On Monday, we reported that literary agent Julie Barer was out with a historical novel by Paula McLain written from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. At the time, Ms. Barer was preparing to take the book to auction, and expected to have a winner by the end of the day. Quitting time came and went, though, and, due to the intense interest the book inspired from editors, the auction was still going, with what we’re told was more than six publishing houses bidding aggressively.
Ms. McLain, meanwhile, was on jury duty, literally biting her nails and hoping her manifest nervousness would convince the judge not to select her for service.
A resolution came finally around lunchtime yesterday, with Random House executive editor Susanna Porter prevailing over her competitors with a bid that two sources said was worth just north of a half-million dollars—a staggering sum, in this day and age, especially because it was only for North American rights, which means Ms. Barer can now sell foreign rights to the book abroad.
What’s the book about? Mainly the five-year period after World War I during which Richardson and Hemingway, who was in his 20s, were married and living as expats in Paris alongside Lost Generation writers like Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Ms. Barer said on Monday that the book is a “heartbreaking love story” that ends with Hemingway betraying Richardson and marrying someone else.
Titled The Great Good Place, the book makes perfect sense for Ms. Porter, who edited the surprise best-seller Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, a historical novel about Frank Lloyd Wright told from the perspective of his mistress.
In an interview yesterday, Ms. Porter confessed to having a weak spot for books that depict famous men from history through the prism of the women in their lives.
“I remember reading Nora, which was about Nora Joyce, and I preferred it so much to reading a biography of Joyce,” Ms. Porter said. “When you have the woman, you have the life.”
“Susanna has an enormous amount of experience and success publishing fiction with a historical setting- she’s the editor for Anne Perry’s Victorian series, Sarah Dunant’s Italian Renaissance novels and Nancy Horan, and that was obviously a draw for us,” said Ms. Barer in an email. “We felt that she and Ballantine knew how to take advantage of the history behind this novel in order to promote it, and have it and Paula reach the widest possible audience.”
Ms. Porter, who specializes in historical fiction aimed at women, said The Great Good Place appealed to her because “the world knows a lot about Hemingway and this is a whole different way in to him and his life and to that time.”
“To see the Hemingway character from this point of view, it’s just priceless,” she added. “He’s vulnerable and he’s insecure because his writing career is not off the ground yet. He keeps turning to Hadley and saying, ‘Am I going to do this? Am I going to be great?’ And she’s really gotta be a cheerleader for him. He shows her his writing and if she says anything at all about it that’s negative … he immediately says, ‘Oh, you don’t support me, you don’t love me.'”
The book will be published through Random House’s Ballantine imprint, Ms. Porter said, either in fall 2010 or spring 2011.