An unknown writer has secured a deal worth at $2m (£1.5m) for her debut novel about a CIA operation to smuggle copies of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago into the Soviet Union.
Pasternak’s book was published in the West in 1956 thanks to the efforts of an Italian journalist but remained banned in the Soviet Union until 1988.
Documents released in 2014 revealed that the CIA came up with the idea of smuggling hundreds of copies of book into the Soviet Union with the aim of using its harsh portrayal of communism to undermine the regime.
Lara Prescott was an unknown creative writing student until a few weeks ago but her debut novel has secured her a $2 million publishing deal
The plan was for several hundred books to be handed out to Soviet visitors to an international trade.
Pasternak had long been one of Russia’s foremost poets and literary translators and it was assumed some of the visitors would be eager to read his only novel.
Lara Prescott’s We Were Never Here is a fictionalised account of operation which she began writing soon after details of the CIA operation became public.
The writer was until last month was preparing to graduate from her three-year creative writing fellowship at the University of Texas.
But publishers on both sides of the Atlantic have been fighting it out to get their hands on her first novel, which will be published in spring 2020.
The novel was banned in the Soviet Union for its unflattering portrait of communism but the CIA printed hundreds of copies that were given to the country’s citizens visiting the west
In the United States, Knopf beat 13 other publishers to the debut, reportedly paying a seven-figure sum while in the 12 UK publishers fought for the novel, with Penguin Random House winning the bid with a six figure offer.
Prescott’s uses the voices of Pasternak’s mistress and muse Olga, as well the women of the CIA typing pool involved in the mission, in her work.
The writer, who worked as a political consultant before securing a scholarship to study creative writing, told The Guardian the story of how ‘governments once believed books could change the world’ was ‘one that needs to be told, perhaps now more than ever’.
‘During the cold war, eastern and western governments believed literature could be weaponised to change ideologies,’ she said.
‘Today, tweets, bots and Facebook posts may be propagandists’ weapons of choice, but 60 years ago, the Soviets and Americans used books.
‘As the CIA’s chief of covert action stated in a 1961 secret report to the Senate, books differ from all other propaganda media.
The novel was made into the an epic film, staring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, which won an Oscar in 1965
Penguin Random House publisher Selina Walker from the novel’s very first sentence’, and knew ‘we absolutely had to publish it’.
‘It’s the best type of historical fiction that enlightens the reader while keeping us gripped to the page,’ she said.
‘It’s about hidden heroes, secret passions, heartbreak and suffering, and the power to endure.
‘Most of all, it’s about an extraordinary book, and how its contents had the power to change readers’ lives – something that resonates with us today as much as it did in the 1950s when Doctor Zhivago was first published.’
Doctor Zhivago has sold millions of copies worldwide, and in 1965 an Oscar-winning film version was released.
It tells the partly autobiographical story of a Russian doctor and poet, Yuri Zhivago, during the turbulent decades before, during and after the 1917 revolution.
He is already married when he falls in love with another woman, Lara who is also married, to a committed Bolshevik.
The plot follows the progress of their doomed relationship, as their lives are caught up in the monumental events of the time.
Its depictions of the October revolution and the Russian civil war, as well as its themes emphasising the importance of individual freedom in the face of the USSR’s enforced collectivism resulted in the novel being deemed subversive by the state.
Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1958, but forced by the Soviet authorities into renouncing it.
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