Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter LAW ’79 has been attracted to fiction writing since childhood, when he wrote short stories. Most of them, he said, “had to do with dinosaurs taking over the earth.”
But not even his fertile imagination envisioned that a novel of monstrous proportions — Carter’s own — would conquer the publishing and film worlds alike in the space of a week.
Carter signed a $4 million, two-book deal with Knopf Publishing Group last Sunday after the manuscript of his first novel, more than 900 pages long, aroused a frenzy of interest and a bidding war in the New York publishing world with four publishers bidding on the book. Less than a day after the book deal, Warner Brothers Pictures, in association with two other film companies, bought the film rights to the novel for an undisclosed sum.
“There’s no question that this is what we would call an event in the publishing industry,” said Paul Bogards, Knopf’s executive director of publicity. “It’s unusual for publishers to purse out a seven-figure advance for a first novel and doubly unusual” for movie companies to begin bidding on the same day.
“The Emperor of Ocean Park,” set for publication in May 2002, depicts a black law professor at an Ivy League college who investigates the death of his father, a noted judge. The tale examines the tension between career and family, and parent-child relationships in the context of an upper middle class black family, Bogards said.
No one was more astounded by “Emperor’s” initial success than Carter, who falters when asked to explain the novel’s appeal.
“I’d like to believe that it’s because I have written a good story,” Carter said.
Carter’s longtime agent Lynn Nesbit said a veteran British publisher had offered to fly to New York in the hopes of being able to publish the novel — even before finishing the manuscript. The clients of Nesbit’s firm, Janklow & Nesbit Associates, include such best-selling authors as Michael Crichton and Thomas Harris.
“It’s obviously an extraordinary deal, but more importantly, it’s an extraordinary work,” Nesbit said.
Bogards himself claims to have read the entire tome in a single night.
The book has a “page-turning quality but has a literary sensibility at the same time, which are things you usually don’t find between two covers,” said Bogards.
Carter, 47, insists that he sees himself not as “a novelist who teaches law but as a law professor who happens to have written a novel.” He has produced three works of non-fiction during the past four years, working on the novel in his spare time.
Carter, a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School who worked as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, won considerable notoriety for his 1991 book “Reflection of an Affirmative Action Baby,” which began with Carter’s unabashed declaration that he had been admitted to a top law school because he was black. In that book, he examined affirmative action from the perspective of its recipients, challenging the conventional wisdom of both sides of the political spectrum.
Subsequent works, including his most recent, “God’s Name in Vain,” have examined the role of religion in American political life. Carter wrote of the dangers of attempts to purge religion from the public sphere, sparking widespread interest and controversy.
“Carter has a gift for writing not only scholarly essays but writing in a way that translates complex issues of moral philosophy into accessible terms,” said Law School Dean Anthony Kronman.
Carter’s increasing fame has not intimidated his students, who continue to submit critical evaluations of his writings, he said.
“Yale law students are not the type of students who are easily awed,” Carter said. “There are people on faculty who have done more amazing things than anything I have done, which don’t awe them [either].”
Despite his financial windfall, Carter plans to continue in his academic career.
“I hope that I’ll be teaching the same way I’ve always taught,” he said. “I really don’t think that the happenstance of this lightning strike should affect my relationship with students and colleagues.”