British teacher becomes a literary sensation in the US
From The Independent
Diane Setterfield, a former French teacher from Yorkshire whose first novel – a book that she spent five years writing – has just been published, is embarking this week on a promotional tour of the United States buoyed by the remarkable news that The Thirteenth Tale has gone straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
She is the first British author to hit the number one spot with her debut since Nicholas Evans triumphed with The Horse Whisperer, a novel which was subsequently turned into a film starring Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson.
And although sales so far have been more modest in the UK than the US, the buzz among British booksellers is that the book is set to rival last year’s blockbuster, Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse and the surprise hit of 2004, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
“It’s kind of curious. I’m quite bemused really. I’m delighted but it also makes going over to America a little daunting,” Setterfield said just before departure.
“You don’t spend five years writing a book unless you love it to bits and think it’s the best book ever written. But at the same time, you take it for granted that you’ll be the only one who feels that strongly about it. You don’t believe that other people are going to go for it in a big way.”
Her first clue that her decision to give up her university post to concentrate on writing was a wise move came when after a 10-day bidding war, her agent secured a UK and US publishing deal worth £1.3m.
Even so, it is a coup to beat established names such as James Patterson, Frederick Forsyth and Mark Haddon to the top of the American charts with sales of about 70,000 since it was released in America last week.
Barnes and Noble, a large American chain of bookshops, described it as “an urgently readable novel that’s nearly impossible to put down” and invited the author to open her American tour at its giant annual sales conference in Orlando this weekend.
Rodney Troubridge, Waterstone’s fiction expert, said The Thirteenth Tale had a similar mix of ingredients to other popular hits of recent years including Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber.
“They are novels that have this strange mix of the gothic, the slightly implausible and something to do with the past impinging on the present. They are rather quirky, almost strange. This seems to be what people want to read about at the moment.”
The Thirteenth Tale is the story of Margaret Lea, a bookseller’s daughter, commissioned to write the biography of a dying writer, Vida Winter, who has spent a lifetime creating outlandish life histories for herself while hiding the truth of her tragic past.
Orion paid a “whopping” £800,000 to secure the book, but clearly knew what it was doing, Mr Troubridge said. The publisher also picked up The Shadow of the Wind for translation from the original Spanish despite publishing wisdom that books in translation rarely do well.
As for Diane Setterfield, she is content that she produced the novel she wanted to write. “I wanted it to be a book that people would love and I think it is and I couldn’t be happier. All I actually want now is to be on a bus somewhere and look around and see someone lost in my book.”
Her second novel, however, is languishing somewhat. She explained: “If you can imagine a woman who’s got a rather precocious first-born child and a baby at home and she knows she ought to be nurturing the new-born but the precocious child is demanding. I’m a bit like a harried mother, running after number one and neglecting number two.”