Million Dollar Baby

Here’s a fairytale: A 28-year-old Columbia M.F.A. student named Reif Larsen wrote a novel about a whimsical child from Montana who likes maps, and suddenly all kinds of famous editors in New York were calling his agent, Denise Shannon, and telling her they really wanted to publish it.

Norton offered to preempt with an advance in the neighborhood of $400,000 if Ms. Shannon took the book off the market and sold it to the publisher right then and there. The editorial director of Dial Press, an imprint of Random House’s Bantam Dell Doubleday group, offered to pay half a million for the same privilege.

Ms. Shannon said no to both and confidently took the book to auction. Within days, according to three sources, she’d sold North American rights for a sum just shy of $1 million to Ann Godoff at the Penguin Press, gravely disappointing editors at Random House, Viking, Riverhead and elsewhere. The book was also sold to publishers in Canada, Germany and Italy, and at press time, deals were being negotiated for the U.K. and the Netherlands. The book, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, is scheduled to come out in the U.S. next summer.

All of which begs the question: Who is this Reif Larsen and how did he get away with this?

Ms. Shannon, who has also represented Gary Shteyngart, Lydia Davis and Francine Prose, says it’s because the book is so good, obviously. “The fact is that it comes down to the work itself,” she wrote in an e-mail, “and in this case we are talking about a novel that is startlingly original and intelligent and well-written.”

But don’t lots of people write pretty good debut novels? Why did T.S. Spivet send all of New York publishing into a frenzy?

According to several people who saw the manuscript, it’s partly because it has lots of cute pictures in the margins. Sort of like a McSweeney’s book! Also Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which lots of people bought. “Suffice it to say, it’s very pretty,” said one person who saw it. “And original because of it.”

An editor who considered bidding on the book agreed: “He’s an interesting writer who also marries aspects of cartography, illustration and, you know, bits of diagrammatica to the narrative.”

And a literary scout summed it up: “It’s a combination of ‘It’s really good and it’s really cool to look at.’ It was one of these books that got people interested the more they saw it, not the more they heard about it. It picked up relatively slowly, but as people started laying their eyes on it, they started getting more and more excited because of the way it’s put together: all of these documents and pictures and sidebars, which not only are really neat to look at it but also contain key elements of the plot.”

No word at press time whether Mr. Larsen’s book will also come with a decoder ring, which would be really cool.

lneyfakh@observer.com

Comments

  1. Jorge Figueroa says:

    Great Book. It is going to be a classic like Be Here Now – in terms of the diagrams – and the narrative hooks you and is exquisite poetry. It is amazing for Larsen, with no “official” scientific education to master the art of geologic and scientific story-telling. Bravo. Demasiado Bravo.