NEW YORK — It was 1 a.m. when Sally Beauman opened the door of her London home to find her literary agent, Pat Kavanagh, standing on her doorstep.
"I don't drink," Beauman said, "but on that occasion I did have a whisky."
Kavanagh had just conveyed to Beauman the news that "Destiny," her unfinished novel, just had been sold for more than $1 million.
The figure is said by Bantam Books to be the most money ever paid for a first novel by an unknown author. "Destiny" will be published as a Bantam hardcover sometime in 1987.
The book was the subject of a fiercely competitive auction involving Bantam, Atheneum, Scribners, Crown, Random House, Putnam and Summit Books/Pocket Books.
"The auction went on all week," said Stuart Applebaum, Bantam's vice president for publicity, "making it one of the longest on record."
The Final Bid
The bidding extended through early mornings, late nights, a weekend and a Jewish holiday. In fact, said Bantam editorial director Stephen Rubin, "I didn't find out that Sally had accepted our offer until the Friday of Hurricane Gloria."
From the first glimpses, Rubin said that "Destiny" had aroused enormous interest. "I think the extraordinary unanimity of response to this book, very specifically at Bantam but also within the industry as a whole, tells you there really is something very special here," Rubin said. "I can't find anybody who doesn't like this book."
Spanning three decades and the same number of continents, "Destiny" tells the story of Helen, "an essentially mysterious" heroine, British-born but brought up in poverty in Alabama, and Edouard, the son and heir to an immense financial empire that revolves around a Cartier-like jewelry business.
Focusing on Mississippi during the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s, as well as London, Paris and French-ruled Algeria, the story, according to its author, "tells the odd ways in which fate can work so that two people who are from totally different backgrounds will eventually meet."
Interviewed by telephone at her home in London, Beauman said she "wanted to write a book which centered on an extreme of poverty and wealth." But, she said, "I'm still working on it, so I don't want to say too much."
Beauman, 41, lived in the United States from 1966 to 1969, and "spent some time in the South, in Alabama, and was meeting civil rights activists and such."
At the time, Beauman was newly graduated from Cambridge University and was embarking on the early stages of a career that would encompass journalism, criticism, nonfiction writing and nine Harlequin romance novels published under the pseudonym of Vanessa James.
Publishing sources said the romance genre was considered "formula, brief stuff written under a nom de plume." By contrast the new work, to be published under Beauman's name, is considered by the publishing community to be a first novel.
Beauman was a staff writer for New York magazine for a short time before returning to England, where, at age 25, she was named editor of Queen, a general-interest magazine. In England, Beauman cemented her national reputation as a serious nonfiction writer with the 1982 publication of a book on the Royal Shakespeare Company.
As Applebaum said, "The lit majors love her. She's a very serious person."
And Rubin agreed: "There's 20 years of diverse experience here. She's been all over the place. This is not some kid."
Adapting to Book Writing
Unlike many journalists, Beauman said it had never been her ambition to write a novel, popular or otherwise. But with the birth of her son James Howard 10 years ago, Beauman found it increasingly difficult to practice the kind of peripatetic, plane-hopping journalism to which she was accustomed. Book writing, she found, adapted well to her more homebound life style, "except during school holidays, when it's hell."
"It wasn't my fantasy to be a novelist," Beauman said. "I was very, very happy being a journalist, until quite recently when I decided I would like to try fiction."
After her writing her first Harlequin romance on a bet, Beauman said, "I was trying to think of ideas for a long book of this kind, a long commercial book. . . . I wanted to write a book that I hoped a lot of people would enjoy reading. I think it's self-defeating to write a book that is read by only a few people. I wanted to appeal to a wide audience without compromising my standards."
While at Bantam, editorial director Rubin said that "if this is a formula book, it's obviously a magic potion."
Beauman said that "I don't think it works to set out to write a formula: X plus Y equals success. So I really abandoned all those ideas and wrote what I wanted to write."
Beauman said she began thinking about the "shape and construction" of "Destiny" in the summer of 1984, but only started writing early this year. Her journalism background was useful, she said, in that, "I work quite long hours, and when it's going well, I can write very fast."
The $1-Million-Plus Price