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Novels in search of authors

February 29, 2008 |  2:59 pm

The arrival of the movie "The Other Boleyn Girl" in theaters today (Kenneth Turan reviewed it for the Times) reminded me of something Philippa Gregory, author of the novel, said about the source of the idea for the book when she was touring through Southern California about a year ago.Boleyn

As she was researching another novel, she came across the name of a ship, named for Mary Boleyn, and was startled. Another Boleyn? What happened to her? "Imagine if I had entrusted this work to a researcher," she said. "Imagine what I might have lost!"

Just imagine. It’s true what some authors say: Novels find them, not the other way around.

It was the same for Nicholas Delbanco, whom I talked to this week during an L.A. visit. His next novel, coming in May from Dalkey Archive, is about Count Rumford.

Never heard of him? He was an inventor and visionary of the same level--and the same time--as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. But the reason few know him in America though they enjoy the results of his ideas (such as the drip coffeepot and many other domestic conveniences), Delbanco explained, is because the former Benjamin Thompson, a native of Massachusetts, sided with the British in the Revolution. Rumford fled America to Europe where his inventions and theories were celebrated.

Rumford Delbanco wouldn’t have known him either if he hadn’t stumbled across his work back in 1969. He purchased an upstate New York house with a fireplace that smoked miserably and provided little heat. Then, someone saw the fireplace and gasped, "You have a Rumford fireplace!"

"A what?" Delbanco said. He cared less about its creator than about heating his home.

Eventually the fireplace worked splendidly--the wood had to be stacked differently than in traditional fireplaces--and the shallowness of the design caused heat to radiate sevenfold back into the house. That experience, and several other unexpected encounters with Rumford’s name and accomplishments over the years, eventually led to his writing the forthcoming "The Count of Concord." The novel seemed to insist on being told. If it weren’t for chance encounters, just imagine, as Philippa Gregory might say, what some writers would miss.

Nick Owchar