Elizabeth Knox arrives in America

ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias reports on the amazing news that Elizabeth Knox's latest novel has won a lucrative deal with a US publisher.

A bidding war in the fierce US book trade for the rights to publish the new novel by acclaimed Wellington writer Elizabeth Knox has resulted in a six-figure deal – and a “flood” of interest from US film and TV studios.

It’s an unprecedented level of excitement in the US for a New Zealand novel. It’s also very sudden. The hype for The Absolute Book, published by Victoria University Press in September last year, took off with a hiss and a roar in late January, after Dan Kois’s extraordinary rave review appeared on the US site Slate.

The headline to his review read, in seething caps, “This New Zealand Fantasy Masterpiece Needs to Be Published in America, Like, Now.” It happened, like, fast. His review appeared on January 29. I emailed Knox’s husband, Victoria University publisher Fergus Barrowman, a week later, on February 7, and asked if any US publishers were sniffing around the book. He replied, “It is a rapidly evolving situation.”

I inquired again, on Wednesday February 12: “Any news on that which was rapidly evolving?”

He replied, “Elizabeth’s agent is fielding offers. There might be some news on Friday morning. Picture Elizabeth on the beach with the shags, waving her phone around.”

I duly pictured the scene – the couple were on holiday, swanning around Tasman/Golden Bay – and two days later, on Friday morning, he emailed from the Collingwood Tavern with a very happy announcement: "North American rights to The Absolute Book have gone to Viking Penguin, agented by Scott Miller at Trident Media Group. No date yet. UK and other rights are going to the London Book Fair in March.”

Later that day, Knox herself passed on her response to the news: “I swam for an hour in the Aorere River and lowered my core temperature so while I know I’m overjoyed I’m also groggy and pooped. It’s my birthday tomorrow.”

Happy birthday! Very happy indeed. I got hold of her US agent Scott Miller, and asked if there had been a bidding war.

He said,  “There definitely was a bidding war among five publishers. Ultimately though, we are so excited to be partnering with Viking on this. They’ve excellently published some similar books, such as A Discovery of Witches and The Magicians

“We’ve already submitted the book in the UK and there is lots of interest with UK publishers. I’m sure we will have a British deal before the book fair. Many foreign publishers have already read the book and have requested meetings with Trident Media Group’s staff at LBF. Additionally, the book is being Co-repped by CAA for media rights and we envision a deal soon. They’ve been flooded with inquiries from production companies.”

I asked about money.

He replied, “No comment as to money but you wouldn’t be wrong if you said it was over six figures.”

The bidding war and the deal with Viking had happened very, very quickly, following Kois's review; I wondered if Miller actually had time to read the book.

He replied, “Of course I read the book! I read the Slate piece and immediately reached out to Elizabeth over Twitter. I asked her if she would allow me to represent it if I read it over the weekend and liked it. She said sure, I read it all weekend, finished it on Sunday night, and got in touch Monday morning to discuss selling it.”

Yes, he confirmed, the whole thing wouldn’t have happened without Dan Kois.

“Dan Kois unearthed a rare gem and through his advocacy and reach, he made it possible for a lot more readers to be able to treasure this novel.”

Kois had a unique heads-up about the book. He left his home in Virginia with his young family to live in Wellington for three months, in 2017, and developed a huge love for New Zealand writing. He signalled his enthusiasm for The Absolute Book in a story for ReadingRoom in December, when he wrote, “Twitter helps me keep up; it’s because of following New Zealand writers on Twitter that I’m dying to read The Absolute Book." 

I got hold of Kois, or American Dan as I only ever call him, and his response to the six-figure Viking deal was: “Hey! I am so thrilled that the book got a US deal. It's exciting that I was able to convey what was so great about the book in such a way that it got other people intrigued about it. What I heard from editors and agents who reached out to me (and I don't know the details of the deal but it's clear to me there were many players involved) was that once they got the book in their hands the book did all the work.”

I asked American Dan whether he thought the book had a chance of performing well in the crowded and insular US market.

He replied, “I think The Absolute Book has a great chance at being successful here, I really do. Viking, who bought it, have a good track record of taking beautifully written ambitious genre books and breaking them out to a literary audience. I know plenty of people who ‘don't read fantasy’ but who read The Magicians; I know plenty of people who have never read a mystery but who love Tana French. Both are published by Viking. Now I do read fantasy but I'm definitely no expert on it, so I don't know whether Knox's book can break out in that world. But I think she has a great chance of crossing over to a wider, general literary audience here. The book can support it!”

The Absolute Book had won glowing reviews in New Zealand, most notably by Jane Stafford at ReadingRoom and Charlotte Grimshaw in the Listener, and was launched with considerable lavish praise by novelist Anna Smaill, who said, “I have never encountered a novel that felt so utterly like a gift.” It sailed to number one on the Nielsen best-seller chart. But sales had begun to drop off this summer, and it slipped to the number two spot. And then along came Kois, and his Slate review. He wrote, “Every once in a while, as a reader, you run into one of those books that is just too big for your mind to entirely take in... It’s an opportunity for any clever American publisher who wants to make a bunch of money while publishing something truly remarkable.”

The book from an obscure archipelago in the South Pacific that got an awesome deal in the US thanks to the attentions of a guy who had the crazy idea of moving here with his family for a few months to see what that’d be like (and to write a very good book about the experience)… it’s a feel-good story, and it’s all down to good old American Dan.

I asked him, “So how do you feel?”

He replied, “I've always loved stories of a critic really getting behind a forgotten film, a little-known novel, a fringe album, and helping that art find its way to a larger audience who will love it. To have had a tiny little part of getting this wonderful book to a whole new set of readers is really lovely and has given me just a tiny bit of that Roger-Ebert-and-My-Dinner-With-André feeling. Hooray!”

The Absolute Book  by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35)

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