures,” according to Brown, and there was a polished manuscript by December. Liz Foley at Harvill Secker acquired U.K. and Commonwealth rights in a six-figure preempt, publishing in September as well; German and French rights have also been sold. Davis Productions took TV and film options in another six-figure preempt.
“2020 was a hard year,” Brown says. “This book is a great escape. It’s all about entertaining. The main character, Chloe, has agency to react and not be a victim. She takes charge, and even though her actions might be morally questionable, you can’t look away from her. She’s Villanelle on campus!”
Kurian calls it all “a dream come true, a first book that’s the lead title here and in the U.K. It feels unreal. Everything has felt unreal with the pandemic—but when I see the cover or read a tweet, I think, this is real!”