After a 14-bidder auction involving 21 different imprints, Jordan Pavlin at Knopf won North American rights to the buzzed-about debut novel by Lara Prescott, We Were Never Here. The book, which Knopf acquired for seven figures, is set in 1957 and based on the actual events surrounding the publication of Boris Pasternak’s classic, Dr. Zhivago. In addition to the U.S. sale, the novel had sold, at press time, to publishers in 11 other territories, with the U.K. auction involving 10 bidders.
Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management, who sold We Were Never Here with his colleague Jamie Chambliss, said publishers “fell in love with the novel.” That love translated into a frenzy for the book, with editors scrambling to buy it a few hours after it began circulating. And, although Knopf ponied up a hefty sum for the title, the Penguin Random House imprint was not the highest bidder. Kleinman indicated that Knopf’s status as the original publisher of Dr. Zhivago gave the house, and Pavlin, an advantage.
“Knopf edged out the others, given their storied history with Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago,” he said. “It’s too early to discuss [marketing] plans, of course, but the opportunities of co-promoting Lara’s book with Pasternak’s were too attractive for Lara turn down.” (Knopf, in addition to being the original publisher of Dr. Zhivago, maintains a healthy social media presence around the title; it runs the Boris Pasternak Facebook page, with just over 91,000 fans.)
We Were Never Here is set during the Cold War, and explores the curious role the CIA played in trying to get Dr. Zhivago into the hands of more Russians, after the book was banned in the Soviet Union. Feeling that the novel presented a harsh picture of communism, the CIA translated the book into Russian and smuggled it into the country to, as Knopf put it, “orchestrate its use as a weapon of propaganda for the West.”
While Prescott’s book is not the first to examine the peculiar international publication of Dr. Zhivago, Knopf noted that the novel, which also explores the relationship between Pasternak and his lover, is the first fictional account of the tale. Prescott said, in a statement: “The incredible story of the writing of Dr. Zhivago and its clandestine distribution–of how governments once believed books could change the world–is one that needs to be told, perhaps now more than ever.”
Pavlin added that We Were Never Here, aside from the interesting history it explores, is the type of novel every reader hopes to discover. “[It’s] so vivid, so smart, so completely transporting from page one,” she said. “There is the thrilling historical canvas…but what Lara is really writing about is the extraordinary women around Pasternak and his masterpiece–Olga, his muse, who goes to jail for him, and the women in the typing pool at the CIA who became international spies and help Dr. Zhivago to make its way around the world.”
We Were Never Here is also making the rounds in Hollywood, with Lucy Stille at APA representing it for film. One industry insider on the film side said the best elevator pitch they had heard for the novel, making the case for its viability as a movie, is that it’s “Argo for books.”
Prescott, who recently received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, worked as a political campaign operative before turning to writing fiction. She has published pieces in Tin House and Southern Review, among other publications, and the first chapter of We Were Never Here won the 2016 Crazyhorse Fiction Prize.
Knopf will publish We Were Never Here in North America in 2020.