Teacher secures £1.3m advance for her debut novel

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The Independent Culture

There has been no lack of literary success from North Yorkshire's first-time novelists over the past few years. Graham Taylor, a clergyman from the village of Cloughton, became a celebrity overnight with the Shadowmancer novel which has earned him a £3.5m deal, and The Olive Readers, by Christine Aziz, from Ricmond, has been propelled to mass market sales by winning a contest run by the extraordinarily influential Richard and Judy show.

Yet these accomplishments pale by comparison with a new novelist. After a marathon, 10-day auction, Diane Setterfield, a French teacher from Harrogate, has been paid £800,000 by UK publishers and a further $1m from a US publishing house for her debut novel The Thirteenth Tale.

Setterfield's deal with Orion is one of the biggest fiction debuts of the year and it dwarfs the modest beginnings of Yorkshire's most famous French teacher turned novelist Joanne Harris. The novel tells the story of a reclusive novelist who recounts the events of her strange life to the young woman she has selected to be her biographer.

It is written in a mysterious, gothic style with resonances of works by the Brontës, Daphne du Maurier and Wilkie Collins, as well as contemporary novels such as Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

The book marks "a return to that rich mine of storytelling that our parents loved and we loved as children", said Jane Wood, Orion's editor-in-chief, who has already sold rights to Germany, Holland, Italy, France, Norway and Brazil. "It also satisfies the appetite for narrative-driven fiction that has beginnings, middles and endings, like the great novels of the 19th century. She creates a wonderful fictional world."

The writer, who is in her forties, was spotted by the novelist Jim Crace on a writing course she took up to move from academia, where she specialised in the works of André Gide and other 19th and 20th century French writers.

Setterfield had the idea for the novel five years ago. "I scribbled notes which were then put in a drawer and stayed there for a very long time," she said. "When I took them out I wrote my first draft. Later, I made major changes and I was very happy with it. At the writing course I took notes on everything about how to get an agent and send work to publishers. After that things moved quickly."

Having read French literature almost exclusively for more than a decade, she wanted to return to British classics after academia. "It was nostalgic for me to write in that style," she said.

First time lucky: other writers who struck rich

* ELIZABETH KOSTOVA

The US writer earned a $2m advance for her first novel The Historian, drawing on childhood Dracula tales. Publisher Little, Brown and Co anticipates it capturing readers' imagination in the manner of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

* CECILIA AHERN

The daughter of the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, won a $1m advance from US publishers for her debut novel PS I Love You, two years ago. It was followed by $100,000 from the producer of Forrest Gump for film rights. It is the story of Holly who loses her lover, Gerry, to a terminal illness only to find he has left her a series of letters with monthly tasks to complete.

* G P TAYLOR

Initially decided to self-publish Shadowmancer but he subsequently secured a $500,000 deal for the novel from a US publisher. It garnered a £3.5m publishing deal for the next six novels and has been translated into 20 languages.

* J K ROWLING

Advanced just £2,500 by Bloomsbury Publishing for her first Harry Potter book. She has since earned at least £35m from the series of books and films, which have become a world-wide phenomenon.

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