First novel inspired by CIA’s Doctor Zhivago plan nets $2m book deal

From The Guardian:

Last month, Lara Prescott was preparing to graduate from her three-year creative writing fellowship at the University of Texas. Two weeks later, she is sitting on book deals worth at least $2m (£1.5m), after publishers on both sides of the Atlantic battled to get their hands on her first novel.

Prescott’s We Were Never Here tells the story of how the CIA smuggled copies of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel Doctor Zhivago into Russia during the cold war in an attempt to seed unrest. Drawing from the voices of Pasternak’s mistress and muse Olga, as well the women of the CIA typing pool involved in the mission, the novel provoked a fierce bidding war when it was submitted by Prescott’s agent last month.

In the UK, 12 publishers fought for the novel, with Penguin Random House publisher Selina Walker winning the bid with a “high six-figure” offer. In the US, Knopf is reported to have paid a seven-figure sum, beating 13 other publishers to the debut. According to Publishers Weekly, this was not the highest bid, but Knopf’s history as the original publisher of Doctor Zhivago helped clinch the deal.

. . . .

Prescott began writing the novel in 2015 after reading newly declassified documents about the CIA’s clandestine involvement in the Russian publication and dissemination of Doctor Zhivago. The documents, with redacted names and blacked-out details, inspired her to “fill in the blanks with fiction”, she said.

“Zhivago’s plot revolves around a love story between Lara Antipova and Yuri Zhivago. But its depictions of the October revolution and the Russian civil war, as well as its themes emphasising the importance of individual freedom in the face of the USSR’s enforced collectivism resulted in the novel being deemed subversive by the state. But to me, Zhivago is more about life and love than politics. It’s about individuals who think and laugh and love for themselves,” she said.

. . . .

The story of how “governments once believed books could change the world” was “one that needs to be told, perhaps now more than ever”, said Prescott.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

17 thoughts on “First novel inspired by CIA’s Doctor Zhivago plan nets $2m book deal”

  1. I am disappointed. I was looking forward to the discussion of how she is a fool to take these millions and should have self-published as an ebook.

    • No, no. The Guardian’s message was in the first lines. ‘Take a creative writing fellowship/class and the publishers will fall all over themselves trying to sign you up a big book deal!’

      And don’t forget the ‘this could only happen because she got a good agent’ bit. Here’s hoping she knows what she’s doing and the agent doesn’t fleece her.

      • But seriously, it is highly unlikely that she could have gotten anything like this deal without an agent, or earned anything like this amount self-publishing. It is almost as if, while for many authors an agent is at best unnecessary, there are circumstances where this is not the case. Or even, three-dollar ebooks are not the entirety of the publishing world. Weird!

        • But seriously, we should look a little closer. Odds are we’ll find ‘connections’ that made this happen – without which there’d be nothing for us to talk about.

          Trad-pub never gives out this kind of money to a complete unknown, which suggests she or someone/something she is related to is worth the money – or so they think.

          (‘If’ it is the same person, they have two ebooks on Amazon for .99 and 2.49 and they seem to be in the KU …)

    • No one has said that here, unless it was an already established best selling author like John Scalzi and his substantial deal. For an unknown, they should take the money.

    • Richard Hershberger,

      I am disappointed. I was looking forward to the discussion of how she is a fool to take these millions and should have self-published as an ebook.

      That’s the sequel. Stay tuned.

    • I’m not confident it wouldn’t earn out. But then I’m picturing a savvy campaign, where you re-release the book and re-screen the movie. Bonus if you option the new book as a movie.

      I vaguely remember hearing of this book; I think it reminded me of “Argo,” which was a great article in Wired that was turned into a fun movie. Seems like Knopf would be invested in marketing this book, because as the OP says, they published Dr. Zhivago over here in the first place. They get a two-fer in sales just from re-issuing the original book alongside this one. There’s a way to make money if they’re not asleep at the wheel.

      This book’s subject (Dr. Zhivago) has a pre-existing fan base. Is it my imagination, or does the new book sound like it could appeal to the Tom Clancy (spy) and the Harlequin (romance) demographic at the same time? I’m not being sarcastic, I’m actually asking.

      The new book sounds like the premise of one of those zany comedies: we have to smuggle the novel of a Russian writer into Russia. Is this a Bill Murrayish kind of premise? Or a Bruce Willis in “R.E.D.” kind of thing? Idunno, I’m just not so sure Prescott failing to earn out is a sure bet.

    • With foreign rights sales, audio book and theatrical rights sales, it might recoup the advance and there’s also the possibility that it will become a bestseller.

  2. I want to know where she was reading all those newly declassified documents. I had trouble getting my hands on that stuff even when I was active duty. Anyone smell an agenda?

    • No? I don’t have experience with that kind of document, but I thought declassified document meant that you could at least FOIA it? Am I wrong here?

    • Veteran,

      Suppose this Zhivago scheme got cooked up during LBJ’s administration. Doctor Zhivago was published in ’57 and the movie was released in ’65, so this is a credible supposition. The LBJ presidential library sits on a manicured corner of the University of Texas at Austin, north of the Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium. UT is the home of the James Michener MFA in Creative Writing program. It is conceivable that Prescott stumbled across these documents in that library.

      When I was on campus, the LBJ library was a good place to go to find quiet. I never saw more than 3 people in the place, and that felt like a crowd. You could bury the paper trail on Kennedy’s assassination there, and no one would find it for a century.

      (Personal note: When I studied law at UT, those nights when I bicycled home, there was a guy who practiced his marching and his ‘pipes in the LBJ Library parking lot. Called to the Scot in my blood. Loverly, it was.)

      • I see I was mistaken (see below). Ah, well. It’s happened before. I expect it shall happen again.

  3. A savvy indie could come up with a book following this idea, be out in six weeks, and make a killing. Meanwhile, in Trad Pub Land…

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