My second novel is the product of a combination, first of my long interest and empathy for animals, and having taken one too many college English classes.
I had been long familiar with the historical event of two eerily intelligent man-eating lions that stalked railroad coolies during the construction of the Uganda Railroad in the 1890s. When a professional hunter was hired to kill them, they killed him. Local natives believed that they were not lions, but the spirits of two dead Masai chiefs, Mbatian and Nelion, who had once foretold the coming of the white man, prophesying that when the day came, they would return and fight them.
Well, to my artsy but overeducated mind, the story wasn't about man-eating lions carrying off railroad coolies, it was virgin Africa fending off the colonial age the only way it could. I had read Moby Dick, I knew the boundary between empty narrative and knocking the reader in the head with symbolism.
Being the first novel that I started without having a contract in hand, I learned, after sending a couple of hundred pages to my agent to begin showing around, that selling a novel on spec is a lot like building a house on spec. You frame it, close it up, bring people in and ask, "What kind of cabinets do you want? What color carpet do you want?" With novels, you finish enough to show, and if it sells to Farrar-Strauss, you finish it one way. If it sells to Random House, you finish it another way.
I learned another lesson when I sent the finished manuscript to my agent. He called me up, told me it was wonderful, but asked me not to make him send it out without any sex in it. I had heard that this happened, and not being a front-rank novelist who could demand that it be published as written, I did more research on the sociology of area tribes, especially the Wakamba. In the finished novel, the character of Asali and her survival of the brutal ki-nyolla custom were the product of this work. She not only gave me a plausible venue for sex in the story, she also gave the book considerably more depth and texture. This was a final nail in the coffin of my fundamentalist upbringing, with its obligation to be automatically offended by the presence of sex in a story without consideration for the story itself.
The Lions of Tsavo was seen by a number of major publishers of hardback fiction. Most of them liked the story and the writing, but rejected it because they saw it as essentially a British Empire story that would not find an American market. Greg Tobin, then an editor at Bantam before he went on to Book of the Month Club and Ballantine, read it and liked it. Bantam publishes a lot of original paperback novels for truck drivers, and they were more interested in the action-adventure aspects of the story. Thus, what I originally envisioned as Moby Dick on the Dark Continent, they conceived of as Out of Africa meets High Noon. With a little bit of Jaws thrown in. If you read it, play a game with yourself: mark the places where I was writing my concept of the story, versus the places where I was compelled to jack it up for the paperback crowd.
Both my editor and agent were anxious for the novel to make the rounds in Hollywood for film sale, only to discover that (probably) because of the numerous rejections from previous submissions, the story was already well known in Hollywood, and in fact a version was already in pre-production at a major studio. Whether their film was actually based on The Lions of Tsavo depends upon whom you talk to and whether any legal liability attaches. But when one of their underlings called my agent's assistant for reviews of my book to use in publicizing their movie, I had a bitter pill to swallow. (Can you say, "Coming to America?") Eventually the film rights did sell to Disney, but for a fraction of what they had been worth before the story was poached.
To my pleasure, the novel was published in Italy by Marco Polillo, and has done well enough to go into a second printing.