Lane Turner/Globe Staff
When she finished the manuscript in May, after five years and so many painstaking mornings at the computer, Whitney Scharer had modest expectations. It was her first novel, and she didn’t have an agent, let alone a publisher.
Scharer now has both, and her debut book, “The Age of Light,” is a sensation even before it’s out. The novel, a fictional account of the stormy relationship between surrealist artist Man Ray and pioneering female photographer Lee Miller, was bought for more than $1 million by Little, Brown and Co. after a bidding war involving a dozen publishers.
“I celebrated by drinking a lot of champagne — with a bunch of different people,” says Scharer, laughing as she clutches a cup of coffee in the dining room of her Arlington home.
There’s been an uptick in big-money deals for potential break-out fiction debuts. Publishing insiders suggest there’s pressure to find bestsellers amid flat sales for accomplished authors and a competitive environment for first-time novelists, writers unburdened by expectations based on previous books.
Agents, editors, and others in the industry believe Scharer’s book is a good bet. They say feminist novels, particularly one so meticulously written by an unknown female author, are tantalizing to readers of fiction, most of whom are women, and publishers.
“Everyone likes to rally around the new voice because it’s exciting,” says Paul Bogaards, communications director at Knopf. “And if a manuscript ignites the passion of a dozen editors, as this did, there’s a good chance it has the makings of an excellent book.”
Other recent debuts by female writers that commanded large contracts include “Sweetbitter” by Stephanie Danler and Emma Cline’s “The Girls,” a novel loosely based on the Manson murders that Random House bought for $2 million in a three-book deal.
Scharer says she was confident “The Age of Light,” which is set in Paris in the 1930s, was a compelling story, but she had no idea whether publishers would want it.
“If they said, ‘This is terrible, you need to work on it for 10 more years,’ I would’ve been, like, ‘OK,’ ” Scharer says. “Instead they said, ‘This is great,’ and I said, ‘Really?’ ”
Scharer, 40, who is married to a software engineer and has an 8-year-old daughter, got the idea for the novel after seeing “Man Ray/Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism,” an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum that focused not only on the pair’s celebrated photos but also their fitful romance, which began when he was a teacher and she his student.
“I knew a bunch of stuff about Man Ray, but I’d never heard of Lee Miller, and I felt that was a travesty,” Scharer says of the fashion model-turned-influential photojournalist. “The exhibit did a fabulous job showing their bizarre love affair, and in the back of my mind I thought this could be a novel.”
Scharer was working then at the Boston writing center Grub Street, where she had connected with many other writers. A few of them formed a group called the Chunky Monkeys (because members submit chunks of prose — usually 25 pages — in advance of their monthly get-togethers.) The estimable group includes, among others, Celeste Ng, author of The New York Times bestseller “Little Fires Everywhere”; Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, author of the affecting memoir “The Fact of a Body”; and Chip Cheek, who just sold his first novel, “Cape May,” for six figures to Celadon Books.
“I can definitely say I wouldn’t have finished this book if I wasn’t in the group,” says Scharer, whose short stories have appeared in literary journals. “It’s such an amazing, successful group of people. They’d keep getting things published, and I’d think, ‘Damn, if they can do it, I can do it.’ ”
When she finally finished “The Age of Light,” Scharer sent the manuscript to her “dream agent” Julie Barer, whose clients include Rumaan Alam, Mia Alvar, Joshua Ferris, Lily King, and Scharer’s friend and fellow Chunky Monkey Ng. (Barer does not, however, represent her own husband, Colson Whitehead, whose 2016 novel “The Underground Railroad” won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.)
Barer read the novel while on a flight to Japan.
“It’s simply un-putdownable; incredibly engrossing, very sexy, and deeply moving,” says Barer, who moved quickly to sign Scharer.
Interest among publishers was intense and immediate; two wanted to buy the book right away, and others then got involved in the bidding. There were several factors in the manuscript’s favor: Scharer was a first-time novelist, and the story, told from a female perspective, sheds light on an overlooked historical figure, which is something readers relish.
“It’s not very common to have so many editors respond so enthusiastically and so quickly to a debut, and I think that speaks to . . . what an amazing woman Lee Miller was,” says Barer.
Judith Clain, the editor at Little, Brown, agrees.
“It is glamorous, page-turning, and divine in its details about Paris in the ’30s, but it is her story,” says Clain, referring to Miller. “This is just the kind of literary novel that will find a huge audience with women of all ages, and men too.”
There’s reason to think she might be right. Scharer’s book is reminiscent of “Loving Frank,” Nancy Horan’s 2007 novel about Mamah Borthwick’s illicit affair with Frank Lloyd Wright, and “The Paris Wife,” Paula McLain’s fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley Richardson. Both were told from the perspective of the women, and both were bestsellers.
“Publishers are always looking around for comparable titles, something that’s replicable,” says Writers House literary agent Dan Conaway. “I’m not saying in any way they’re being imitative, but they can see a path to success.”
For her part, Scharer is just happy the novel will be published — it’ll be in stores February 2019 — but she is also amused by all the attention she is receiving.
“I’m ‘unknown’ because I was sitting at my desk tapping away at my keyboard thinking nobody is ever going to read this thing,” she says. “So, yeah, to me it’s funny.”
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