July 19, 2005
A tale of two recluses: McCarthy and Twelve Hawks
By Claudia Parsons
NEW YORK (Reuters) - American literature boasts plenty of
reclusive authors like J.D. Salinger, but as the cult of
celebrity creeps into publishing, most authors find it's not
enough to just write a great book.
At a time when the gold standard in publishing is J.K.
Rowling's "Harry Potter" series -- the latest installment was
published on Saturday amid a global media blitz -- authors are
expected to help hype their work. But two major books from U.S.
publisher Random House this summer are proof that sometimes
authors can still hold out.
Cormac McCarthy, who has a reputation as one of America's
best living writers, was coaxed into granting his first
interview in 13 years to promote his new novel "No Country for
Old Men," published by Random House imprint Knopf on Tuesday.
Even before his cult status translated into major book
sales with "All the Pretty Horses" in 1992, McCarthy spurned
the spotlight and would not even speak about his work in
academic circles where he had already won critical acclaim.
In an anecdote reported by The New York Times Magazine when
it printed the last interview with McCarthy in 1992, his second
wife Annie DeLisle recalls living in poverty.
"Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak
at a university about his books. And he would tell them that
everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat
beans for another week," she was quoted as saying.
The new book is a violent modern-day Western about a man
who finds a suitcase filled with $2 million of drug money in
the desert in a car whose occupants have been shot.
He takes the money and goes on the run, pursued by a
vicious killer and a small-town sheriff. "Imagine Quentin
Tarantino doing a self-conscious riff on Sam Peckinpah," the
New York Times said in a review of the book.
The author gives little away in this month's interview with
Vanity Fair magazine but the fact that such a media-averse man
agreed to it at all is a sign of the importance to publishers
of having an author as well as a book to promote.
Which makes John Twelve Hawks even more unusual.
The likes of McCarthy or Thomas Pynchon, author of "V" and
"Gravity's Rainbow," may be famous enough to resist pressure
from their publishers to join the media circus, but how does a
first-time novelist manage it?
Twelve Hawks is a pseudonym and all that is known about the
author of "The Traveler" -- published this month amid
Hollywood-style hype that landed it on The New York Times
bestseller list -- is that he "lives off the grid," meaning he
has no mobile phone, credit card or other means of being
"John Twelve Hawks is a mystery, even I don't know who he
is," said his editor Jason Kaufman, best known as the editor of
Dan Brown's blockbuster "The Da Vinci Code."
Kaufman speaks to Twelve Hawks by satellite phone, has
never met him and has no idea where he lives. "He takes
personal privacy very, very seriously and he leads a very
similar life as his characters lead," Kaufman said.
Billed as a cross between science-fiction movie "Matrix"
and George Orwell's "1984," the book is set in a world of
constant surveillance where rebel warriors called "Harlequins"
defend prophet-like people called "Travelers."
According to Publishers Weekly, Random House imprint
Doubleday paid over $1 million for the book. It is the first in
a trilogy that has already been sold in 18 countries and which
is set to be turned into a film by Universal Pictures.
Doubleday started marketing the book to booksellers more
than a year ago, creating a DVD like a movie trailer and
launching Web sites such as a blog ostensibly by one of the
characters called judithstrand.blogspot.com.
"A lot of what we did was Internet focused," said John
Pitts, Doubleday marketing director, who says the publisher has
printed 190,000 copies of the book, substantially more than the
150,000 copies of "No Country for Old Men."
Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books,
said publishers' tricks for creating word-of-mouth buzz about
books were myriad, from embargoes aimed at building up suspense
to author appearances in small-town bookstores.
"There's a kind of game about this thing," Silvers said,
adding that publishers often break their own embargoes on books
by leaking exclusive snippets to chosen media outlets. "There
are a lot of publishers' strategies going on with appearances,
releases, creating a bit of mystery," he said.
Kaufman said Twelve Hawks' secrecy was no publicity stunt.
But as critic James Wood wrote in The New Yorker in
reference to McCarthy, living quietly and shunning the
limelight is not a bad tactic. "His granitic indifference to
his readership only feeds its almost religious loyalty."