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Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Lara Prescott’s debut novel We Were Never Here nets a £1.5 million book deal with her story of how governments once believed books could change the world.

Last month, Lara Prescott was preparing to graduate from her three-year creative writing fellowship at the University of Texas. Two weeks later, she is sitting on book deals worth at least $2m (£1.5m), after publishers on both sides of the Atlantic battled to get their hands on her first novel.

Prescott’s We Were Never Here tells the story of how the CIA smuggled copies of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel Doctor Zhivago into Russia during the cold war in an attempt to seed unrest. Drawing from the voices of Pasternak’s mistress and muse Olga, as well the women of the CIA typing pool involved in the mission, the novel provoked a fierce bidding war when it was submitted by Prescott’s agent last month.

In the UK, 12 publishers fought for the novel, with Penguin Random House publisher Selina Walker winning the bid with a “high six-figure” offer. In the US, Knopf is reported to have paid a seven-figure sum, beating 13 other publishers to the debut. According to Publishers Weekly, this was not the highest bid, but Knopf’s history as the original publisher of Doctor Zhivago helped clinch the deal.

Prescott began writing the novel in 2015 after reading newly declassified documents about the CIA’s clandestine involvement in the Russian publication and dissemination of Doctor Zhivago. The documents, with redacted names and blacked-out details, inspired her to fill in the blanks with fiction”

“Zhivago’s plot revolves around a love story between Lara Antipova and Yuri Zhivago. But its depictions of the October revolution and the Russian civil war, as well as its themes emphasising the importance of individual freedom in the face of the USSR’s enforced collectivism resulted in the novel being deemed subversive by the state. But to me, Zhivago is more about life and love than politics. It’s about individuals who think and laugh and love for themselves,” the author said.

One of the declassified documents revealed that the head of the CIA’s Soviet-Russia division argued in 1958: “Pasternak’s humanistic message – that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state – poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice of the individual to the communist system.” Another document states: “We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.”

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