`£750,000 isn't really that much'

Michael Ridpath's first novel has had him dubbed the new John Grisham. Not true, he tells Jim White. He's the new Dick Francis
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The Independent Culture
Michael Ridpath currently has a lot of money in his trouser pockets. The £750,000 he picked up for his novel Free to Trade. Martin Amis, a long-term earner, who struggled for months to find someone prepared to pay £500,000 for his next novel, woul d havebeen as astonished as anyone by this amount: it was Ridpath's first book. And sums like this for first books are not the publishing norm.

Indeed, Heinemann's editor-in-chief, Tom Weldon, who won the rush for Ridpath's signature, is renowned for being considerably more parsimonious in his payment for first books. To be specific I can reveal, without a hint of rancour or jealousy, that he forked out roughly one 75th of this sum for mine.

But then neither Amis, nor indeed me, fulfil the British publishers Holy Grail: we are not the British John Grisham.

Just as TV executives have been desperate in their search for a home-grown Roseanne or Hill Street Blues, so British publishers have been searching for the man to fit the formula. Grisham writes thrillers which sell. More specifically he writes thrillerswhich become movies, which in turn act as the single most important promotional vehicle for selling more books.

So when the manuscript of Free to Trade landed unsolicited on the agent Carole Blake's desk, she knew she had something on her hands. It was fast, it was pacey and it made an impenetrable world - a City dealing room - both comprehensible and sexy. The prose wasn't John Le Carre, the tension wasn't Thomas Harris, but the manuscript did what a John Grisham thriller does: it made you turn the page. So Blake conducted an auction.

A year after that auction was concluded (Heinemann paid £250,000 for the British rights to Ridpath's first two novels, the rest piled in from overseas deals), a week after the book was published, Michael Ridpath finds himself at number two in the bestseller list.

"I'm really pleased about that," he says, as he sits in Heinemann's headquarters waiting for the party in his honour to begin. "I've been trying to understand all that's been going on around me since it started. When I saw it was selling, it all clicked.I suddenly thought, well, maybe it is a good book."

One of the penalties of earning £750,000 from your first book (a penalty some of us would be happy to take on board, incidentally) is that the sum you earn becomes the most important part of the story. In the manner of those huge deals footballers sign to promote a certain brand of boot, the very size of the fee becomes part of the marketing strategy. This, in turn, colours people's attitude to the book. Thus Michael Ridpath, a 32-year-old City banker, was mythologised by the Sunday Times as a man who, accustomed to making money, spotted an earning gap in the literary market, bought himself a computer and a few "How to Write" manuals, produced a formulaic book to fill it and then sat back waiting for the hefty cheque he knew would follow. Not, Ridpath says, even remotely true.

"The point about the money is irrelevant. I wrote the book before I was paid. I wrote it to see if I could. I sent it off to agents, really to see if it was any good. I sent it to four, with a plan that if none of them took it up, I would send it to another four, and if none of them did, I would have a stab at publishing it myself. I was pretty surprised when one of the first bunch picked it up. I was very surprised when she got a first offer of £50,000 for it. I really couldn't grasp what happened whenthe auction took off. Anyway the money's not really that much, it's spread over three years and one has to leave a slice for the agent and the taxman."

True, the chairman of British Gas would treat it as small change. But was the "How to Write" manuals bit a fiction, too?

"I gather it is a bit embarrassing to admit to it, but I did use them. I really didn't know what to do, and Dick Francis is not available three times a week for private tuition. I'd always assumed I didn't have the imagination to write. But the computer was just sitting there and with a computer it seems physically possible, all you have to do is sit there and tap."

The novel Ridpath produced from his tapping, and from covering his desk with index cards on which he constructed plot and character development, concerns a young London bond dealer who uncovers a fraud which leads him into an international web of threats, murder and mayhem. A typical day in the City, then.

"I tried very hard not to base the characters on anyone I knew. I didn't want to damage people or to cut off my sources of information. Having said that, there are five people I know who are convinced they are Cash Callaghan [one of the book's baddies] and two of them are even proud of it."

Although Ridpath was a beginner, he immediately grasped the most important devices of the thriller. The book's main strength is that it is very focused, there is no superfluity, floweriness or pretension: the plot is all, powering ahead, mapped mainly bydialogue.

"I found it quite difficult to describe things, rooms in particular, so I just wrote down what was in them," he admits. "I tried to make the dialogue conversational and to keep the style unobtrusive."

The consequence of this is that the book is very filmic: lots of chat, not much scene-setting. Already offers from three producers for the rights sit on his agent's desk. It looks as though the British John Grisham might have been discovered. Which wouldbe to Heinemann's considerable relief, if not the author's. "The tag I'd prefer," he says, "is that I managed to do for finance what Dick Francis did for horse racing. That would please me more than anything."

Even banking £750,000.