London — When Diane Setterfield sent the draft of her first novel to a literary agent, she prepared a file for rejection letters, jokingly marking it "they'll kick themselves later."
That file remains empty, though, because the agent immediately snapped up "The Thirteenth Tale," a gothic horror mystery, and within a few days secured Setterfield a two-book deal, reported to be worth $1.4 million, with Britain's Orion Books.
Soon after its U.S. publication on Sept. 12, the book had seized the No. 1 spot on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly charts.
Judith Curr, executive vice-president and publisher of Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, said that on the strength of "The Thirteenth Tale," the publishing house paid Setterfield more than $1 million for a two-book deal. "We never doubted that this book was special," she said. "We have just ordered another 30,000 copies," bringing the number of copies printed in the United States alone to 420,000.
It took Setterfield, a former academic, five years to produce her engaging tale about a naive young bibliophile drafted to write the biography of a troubled and dying writer. The last British author to reach No. 1 with a debut was Nicholas Evans, whose 1996 novel, "The Horse Whisperer," was later made into a film starring Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson.
Setterfield, 42, who took up writing after quitting her job teaching French literature at the University of Central Lancashire in northern England, was not put off by setbacks, including a rewrite that took 18 months.
"I could never persuade myself that it was one of those unpublishable novels. The characters would just not let me go," she said.
Like her young biographer, Margaret, Setterfield is an avid reader and this is reflected in the book with sentences like "to see is to read." She said she always knew that she would write a novel, rather than short stories or some other form.
"I knew what would satisfy me as a reader and until then I was not prepared to let it go," Setterfield told The Associated Press from the genteel northern English spa town of Harrogate, where she lives with her husband." She also knew that she wanted to get out of the academic world, "for my own sanity."
It is an immensely assured debut: Setterfield switches fluently between narrators and time frames, as she builds dramatic tension.
The story is set in a dark and brooding house ironically named Angelfield that holds within its walls the secrets of Winter's family. They include incest, abuse, neglect, self-harm - a long litany of horrors.
With its ghosts and its secrets - and its devastating fire - "The Thirteenth Tale" has overtones of Jane Eyre and Rebecca; Margaret echoes the second Mrs. de Winter in her innocence and slow journey toward knowledge.
Steeped as she was in French literature - she specialized in the works of Andre Gide - Setterfield acknowledges that "it is strange ... that I have produced such an overtly, excessively English novel."
"I think it is because I have been reading English works again after a long break."
In many ways, "The Thirteenth Tale" is a book about books, and it asks the most robust questions about literary ethics.
In one scene, Winter asks Margaret whether she would shoot a man to stop him from destroying great works of literature, raising the question about whether "Shakespeare is worth more than one human life."
What does Setterfield think? "I have mixed feelings about that, looked at objectively, one play by Shakespeare probably is more valuable to the culture than a single human life could be," she said. "That seems fairly clear."
Setterfield, who has a doctorate in French literature from Bristol University, also raises the issue of what truth is as Vida Winter - who has invented a different history for herself - slowly reveals the real history of her family.
The novel reflects on whether packages of fiction should be tied up neatly and happily at the end, as Margaret prefers, or more messily, acknowledging that suffering continues, as Margaret's father believes.
Setterfield said she falls "into the same camp as Margaret's father."
Her characters are all fictional, "although Margaret's love of reading is autobiographical." And a "rotund man with a waistcoat and a bow tie in lurid yellow" who was interviewed on television after the Irish Republican Army tried to bomb a London bridge fed into the character of Aurelius, a somewhat eccentric, if lovable figure who holds the key to the book's mystery.
"Vida Winter is named that way because it is a wintry book," Setterfield said. "Her character and the weather are all one. It is my way of reducing things." Also, the letters "V" and "W" conveniently remind the author of icicles.
U.S. vs. Britain
"The Thirteenth Tale" has not done quite as well in Britain as in the United States: It made No. 12 on Internet book selling site Amazon.co.uk, but so far, it has not featured on other best seller lists, including the Sunday Times.
Sara Nelson, editorial director of Publishers Weekly, said the novel's U.S. performance "is very interesting - so few first novels land on the booksellers' list at No. 1, let alone novels about literary matters.
"But books about books tend to do quite well here. And this book is very charming and very confident."
Setterfield, who is currently touring the United States to promote "The Thirteenth Tale," will start work soon on her second book.
"I will follow the same thread in the second novel," she said, without elaborating. "And I'm not going to be fretting about whether I will be pleasing X-number of American readers. You can only please yourself."