Blockbusters back from the dead

By Paul Harris

The age of the big book deal is far from over, with a publisher putting up millions for a best-selling author's novel set around a London cemetery. It was a deal that set America's publishing industry alight.

In the face of a deep recession, Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife, has scored an advance of almost US$5 million ($8.75 million) for her second novel. But the twist in the tale is the setting for the hotly anticipated work: Highgate cemetery in north London. The graveyard that provides the last resting place of Karl Marx is the central plank on which Niffenegger's new work rests, providing the background for her supernatural-tinged novel about American twins who unexpectedly end up living in London.

The book, Her Fearful Symmetry, has been one of the most eagerly sought-after works in recent publishing history. The commercial success of Niffenegger's first novel created a wave of expectation that saw almost every major publishing house put in a bid for her new title.

The firm that emerged victorious from the ensuing scrap was Scribner, part of Simon & Schuster, which eventually forked out an eye-watering US$4.8 million. Not surprisingly there is a buzz surrounding the new novel, for which expectations will now be huge. The publishing industry has been hard hit by the economic crisis and the size of Niffenegger's advance has defied predictions that the age of such colossal deals was over.

Nan Graham, the Scribner editor who sealed the deal, described the book as superb. "She really has defied custom and written a spectacular second novel, which is one of the hardest things to do in the universe," she told the New York Times. That will be for the public and critics to judge - second novels are notoriously difficult to pull off. But the plot sounds intriguing, blending the familiar and unfamiliar in the same way as her first success.

Details are scant, but the new book revolves around identical twins, Julia and Valentina Poole, who inherit an apartment on the edge of Highgate cemetery when an aunt dies. The previously inseparable sisters' lives are changed during their time near the graveyard, living together in a flat that seems to be haunted by their aunt. A neighbour who works as a tourist guide in the cemetery falls in love with Valentina.

Obsessed with death, he sets out to "cure" Valentina and break her free of her relationship with her sister. It will not be the first time Highgate cemetery has been given a starring role in a literary work, although it might be its most prominent so far.

French novelist Fred Vargas began one of her thrillers in the graveyard and Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring, set her book Falling Angels in and around the cemetery. But the Victorian graveyard is most famous for being the burial place of Marx and a host of other political and literary figures such as Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The sheer size of Niffenegger's advance has rocked the book world, but it should have come as no surprise after the runaway success of The Time Traveler's Wife, which also had a blend of the normal and bizarre, describing the improbable relationship between a man who involuntarily travels through time and his true love.

The novel is being made into a film, starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, set to be released later this year. Niffenegger's writing blends the supernatural or sci-fi with an accessible literary style. But her ordinary background would not have suggested a rise to publishing stardom - she was a teacher at Columbia College in Chicago.

Niffenegger has kept a low profile in spite of her success. Even her official website does not contain a biography and has not been updated since 2004.

However, her huge success has been greeted by some as evidence that genuine literary figures - rather then just celebrity ones - can still generate great personal wealth from writing books.

- NZ Herald

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