Skip to Content

Success at last! An author's story

29 June 2015

When John Spurling won the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction recently with The Ten Thousand Things it was much more than a good win against a formidable shortlist, which included Martin Amis, Helen Dunmore, Adam Foulds and Kamila Shamsie.

The subject was obscure perhaps to a western audience, the story of Wang Meng, one of his era's great masters of painting and the novel was Spurling's fourth, although it had taken him 15 years to write. Peter Mayer, Publisher of Duckworth in the UK and Overlook in the US, had loved it from the start, buying it for both houses. But this wasn't exactly the start, for the book had initially been submitted no less than 44 times by Spurling's agent, David Marshall.

When Marshall initially started submitting the book in 2007, he thought he would sell it quickly and well. But publishers turned it down, saying they loved it but that the central character was calm and not very interesting. When he submitted it to Mayer, the publisher promptly fell over and broke his neck, spending 4 months in hospital, during which time this 120,000 word manuscript was the only book he read all through.

Although the book is set in 14th-century China, during the final years of the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty, it is not yet sold in China itself. All the characters are real historical people but the author wears his learning lightly. As the judges said: "The Ten Thousand Things is subtle and rewarding. Through John Spurling's writing you feel as though you are reading Wang Meng's paintings as he created them. It is a mesmerising, elegantly drawn picture of old imperial China, which feels remarkably modern."

Fifteen years to write! 44 rejections! What is it that drove an author into obsession about his project and his agent into sheer determination to sell it? It has to be because it is a really unusual subject which has been transformed into a powerful and unusual novel. Let's hope that the Prize helps it to find a large audience.