A young man coming of age in suburban Illinois in the 1970s, obsessed with ballet, literature and classical music, aware that he's gay but determined to remain closeted. The protagonist of a novel by David Leavitt, Alan Gurganus or Dale Peck? Not this time. While these gay male writers would seem to own the territory, it's a female novelist praised for her depiction of women who has dared to trespass in an area generally reserved for men who have lived the experience.

A Short History of a Prince (Random House), Jane Hamilton's third novel, isn't the first time this author, who claims apologetically to have had "a very ordinary life," has so effectively imagined herself into the mind of a character thrown to its fringes. Talking with PW during a recent visit from her Wisconsin home to her publisher's Manhattan offices, Hamilton declares a spiritual kinship with the troubled central characters of her three novels: Ruth, the emotionally abused but brave and resilient protagonist of The Book of Ruth (1988), whose dreams of domesticity vanish in an eruption of violence; Alice, the restless, self-destructive heroine of A Map of the World (1994), who is responsible for the death of a child and spends time in jail falsely accused of sexual abuse; and, now, dreamy, aesthetic Walter, whose lonely, unfulfilled life is defined by the secret he dares not share. "I spent my entire youth being in love with gay men because they were the most interesting and compassionate people I knew," Hamilton says. "For me, writing Walter didn't feel like a stretch."

In The Short History of a Prince, teenager Walter McCloud's passion for ballet is not sanctified by talent. Despite his artistic aspirations and his absorption in classical technique, he is awkward and ungainly. His desire to dance the role of Prince Siegfried in a production of The Nutcracker is granted in an ironic manner that shames him, and this dark fulfillment is followed by the crucifying experience of his life, when he's discovered wearing a ballerina's tutu and is sadistically humiliated by the ballet master and mocked by the young man he loves.

Though Hamilton herself was never publicly embarrassed, she keenly remembers her own adolescent despair at failing to become a graceful dancer. "My legs were big; my derriere was big; I had no turnout; my feet were flat -- but still I really loved it," she recalls. "What I bring to the character of Walter is my experience of dancing and of being the worst in the class. Probably most people feel that way some of the time, but I internalized the feeling. I felt I was out of the mainstream."

Inspiration came from another source as well. The character of Walter McCloud is also based on her dearest friend in high school, to whom the book is dedicated. The inscription reads: "For JMW -- for Boonkie." According to Hamilton, Boonkie is "the spiritual twin" to Walter. "In some ways, Walter is the marriage of this friend and myself. I wanted the word 'prince' in the title because Walter is a prince in every way." She thinks that the characters in her previous books were "only warm-ups" for Walter, that his quiet suffering and endurance is faithful to the longings and insecurities of outsiders in society who take refuge in the spiritual solace of literature, dance and music.

Songs of Isolation

Hamilton herself projects nothing but prairie wholesomeness to jaded New York eyes. She is sturdily unpretentious, with none of the professional glamour that bestselling authors generally radiate. It's not just her well-scrubbed, makeup-free complexion, her hair yanked back and anchored with an elastic band, or her comfortable outfit of baggy sweater and tights. She has a strong jaw, a clear and level gaze and a modest and candid way of talking about her problems with the creative process.

Moving in 1982 to the small rural community of Rochester, Wisc., population 1000, was a crystallizing experience of social alienation for Hamilton. "I felt I was an anthropologist in a foreign country," she says. Born in 1957, she had been raised in suburban Oak Park, Ill., the youngest of five siblings in a close-knit home where reading was a cherished pastime and writing a given. Her mother composed poetry; a verse in Jane's honor called "A Song for a Fifth Child" was published in the Ladies' Home Journal. Her grandmother wrote for a feminist newspaper and tried her hand at novels. "I just assumed that if you were a girl-child you were supposed to grow up and write," she says.

Whatever her ambitions, they went underground when she graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota in 1979, and impulsively stopped off on the way to New York (and the vague offer of a job in publishing) to visit a friend who was working on a farm for the summer. "They needed help; it was picking season. So I stayed a week, then I stayed two weeks, a month. I fell in love with my friend's cousin, Bob Willard, and I married him. It took me about 10 years to think I could belong there. And maybe another four years to think I wanted to belong there." Having children, a boy and a girl now 13 and 10, contributed to her acceptance in the tight-knit community. The crucial factor was her service as president of the board of the public library, a labor of love she calls "a lifesaver."

Looking back, Hamilton says she's grateful for the detour. Her applications to graduate schools had been rejected; "I felt bad about that, but I knew that I wasn't ready for a high-powered graduate program. Ultimately, it was good for me to be in this tiny town where the book review didn't come. I was in my own little fog trying to figure out the forms for myself. I wrote, but I didn't know what I had to say yet. So it was serendipitous that I ended up in the middle of nowhere."

Except for the four months of intense activity during apple-picking season, Hamilton had a lot of free time in which to try her hand at short fiction. "I spent basically three years writing one story," she says with a rueful laugh. Eventually she sold it to Harper's. She won "a few" Wisconsin Art Board grants and an NEA grant. But she was still searching for her subject.

The inspiration came from an event that rocked Wisconsin's rural communities: in a nearby town, a man murdered his mother-in-law. Hamilton recalls feeling immediate empathy for the murderer's wife. She herself was living in a very small house with her husband and his aged aunt. "Even though I loved these new relations of mine, I could understand how a situation could get out of hand. I was young, I was frustrated. I needed my own territory and I didn't know how I was going to get it. And so I took my frustrations and plugged them into someone entirely different from me. I wanted to see if I could slip into someone else's skin."

What she found was a strange emotional bond with her inadequately educated, culturally deprived and miserably poor heroine. "The Book of Ruth is fueled by Ruth's voice because I felt possessed by Ruth," Hamilton says. It was not easy to sell such a downbeat slice of life. The agent Hamilton had used for her short stories was not interested in the novel. When a friend gave her a list of agents, Hamilton dutifully worked through the alphabet, sending out the manuscript and receiving rejection letters in return. "Finally I was at the end of the alphabet. The last name was Amanda Urban." With no idea of Urban's clout in the industry, Hamilton made her "last stab. She called me within a week and said, 'Who are you?' She sold it in another week," Hamilton reports.

Katrina Kenison at Ticknor &Fields bought The Book of Ruth. Reviews were good, and Hamilton didn't care that sales were modest. Before Ruth won the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award in 1989, Martha Levin at Doubleday/Anchor bought the paperback rights for a "really small sum, maybe $2000," Hamilton says with no discernible regret.

The favorable critical reception and the prestigious prize, in fact, threw Hamilton into the proverbial second book slump. She was "paralyzed," she says, by the thought that she'd now have to produce a book every two years. But as the self-imposed deadline came and went, she was relieved to find that she was again "writing a book just for myself." She began what became A Map of the World after a child in her son's day-care center drowned in his family's swimming pool. The initial chapters, which express the almost palpable anguish of the heroine, who is responsible for the death of her best friend's daughter, were surprisingly easy to write. Problems arose when she couldn't figure out how the story would proceed after that crucial scene. Feeling adrift, she wrote three versions of the novel, each with a different middle and ending. "Those books were terrible, just terrible!" she groans.

Meanwhile, Hamilton had been impressed by a documentary about a couple who were falsely convicted of sexually molesting children in a day-care center. A short time later, she herself was angrily confronted by her best friend for letting their two small daughters take off their clothes on a hot summer day. Accused of unnatural behavior for something she considered perfectly normal, Hamilton was undone. "I didn't want to write another trendy novel about sexual molestation," she says, but the subject seemed inescapable.

Placing the book was not a sure thing. Kenison had left Ticknor &Fields, and the imprint was soon to fold. According to Hamilton, Binky Urban again found the editor with the appropriate sensibility -- Deb Futter at Doubleday. (Hamilton followed Futter, whom she calls her "soul mate," when she later went to Random House.)

Even before Futter saw A Map of the World, however, Hamilton had the help of another kind of editor: Steven Shahan, a lawyer in upstate New York who is married to Elizabeth Weinstein, Hamilton's college roommate, and still the first reader of her work. (A Map of the World is dedicated to both of them.) Shahan led Hamilton through the legal process of a trial. He was "absolutely indispensable," she says.

Critics remarked on the stunningly accurate portrayal of Alice's cell mates, most of them black and victimized by life. Though quite different in their histories, the women share an admiration of Oprah Winfrey. Hamilton had never seen the show when, in 1988, one of the producers called and invited her to lunch as a surprise for Oprah, who had loved The Book of Ruth. At that time, Oprah was not yet established as a messianic force in the publishing world, and Hamilton was amazed that Oprah quoted lines from the book from memory.

Several years later, when Oprah announced the formation of her TV book club, The Book of Ruth was her third choice. Immediately, sales of the paperback edition, which had been selling well (to the tune of 75,000 copies), soared; the current net figure is well over a million. Given the often finicky market for midlist fiction, Hamilton says, "Oprah d s what God couldn't do."

The reference to the deity is only half jocular. Like all of her protagonists, who search for meaning in a world seemingly devoid of solace, Hamilton has only a marginal adherence to conventional Christian faith. "I've always broken out in hives when I go into any organized religious situation," she says. All three of her protagonists find that biblical injunctions mock the truth of their lives, and yet each of them arrives at a moment of understanding. Transcendence comes to Walter just when he is about to lose his family's three-generational homestead, the one element that's "essential to his having any faith at all in life," Hamilton says.

"I think of my characters being extremely Christian in the way they lead their lives," she adds. Maybe my books have a lot of religious grappling because I'm still trying to figure it out for myself."

Having experienced the disapproval of some of Rochester's churchgoing ladies over The Book of Ruth, she is bracing herself for another negative reaction, this time for placing a gay hero in a town very much like Rochester. Yet she feels she is a writer with a mission: "I want to express something important here. I really love Walter and I want other people to love him, too. He has a special place in my heart."