When Overlook Press bet the bank on a spy novel, by Michael Perkins

(Michael Perkins covered the publication of The Company in 2002 for the Woodstock Times.)

Return with us now to those thrilling, chilling days of yesteryear before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Cold War raged and school children learned to duck and cover. As we enter the new era of permanent war, let us pause this summer to reflect on the lessons of history. Let us dive into an 824-page spy novel—The Company by Robert Littell. It’s a hell of a beach read, and something more: The best spy novel since the last Charles McCarry novel or Littell’s own The Defecting of A.J. Lewinter. It continues a noble literary genre, following Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John Le Carre.

Don’t like spy fiction? How about a panoramic novel that offers a behind-the-scenes look at world events for the past 50 years, from Berlin in the 1950s to Afghanistan just yesterday? How about a novel that opens a door on the parallel universe that we love to hate—the Central Intelligence Agency—the way The Godfather opened the door on the mafia?

Overlook Press publisher is betting that at least 100,000 people will want to read The Company in its just released hardcover edition. At 66, after 40 years in publishing (a career launched by his rediscovery of Henry Roth’s classic Call It Sleep) the Overlook founder and Woodstock resident has staked his business and personal resources on the breakout success of The Company. Mesdames et messieurs, faites vos jeux…

To add to the white-knuckle tension, Mayer has promised his staff that he will quit smoking if The Company makes the New York Times Book Review bestseller list. How close is he?

Overlook has launched a major publicity campaign, and collected major review attention almost across the board, including seven front page reviews in leading journals. Movie rights are being negotiated. Barnes and Noble bookstores have given the book prime placement. It’s in its fourth printing.

The excitement mounts.

With a total investment of over $500,000 Mayer’s bet seems to be paying off. Translation rights have been sold to six countries for more than $600,000; paperback rights were to sold to Penguin for $225,000. The Company will be a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. And its author, Littell, who lives in France, will do a publicity tour of the U.S.

Mayer founded the Overlook Press with his father, Alfred, in Woodstock in 1971. It was a small, boutique press that specialized in distinguished but obscure literary offerings, while Mayer, in his day job in mainstream publishing, rose to the top of Viking Penguin. Now, with one bold play, he may just take the tiny independent Overlook into the big time.

He stands an excellent chance of raking in a lot of chips. The timing is right, for one thing—spies are much in the news these days, with the recent sentencing of the turncoat FBI agent Robert Hansen. And spy novels share one overwhelming emotion—fear. After Sept. 11, the national mood is nothing if not fearful.

But will Americans—notoriously ignorant of history—take to a multigenerational novel that mixes real figures with fictional heroes and villains involved in events that happened long ago?

Mayer thinks they will. “People under 27 may not know much about the Cold War, but The Company isn’t history, it’s a novel. After all, we are still reading about the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace.”

Another objection readers might have is to the novel’s subject. Sixties people tend to distrust the C.I.A. profoundly.

“Well,” Mayer says, “the C.I.A. Has its admirers, too. This book is not written to praise the C.I.A. It’s shown in the novel to bumble, to have many times to have been on the wrong side of an issue. Likewise, The Godfather doesn’t praise the Mafia. And now, after Sept. 11, even people who don’t like the C.I.A. would be nervous without such an organization. The C.I.A. is recruiting like crazy. Many of those joining now are doing so for patriotic reasons—the C.I.A. doesn’t pay much. The New York Post said that the novel humanizes the C.I.A. And I agree with that.”

The authenticity of Littell’s descriptions of C.I.A. training, operations and real C.I.A. figures like James Angleton and William Colby is one of the principal attractions of the novel.

“A lot of ex-C.I.A. People have written to Bob Littell saying that he had to have been in the C.I.A. To know so much about its inner workings. Littell says he wasn’t—but would he tell? We didn’t submit The Company to the C.I.A. Before publication, nor did they ask to see it.”

So how close is Mayer to throwing out his ashtrays?

“I said I’d stop smoking if we made the New York Times bestseller list. That has only fifteen spots and it’s filled with Mary Higgins Clark and John Grisham. We have made it onto a lot of bestseller lists, but the Times? We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”

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The Hudson Valley Poetry Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.

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