By Chris Charles
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
from publishers was nearly the greatest story never told.
Author Michael Cox first had the idea for Victorian thriller The
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
John Murray - believed to be the biggest-ever advance for a first-time
Mr Cox, 55, admitted: "The ironic thing is I probably wouldn't have
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
all these years.
"Then at the beginning of last year I had a tumour behind my left eye
started to lose my sight. As part of the treatment I was put on a
corticosteroid called Dexamethasone, which relieved the pressure on my
"The side effects of the medication left me fizzing with furious
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
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
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."
Mr Cox, who was first diagnosed with cancer in 1992, took early
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
"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."
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,
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
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.