Stephen L. Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park, Knopf (June)
If the characters in Stephen Carter's first novel seem fully rounded, it's probably because they've been living with him for over 20 years. "I toyed with the idea of writing a novel when I got out of law school in 1979," says the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale. "The characters came to me over time, one by one." This is not to say that they agreed to settle down on the page without a struggle. "Over the years, I had many false starts," Carter admits. "I've got hundreds and hundreds of pages, complete novels that are just junk. A lot of the same characters played very different roles in my earlier writing. They were characters in search of a novel."
To start with, there's Judge Oliver Garland, a conservative African-American whose nomination to the Supreme Court was scuttled in scandal and whose death sets the plot in motion. Talcott, his son (and the novel's narrator), is a law professor at a not-really-Yale school. His occasionally unfaithful wife is fiercely ambitious in seeking an appellate court vacancy. Along with scores of other characters in this 672-page novel, murder and chicanery at the highest levels of the American legal system heat the doings to a boil.
"Four years ago, most of the story came to me full-blown," says Carter, "but if you'd asked me what I was doing, I would have said, 'I don't really know. I'm just doing this for fun.' I'd wanted to write a novel ever since I was a child, even without the concept of what a novel was."
As Talcott attempts to unscramble the clues his father left behind to throw open the past, he ruminates a good deal about the nature of good and evil, about love between husbands and wives, about extreme wings of both political parties. "He is not my alter ego," says Carter without equivocation. "Most people find me too certain in asserting what I think. Talcott takes a lot more time pondering. I was trying to catch hold of a character whose pondering can become obsessive."
Carter, already well-known for his seven nonfiction books, which include The Culture of Disbelief and Civility, chuckles when asked how writing fiction differs. "I am so accustomed to protecting myself with footnotes," he says. "Now I can only defend myself by saying, 'This is the way I wrote it.' In nonfiction, I'm confident with my basic arguments and facts. In fiction, I wonder what will happen next. What would she say? What would he do? When I think about great novelists, I'm in awe because it is so difficult to sustain a narrative voice and to create the plausibility of one plot element working with another."
However he did it, publishers leapt upon the manuscript with covetous cries, Knopf taking the prize with $4 million for Emperor and a second novel. Film rights were optioned for over a million, but Carter politely declines to comment on his vast good fortune. "My father raised me not to talk about money," he says, "but the amount of interest that was shown in the book astonished me. And flattered me too."
Sales Tips: Carter says, "I hoped to write a book that would be of interest to a lot of different people, not just one audience or one market." Senior editor Robin Desser remarks, "It's that really unusual combination of character and plot that works in both suspense and literary senses. There's the political ambition part, the academic part, the whodunit part. It's a novel that will reach across a wide spectrum because it brings an intelligence and sensitivity to issues of outsiderness and insiderness, of who has power and who doesn't, and of justice." As evidence of Knopf's commitment, the first printing is 500,000.
Julia Glass, Three Junes, Pantheon (May)
"Why don't you get off your ass and write a novel—because you can?" That remark, written to Julia Glass by a friend in California, was just the kick in the rear that this author needed to rethink her short-story career. She had already made one critical decision—"I would put aside painting and spend as much time on fiction as I could." As a student at Yale, Glass tells PW , "I found myself more stimulated by my visual arts courses than my courses that involved writing." So she moved from her home (in Lincoln, Mass.) to New York City, "like so many other fledgling artists" and lived "a pretty austere life, working as a copy editor by day and painting by night." She exhibited in several group shows, but found that she cared little for the art "scene" itself—"how you looked seemed as important as the work you did."
Before long, Glass was getting the itch to write ("I realized that I was yearning to compose with words as much as with paint") and for a while was juggling the two careers. She submitted a short story, "Souvenirs," to Cosmopolitan during her stint as a copy editor there, but Helen Gurley Brown found the heroine "too privileged for the Cosmo girl audience." Into a drawer went "Souvenirs," while Glass, undaunted, began writing longer and longer stories. But she became increasingly frustrated to discover that bigger wasn't better—or, at least, wasn't marketable. "Most of the magazines were cutting back on the length and quantity of stories they'd publish," says Glass. "I got several wonderfully encouraging letters with comments like, 'We really enjoyed this but it feels very novelistic' or 'We'd love to see these characters inhabit a novel.' "
Despite rejections, however, critical recognition was accumulating: Glass won three Nelson Algren Fiction Awards, and a Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society Medal for Best Novella. That award, Glass explains, was for "Collies," a revised and expanded version of "Souvenirs," in which a formerly peripheral character, Paul McLeod, took center stage. "I decided to make the story his and, suddenly, this character's whole world seemed to crack open before my eyes." Encouraged by the Faulkner award, Glass sent "Collies" to agent Gail Hochman, who was "incredibly effusive." Still, there was that matter of publication. "That was the era when everybody who was getting published was like, 23; you were washed up if you hadn't had your first novel published by the time you were 28." Then came that galvanizing letter from California.
As Glass worked on expanding "Collies," another secondary character leapt to prominence. "I read somewhere that sometimes a character that you didn't think was very important just gets up, walks off the page and starts to live their own life." So it was, she says, with Fenno McLeod, the oldest of Paul McLeod's three sons, who ultimately became the pivotal figure in Three Junes. This elegantly layered family saga, which deftly shifts among time periods in the lives of its many characters, takes place mainly in Greece (where Paul McLeod, a recent widower, has joined a tour group), Scotland (the McLeod home, where we meet the three sons and Maureen, their mother) and New York City (where Fenno moves as an adult). Several other characters emerged, too, says Glass: "Some were very composed, and others—I think of them as white zombies—just burst out of the ground."
Though her novel's characters may have their own agendas, Glass notes that "the decisions about structuring were made in a very conscious way. I think of it as a triptych—this comes out of my visual arts background. There's always a central image, then you have smaller scenes on either side, often with the characters facing the center scene." Glass explains that the first and last sections of Three Junes are written in the third person, "which is kind of like writing in profile," while Fenno's story, the "central image," is written in the first person—"like having a character face you, more directly."
Sales Tips: According to senior editor Deborah Garrison, "This is the kind of book you live in and don't want to leave when it's over. What's been very exciting is that everyone at Pantheon has been so responsive to it. From the beginning I felt that you can't explain it in a sound bite; there's just too much life in it, too many characters and exquisite moments of writing and plot turns that make it what it is. The idea from the beginning has been that if anyone reads it they'd adore it and mention it to the next person. It's been like that with our sales force—the book is being passed hand to hand and people are passionate about getting it out there. Pantheon is also supporting her with an author tour and trying to get good print publicity, but again, this can only be driven in this case by the book's sheer quality."
James Sturz, Sasso, Walker & Co. (Apr.)
New York City native Sturz has a passion for Italy. As a freelance writer who speaks the language fluently, he specializes in all things Italian, from politics to places of interest. Thus it was no surprise that when he decided to write a novel, he'd set it in Italy. "I used to do a lot of stories for the New York Times travel section and I got an assignment to write about a town called Matera. I went down there one weekend when I wasn't reporting on the politics in Rome, came back to New York, and wrote it up as one of the travel stories that I'd been assigned. It was one of their cover stories about caves and cozy spaces. I don't know if anyone else continued to think about it, but I did. The idea of people living in caves and how that would affect the soul and influence the kind of person who lived there or, in my case, visited there, was something that continued to interest me and that I continued to think about."
Sturz's novel, which debuted in the U.K. last year to critical acclaim, is a literary thriller that revolves around a baffling series of teenagers' deaths in the caves for which the small town is renowned. An international team of experts is called in, and the narrator, an American anthropologist from New York who becomes indelibly changed by his experience during his stay, reveals the mysterious facts and secrets behind the mesmerizing story. Sturz called his fictional town "Mancanzano," for—as he explains—"the Italian word mancanza, which is 'a longing.' I think the notion of longing, whether for the narrator's girlfriend back at home, or for what would otherwise fill an empty space, both metaphorically and physically, is one of the main points of the book."
An added dimension to the story, according to Sturz, is the psychological exploration of some of the key characters. "It's an interior story, very much about what happens inside people as they're influenced by the external environment. I wanted to see what happens when the only imaginable progress you can make is to burrow deeper into a hillside or deeper into yourself. I wanted to talk about what it meant when you couldn't build up—to talk about negative spaces and the absence of possibility."
During Sturz's research, he found a memorable quote from anthropologist Clifford Geertz. "What he said was, 'All ethnography is part philosophy, and a good deal of the rest is confession.' I was drawn to that because I meant Sasso to be part confession as well. And I also liked the notion of placing it in Italy—not only in Italy, but in this deeply religious Italian south, a place where the confessional itself is as much a part of the landscape as any sidewalk or any hill."
—Hilary S. Kayle
Sales Tips: Walker crime fiction editor Michael Seidman feels this novel will appeal to "readers of intelligence—people who want a good story and don't need everything spelled out for them." He's extremely impressed with Sturz's "original style, his imagery, his command of the language, his knowledge of what to do with the characters. What he is is a storyteller." In just a couple of pages, Seidman adds, "his characters are as real as the guy sitting next to you on the subway. For the time you're with this man, you're transported; when you're finished with him, you're transformed."
Terrence Cheng, Sons of Heaven, William Morrow (May)
The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the fate of the young man who stood in front of a row of tanks haunted Terrence Cheng for more than a decade and is the impetus for his first novel, Sons of Heaven. In it, Cheng tries to make sense of what happened by creating a fiction about two brothers divided: one, the unidentified dissident, whom he calls Xiao-Di, or little brother; the other, his imagined older brother, the soldier Lu. After years of separation, the brothers' paths cross when Deng Xiaoping gives the order to fire on the protesters.
"The whole set of events during the massacre were very disturbing to me," says the 29-year-old Cheng, who was born in Taiwan and raised in New York City. "I was 17 at the time. This was the first shock that grounded me in the social and political events of being Chinese. I saw these people, who were essentially my age, taking part in this demonstration and making this movement. I could very well have been over there. That man who stood in front of the tanks struck a chord as a symbol. The fact that the world does not know who he is, what his name is, what happened to him—that's why there's no closure for me."
It took Cheng 10 more years, during which he earned an MFA in fiction at the University of Miami, to find a way to fictionalize and comment on the events he had witnessed on TV. "I didn't start writing the novel until 1999," says Cheng, who did extensive research first. "I had never been to China, and I needed to go there and experience the city. When I was there, exactly 10 years after the massacre happened, I was curious what would be going on, if there would be some kind of memorial. I would ask people questions and they just ignored me like I wasn't speaking their language." He tried hotel staff and cabbies, until finally one driver told him simply, "What happened back then—it was very bad."
On the surface, Sons of Heaven is political in nature, starting with the title, which refers to Chinese emperors, who received the right to rule from their ancestors. Cheng, however, prefers to view it as simply a novel, although he acknowledges that the brothers do symbolize differing political views. "The soldier brother represents the old-school regime, how a Communist should think; the dissident brother represents democracy and freedom. Personally," he continues, "I don't want people to think I'm anti-Communist or anti-China or anti— Deng Xiaoping. Ultimately, for me, the story is about these characters and how these major world events have affected them, how history has affected people on all levels. The book is going to be viewed as political, because of the stances some of the characters have. But the bottom line is, I'm a fiction writer."
This may be Cheng's first book, but as corporate Web site marketing director for Random House, he is far from a novice when it comes to the publishing process. Last July, for example, he set up a dedicated site for the book—www.sonsofheaven.com. "I developed it early on," he explains, "simply because I didn't want it to be rushed. If I've learned anything working in publishing, it's to get things done earlier rather than later."
Sales Tips: "The universality of the book, the Cain and Abel aspect, is what really appealed to me," says executive editor Claire Wachtel, who agreed to take a look at Cheng's novel in part because she had worked with him and his agent, Marly Russoff, when Cheng and Russoff were at Morrow. But it was the writing that convinced Wachtel to make an offer. "The writing is terrific," she says. "You would virtually be smelling the odors in Beijing; it was so vivid." Morrow's director of media relations, Sharyn Rosenblum, is setting up a nine-city tour to promote the book.
John Scott Shepherd, Henry's List of Wrongs, Rugged Land (Apr.)
Though writing screenplays for Tim Allen, Angelina Jolie and Julia Roberts may be a heady dream for many writers, John Scott Shepherd, an advertising executive—turned—screenwriter (Joe Somebody, the forthcoming Life or Something Like It), finds the process vaguely dissatisfying. "William Goldman once said, 'If you write only screenplays, I envy your wallet but pity your soul,' " says Shepherd, 37. "And it's true. I like telling original stories in screenplays, but it's a deluded vision; you become so compromised. I feel this more strongly after being beat up recently in some Hollywood meetings. My five-year plan, my purest vision of myself, wants to be doing only novels."
With additional major movie projects in the works Shepherd won't be quitting that business anytime soon, but a three-book contract with the fledgling publisher Rugged Land will launch him into the role he dreams of. Henry's List of Wrongs, a romantic romp full of ironic twists and turns, centers around Henry Chase, a ruthless Wall Street "assassin" whose entire existence has been carefully crafted in reaction to a perceived indignity that turns out to be something else entirely. "Henry's on a linear path, then he's slammed into this detour and learns about things that motivated him to become a monster," says the author. "In realizing this, he can't go on unless he makes a list and goes around making things right."
The movie rights sold to New Line for $1 million long before Rugged Land signed on. Once the movie deal was made, publishers became actively interested. Shepherd says he went with Rugged Land because "they had a vision of me, of how to build my career. Other houses saw me as just a screenwriter who had written a book. Rugged Land saw me as an American Nick Hornby."
Shepherd grew up in Cleveland, where "no one asked if you wanted to write novels or screenplays. It was either journalism or advertising." He studied English at Miami University in Ohio, then mass media at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where he currently lives with his wife and three children. His forays into advertising were highly successful but nagging. "I felt as if there was a hole in me," he says. "Everything was a stopgap. At age seven, I wrote horror stories—that's what I dreamed of doing." It wasn't until his manager and book agent, Ken Atchity, suggested he write a novel that Shepherd actually gave it a whirl. "I wrote like a man possessed. It was one of the happiest times of my life. It took five or six months to do a draft. I knew the voice I wanted to have. It was a kind of 'method writing,' letting all my misogynistic thoughts out. I was really letting it fly."
Henry is modeled on a divorced man Shepherd once met at a cocktail party. "The man's wife got all the friends, and he realized he had done a lot of bad things. It was a huge blow to him. He went about making reparations." Taking the man's lead, Shepherd, too, made a reparation. "I called an old girlfriend from high school and apologized for something I did 15 years ago. She cried. I cried. It was very real. I felt lighter." From there, it was but a short step to Henry's fictional world.
Sales Tips: Henry's List of Wrongs is one of two novels on the first list of New York City— based Rugged Land. Says managing partner and editor Webster Stone, "We see this as a great popular book. John tells what makes a man tick. He is smart, savvy, accessible. He has an urban sharpness, like Dave Eggers, but with a pop quality. We want to push him hard out of the gate as a hip heartland author." Shepherd himself describes the book as "for people who loved Jerry McGuire, for men who don't always want to read about cops." A one-minute book trailer is in the works, for showing on Internet sites and other venues to be determined.
David Davidar, The House of Blue Mangoes, HarperCollins (Mar.)
"I grew up in the deep south of the country [India], which forms the bulk of the book's background," says David Davidar. His novel quickens the recent rush of sub-continent fiction, a flow that Davidar himself has helped along. As CEO and publisher of Penguin Books India, of which he was a founder 15 years ago, the 43-year-old Davidar has successfully launched many of his countrymen, including Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth.
"When I was 21, I wrote the usual quasi-autobiographical novel, which one publisher turned down," says Davidar, who now lives in New Delhi. "Fortunately, I didn't persist." By the watershed year of 30, his moment had arrived. This time, he set his sights on a novel portraying three generations of a single, but very extended, family, from 1899 to the hour of India's independence in 1947. Local unrest troubles a patriarch's village world at the start, and the growing struggle for nationhood subsequently comes between his two sons. The waning power of the Raj plays out in the lives of the grandchildren. Interestingly, the Dorai family is Christian. Their story took 11 years to complete.
"I wanted to look at a long swath of Indian history in a book similar to one I like very much, The Leopard," he says. "The period gave me the opportunity to explore history, the caste conflict, family histories." He adds quickly that Blue Mangoes is not intended to be autobiographical.
A very busy man writing at odd moments and in secret (because, well, what if nobody wanted it?), Davidar relied on his wife to type out his longhand. He showed a couple of hundred manuscript pages to Seth, who encouraged him to proceed and even took an editorial pencil to his publisher's work—at Davidar's request. "If you don't like it, I'll chuck it," said Davidar. Replied Seth, "I want to see how it ends."
The grove within which the Indian family's compound exists bears blue mangoes, a fruit not seen in the West, which serve as a metaphor for a number of issues. "There is a rot within a blue mango that is almost invisible to the naked eye," explains Davidar, "just as the Dorai family seems fine on the surface, but there is a roiling under the surface."
When time came to submit the manuscript, Davidar hid behind a pseudonym. "I thought I was being quite canny," he says. "If it didn't pass muster, I'd just put it away in a drawer." Calling on agent David Godwin, he told him, "I have this manuscript. Would you like to read it?" Godwin said, "If I like it, can I meet the author?" Davidar replied, "I think that can be arranged." The two met, and when the masquerade dropped away, Godwin was hugely surprised. "I have never seen many jaws drop like that," Davidar remembers.
A graduate of Harvard's Radcliffe Publishing Program, Davidar is no stranger to these shores, and as a publisher, he has been here on many occasions. When next he appears, however, it will be as author. He'll know what to do.
Sales Tips: Although HC executive editor Terry Karten didn't know the author's identity when the book landed on her desk, she was impressed anyway. "Each generation is so different, and the two brothers so contrasting, one a pharmacologist and the other who turns into a kind of terrorist. This is for readers of literary fiction who like to learn—readers of The Poisonwood Bible, for example. David provides a different perspective on an India that's not at all well known."
Heather Parkinson, Across Open Ground, Bloomsbury USA (May)
How does it feel to be hailed as the female Cormac McCarthy? "It's flattering—and embarrassing," says Heather Parkinson, 26, an Idaho resident fond of fly fishing. Not only is Across Open Ground her first novel; it's also the first novel she ever attempted. "I got lucky," remarks Parkinson. "The novel form just somehow fit my sensibility."
The book begins in 1917, with 17-year-old Walter Pascoe learning about sheep-herding just as America enters World War I. Walter is drafted, but before heading overseas, he falls in love with Trina Ivy, a trapper with a troubled background. After he leaves, she discovers she is pregnant. The focus shifts from Walter to Trina. The linear plot spans a year and a half. Parkinson views the novel, she says as a blend of historical and literary fiction. "It's about struggle and survival. It's about the way lives are transformed through loss and things as simple as the changing of a season."
"Heather is not stunning you with pyrotechnics," says Karen Rinaldi, editorial director of Bloomsbury USA. "Her characters have the quiet dignity that Cormac McCarthy's have. Like him, Heather portrays the violence that nature perpetrates on characters without being overdramatic. If you told me I was going to acquire a book about sheep-herding in Idaho, I'm so not that. Me on a sheep farm? Are you kidding? But Heather passed the first-novelist test. She got me on the first page with the beauty of her writing. The book feels epic to me, but her prose is so quiet. She takes huge risks. I actually had tears in my eyes several times while reading the book."
Parkinson recalls, "As an undergraduate, I was awarded a grant by Willamette University to research the settlers of the Wood River Valley [an area now famous for the Sun Valley ski resort]. I spent a summer going through historical archives, studying maps, photos and oral histories of local miners, sheep-herders, ranchers, prostitutes and homesteaders." Sheep-herding in Idaho today, she says, is "really on its last legs," but in the early 1900s in Wood River Valley, the industry was "second only to Sydney, Australia, and New Zealand in the number of sheep run. While I tried to be as historically accurate as possible in re-creating the region and its town life, the characters are purely fictional."
Parkinson spent two years working on Across Open Ground. "It wasn't until the novel was done that I really felt I had any control over it. And even now I'm scared to read it, scared these characters will creep back up on me and rise perniciously, snickering in my ear, telling me I rendered wrong." The most difficult part about putting her novel into words, she tells PW, "was getting into that place where I was letting Walter do his own work. Some days it was a struggle not to transfer my own mood onto my characters." The author adds, "God, it feels good when you get it right. I just wish it was an everyday occurrence."
Sales Tips: "As Bloomsbury's lead spring fiction title, Across the Ground is getting all the attention that that entails," notes Rinaldi. "It'll receive key title promotion at BEA. We're doing national advertising and a big tour. Heather is very promotable—she has raw, pure talent and she looks like a Modigliani painting. We keep saying she's the female Cormac McCarthy because it's true."
Greg Garrettt, Free Bird, Kensington (Mar.)
It was only a matter of time before Greg Garrettt would get around to publishing a novel. A professor of creative writing at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., for 13 years, the 40-year-old Garrettt has had dozens of short stories published in literary journals and has written a handful of as-yet-unproduced screenplays. While his heart has always been with fiction, Garrettt says of the screenwriting, "I thought if I could do it well I'd make money at it, but it didn't work out that way." Free Bird, he says, came as something of a surprise. "I'd tried to write novels before, but this one was really inspired. So much of it happened in a place I really don't know about—it just came out of nowhere." Indeed, the actual writing of the novel he describes as "almost overnight."
"I wrote a chapter in March of 2000, but because I teach, I don't really have any sustained amount writing time during the year," Garrettt tells PW. "So I put it away until June, when my family and I went to Santa Fe. I'd ride my bike for a few hours and just sort of listen. And then I'd come back and write down what I had heard. By the time we were ready to leave Santa Fe, I'd finished the novel's first draft."
While Free Bird is technically Garrettt's first novel, he had a previous novel, Cycling, scheduled for publication in 1997. It was never printed, however, since publisher Grolier canceled its fiction list. At the time he was "devastated," but says now that he realizes the novel wasn't ready. (He's currently rewriting it.)
Garrettt describes Free Bird as a "comic road novel. In a lot of ways it's the culmination of all the stories I've been writing for the last 20 years." The book centers on Clay Forrester, a former corporate lawyer whose wife and child were killed in a car accident when Clay was driving. At the start of the novel, 10 years later, Clay is still guilt-ridden; he's living with his mom and two maiden aunts and spends his time playing in a bar band with a friend from high school. "So basically, he is the child again," says Garrett. "They're lovely old women, very devout Christians, but they're horrifying to live with and he doesn't even have the strength to get out of that situation." When Clay learns of the death of his father, who left him as an infant to live as an artist in Sante Fe, he sets off on a cross-country trip to learn about this man he never knew.
The scenario about the missing father, says Garrett, is actually taken from his family. "My father's birth father disappeared when he was an infant and he never knew anything about that father until very recently." Garrett adds that the themes of the story—depression, Christianity, spirituality, renewal and especially music—are all important elements in his own life. "My first creative writing teacher," says Garrettt, "told us to dig the deepest hole you can imagine for your characters and then spend the rest of the story giving them a chance to try and get out. So that's what I did with Clay."
Garrett says, "I think of myself as a very religious person. I think of my faith as more of an action-oriented faith, than a dogmatic faith." He calls himself a "liberal Southern Baptist" who is "most interested in social justice and in how religion can make a difference in people's lives—not just in saving them for the next life, but for this life as well."
For Garrettt, "writing is a way to discover things only if you're open to discovering things." He says that the experience of writing Free Bird was particularly challenging, because this character really goes through darkness before he comes out on the other side. "To me, I was on a journey every step of the way with him."
Sales Tips: "We know we have something really special here and everybody wants this book to succeed," says Kensington editorial director John Scognamiglio. Free Bird, he says, "will appeal across the board, to both men and women, including fans of southern literature and maybe even of the Mitford books." He adds that the novel is particularly relevant after last September's terrorist attacks. "It's a story of redemption, about a man who by helping others is finally able to help himself. I think a lot of readers will be able to take something away from it. It's accessible literary commercial fiction. You're not straining your brain, but you get lost in the story. We're sending Greg on a five-city tour, but he's also doing a lot on his own; he'll be on the road for two-and-a-half months."
Hari Kunzru, The Impressionist, Dutton (Apr.)
Publishing insiders on both sides of the Atlantic are abuzz over the impressive $1.8 million first-book sale for British born, multi-media talent Hari Kunzru. The author credits his distinct childhood experience as inspiration for The Impressionist, which garnered a starred PW review (Forecasts, Nov. 19, 2001). His Indian father married an English woman in the U.K. when interracial marriages were anathema. "Their getting married was a fair step in the 1960s and the climate for my growing up was unusual. I grew up in a suburb that was dominantly white English, but I was always very aware of how different I was, being mixed race. I had contact with my Indian family but it's not as though I fit in perfectly there, so I always had this consciousness of slightly being in between things."
This state of consciousness, Kunzru reports, was "the germ of the book. What I wanted to do—rather than write something straightforwardly about the minor travails of growing up in suburban London in the '70s and '80s—was to actually place the character at a point when people still believed completely in the project of Empire. This moment just after the First World War, where the book is set, was really the last time when the kind of colonizing people in India could look at themselves and say, 'This could go on forever. The sun never sets on the British Empire.' "
Kunzru's novel, which has already sold in 12 countries, features Pran Nath, an irrepressible 15-year-old boy who is thrown into the streets of an Indian city when his high caste family discovers he is the bastard son of an Englishman. In order to survive, Pran takes on many wide-ranging identities, even stealing the identity of an Englishman. This ability to conform to his surroundings, says Kunzru, is key to Pran's survival. "There is a pivotal scene where he watches a stage impressionist in a cabaret and realizes this thing of doing voices and taking on personalities is very much what he's doing. He's like a piece of wax; he takes impressions. He's a chameleon who takes on the colorings of his surrounding and that involves him crossing the racial divide."
Pran's life is infused with elements from the author's own experience. "This cultural crossing thing is something that is very felt in my own experience.
"But I've constructed a story, which gives him extravagant opportunities to do this." Writing this novel actually helped Kunzru come to terms with the disparate components in his own life. "I think that's probably the best reason for a writer to write a book—if you have a real problem to solve and a real unknown, and you try to give a name to it, then that's an imperative to write. The most gratifying thing about having got this book published and having had, so far, a very positive reception, is that I feel I actually organized my own thinking about where I came from and the feelings I had about my own life. I've done a personal job of work and the fact that it communicates to other people is fantastic for me."
—Hilary S. Kayle
Sales Tips: "Hari is an extraordinary talent, says Penguin/Dutton president Carole Baron. "When you put together his dazzling grasp of the language with his storytelling—it's the kind of book that captures me. He also gives you a view of this world that there's no way somebody like me would have ever known about, not only the time but also the place. It's like when I read Shogun—I was transported into this world seen from the point of view of somebody who was an outsider. I can't wait to see what he's doing next, because he looks at things so interestingly."
Cary Holladay, Mercury, Crown/Shaye Areheart Books (May)
What if a World War II—era amphibious truck operating as a tour boat in present-day Arkansas sank, and everyone but the captain and one passenger drowned? What if a teenage girl, recovering from mercury poisoning, witnessed the sinking from her parents' lake-front home?
In her debut novel, Mercury, acclaimed short-story writer Cary Holladay weaves together two uncommon, seemingly disparate story lines as a way to explore the aftermath of tragedy. What happens to those who survive? What role does the tragedy play in the life of a bystander? These and other questions fueled Holladay's what-if curiosity about human nature and, combined with her love of research, resulted in a literary novel that is likely to be noted, at a minimum, for its highly original plot.
"I've always been interested in the what-ifs," the Memphis-based writer explains. "I often ask myself, what if this or that happened? How would the event change the interaction between certain characters?"
Holladay's fiction career began in 1989 with The People Down South, a short-story collection published by the University of Illinois Press. Her story "Merry-Go-Sorry" was a 1999 O. Henry Award winner and was introduced by Stephen King in that year's published collection of award stories. Of Holladay's second collection, The Palace of Wasted Footsteps (Univ. of Missouri Press, 1998), the New York Times said: "Holladay's stories are beautifully constructed, and they are filled with sensuous, even wondrous images."
Given Holladay's short-story success, it's no surprise that Mercury began as two separate tales, each of which reflected a fascination Holladay sought to explore in fiction. One focused on the consequences faced by teenagers who break into an abandoned neon factory and dip their cigarettes into mercury to get high. In her readings, Holladay had become interested in mercury, a substance that throughout history has been considered both a cure (for syphilis) and a poison. For example, mercury was once an important ingredient in making hats out of materials such as beaver pelts and wool, Holladay says. Because of mercury poisoning, hatmakers often exhibited strange behavior—hence the phrase "mad as a hatter."
The other short story behind Mercury described the sinking of a duck boat. From 1942 to 1945, General Motors manufactured 21,000 such amphibious trucks, Holladay says, which were used to transport guns and lightweight vehicles from water onto land. After the war, many duck boats were converted into tour boats, such as the one that sinks in Mercury.
As the main characters of the two stories developed, Holladay began to see the parallels and counterpoints between their psychological states, she explains. From that perspective emerged Mercury, which Holladay wrote in about 18 months while also working full time as public affairs manager for the Division of Parks Services in Memphis.
Ultimately, Mercury is about the effects of a disaster on survivors, Holladay says—a theme made even more compelling and vital since the events of September 11. "Disaster is a wake-up call that forces people to examine their lives. There's a kind of urgency people feel after finding themselves alive after a disaster. There's an unleashing effect. Private truths and emotions are revealed. Secrets are shared. Unusual alliances and frictions form." And in Holladay's case, novelists are born.
—James A. Martin
Sales Tips: Shaye Areheart, editorial director of her own imprint at Crown, read a story collection by Holladay and "was blown away by the brilliant story lines and quirky characters," she says. Areheart contacted Holladay's agent, Henry Dunow, who then sold Mercury on the basis of only 75 finished pages. Areheart says Mercury's uncommon story and artful telling should be of interest to fans of E. Annie Proulx, Carson McCullers and other writers known for weaving strange, lyrical tales. Areheart is planning a 20,00-copy first printing and is counting on a heavy distribution of galleys to generate positive reviews and strong word-of-mouth.
Marcus Stevens, The Curve of the World, Algonquin (May)
As a commercial director and cameraman, Marcus Stevens, 42, has traveled the world and shot ads on every continent except Antarctica. But Africa, the setting for The Curve of the World, holds a special place in his heart. "I've been there five times," he says. "Two times in South Africa to film. Three times out of interest. My wife introduced me to the place. We got engaged in East Africa. It cast a spell over me and I used any excuse to get back." Curve tells the story of Lewis Burke, a New York City businessman newly separated from his wife, Helen, and young son, Shane. En route to a meeting in Johannesburg, Lewis's plane makes a forced landing in the Congo, where it is held hostage by rebel troops. Taking matters into his own hands, Lewis escapes into the jungle, thrusting himself, unwittingly, into a harrowing, soul-searching ordeal, in which he is eventually aided by a 10-year-old Congolese boy. It is Lewis's forced separation, imposed onto the voluntary one from his wife and son, that propels the book's strong narrative. Says editor Antonia Fusco, "We liked the premise of a man whose life had fallen apart who finds himself under great duress, and the very thoughtfulness of his characterization. It's a suspenseful, emotional drama about transcending barriers."
Stevens himself has never been in the desperate situation of his protagonist. "But I'm known for getting lost," he says. "I hunt alone in the mountains. I've been lost enough that it's unnerved me. It's really frightening to not know where you are. It's a small part of the story, but the part that interested me when I got started. As I went on, I became more interested in the relationship between Lewis and Helen." The biggest challenge, he says, was getting that relationship right. "I had to leave enough out to let people fill in on their own—finessing scenes, finding the right tiny moments to explain their relationship. How they could be separated and how it could be important to both of them to get back together."
Stevens grew up in the Pacific Northwest and lives now with his wife and three children on a farm not far from Bozeman, Mont. "Just call me a gentleman farmer," he says. After undergraduate school at UC Berkeley and film studies at UCLA, he began doing national spots for companies such as AT&T, Boeing, Blue Cross and Subway. "It's my day job, but I have always written—poetry at first, then screenplays. I was really enamored of film, and it took me off in that direction, but it wasn't the thing I thought I was meant to be doing. I was dissatisfied with the form. It's not quite complete; it's like an outline for something." Writing a novel, by contrast, is "so rewarding a process to go through." Reading, he says, has taught him "more than anything else. Robert Penn Warren really inspired me. And James Dickey, especially Deliverance, which has some similarity to what I've written."
Though Curve of the World will appear first, it's actually the second novel Stevens has written. An earlier one, A Useful Girl, now also signed by Algonquin, got him his agent, David Hale Smith, who liked Curve so much when he heard about it that he chose to send it out first. Now Stevens is at work overhauling Girl, which is about a young woman in contemporary Montana.
Sales Tips: Positioning Stevens's work as both literary and commercial, along the lines of Peace Like a River, Algonquin plans a 12,000-advance-copy promo to Book Sense buyers and a $50,000 marketing budget. Barnes & Noble has selected the novel as a Spring Discovery Title, and QPB will offer it as one of its selections. Film rights have been optioned by Working Title and there's a six-figure paperback floor. According to Fusco, "The book will appeal to adventure readers, Robert Stone fans, smart, mainstream readers. It's one of those books that resonate with a larger public."