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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 February, 2005, 08:51 GMT
New author in bidding melodrama
By Chris Charles
BBC News

Michael Cox
Mr Cox is a fan of "great story-tellers" like Arthur Conan Doyle

A debut novel which has attracted a record advance of more than 400,000 from publishers was nearly the greatest story never told.

Author Michael Cox first had the idea for Victorian thriller The Meaning Of Night 30 years ago, but it was only when cancer threatened his eyesight that he finally decided to put pen to paper.

A bidding war ensued, with a 430,000 deal ultimately secured by publishers John Murray - believed to be the biggest-ever advance for a first-time British novel.

Mr Cox, 55, admitted: "The ironic thing is I probably wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been ill. I'd had the novel in my head for 30 years but never had the time to sit down and write it.

"Over the years I've drafted a few pages and then discarded them. It's been swirling around in potential form all these years.

"Then at the beginning of last year I had a tumour behind my left eye and I started to lose my sight. As part of the treatment I was put on a corticosteroid called Dexamethasone, which relieved the pressure on my optic nerve.

When I start my next novel I won't be on medication, so I'll have to do it the hard way
Michael Cox

"The side effects of the medication left me fizzing with furious creative energy. I couldn't sleep and didn't know what to do with myself.

"I got a discarded first chapter out and started to work on it again. I couldn't stop - day after day, night after night."

Within six weeks, Mr Cox had written 30,000 words and his novel - which he describes as a "Victorian murder mystery with a very, very complex plot" - was beginning to attract interest.

"I continued writing but gradually came off the medication, so I began to work at a slower rate," he said. "But I had the momentum by then so it was easy for me to carry on.

"By Christmas I had over 100,000 words. Early in January my agent sent it out to half a dozen British publishers and it got a fantastic response."

Publishing contacts

Mr Cox, who was first diagnosed with cancer in 1992, took early retirement from his job as a commissioning editor with Oxford University Press three years ago. He admitted his contacts in the publishing world had stood him in good stead.

"If you don't know anyone in the business it can be very hard," he said.

"I've been a commissioning editor myself and these days more and more publishers won't accept unsolicited manuscripts. But if something's good enough, with luck it will get through, eventually."

Yet even he was stunned by the figures being mentioned.

Mr Cox, who lives with wife Dizzy in the village of Denford in Northamptonshire, said: "We were over the moon with the first offer, but it kept getting bumped up. We are now going through the same process in the US."

Keeley Hawes and Rachael Stirling in the BBC adaptation of Tipping The Velvet
Tipping the Velvet prompted new interest in Victorian literature

Nineteenth-century literature is enjoying a renaissance of late. Sarah Waters' novel Tipping the Velvet, set in Victorian London, was made into a BBC costume drama, while her latest book, Fingersmith, was shortlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize.

And Wilkie Collins' classic Victorian thriller, The Woman in White, has been turned into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Mr Cox cites Collins as one of his major influences, together with Mary Braddon, author of Lady Audley's Secret, and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.

"Conan Doyle, John Buchan and Robert Louis Stevenson are all great story-tellers, which is what I really love and that's what the publishers seem to have responded to," he said.

"I've always wanted to be a novelist and now I have the chance. I'd like to do a follow-up, possibly a trilogy, although when I start my next novel I won't be on medication, so I'll have to do it the hard way."

Let's hope we don't have to wait until 2036 to see it.

Sarah Waters: Tipped for the top
11 Oct 02 |  Newsmakers


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