Jo-Ann Mapson's great-grandfather founded California's first lemon-packing plant, but it's hard today to imagine citrus groves flowering anyplace near the nondescript one-story tract houses that fill block after block of Costa Mesa. The writer shares a home there with her husband and three unruly dogs; the interior is crammed with artifacts and books, but the exterior is indistinguishable from that of its anonymous neighbors. Like the characters in her books, Mapson inhabits the New West, a landscape rich in the ironies and ambiguities of contemporary America, where agriculture and ranching co-exist uneasily with suburban sprawl.

Social context is important in Mapson's work, but only as a backdrop for robust story lines driven by feisty women and men. "I always start with characters," she says. "They build and build and tell me the story." In her first novel, Hank &Chloe (1993), the eponymous heroine -- a horse trainer/ waitress whose pioneer-style rugged individualism is spiked by some decidedly 20th-century neuroses -- embarks on an unlikely love affair with an untenured professor of mythology at a Southern California junior college subject to 1990s downsizing. Blue Rodeo (1994) transplants the ex-wife of a Hollywood screenwriter to northern New Mexico and the arms of a modern cowboy. Shadow Ranch (1996) draws on the author's family history over four generations in California to explore issues of grief and loss that resonate in all of Mapson's fiction.

Her fourth novel, Loving Chloe, picks up at the moment her first left off, as a pregnant Chloe pulls up in her Chevy truck at Hank's Arizona retreat. Yet readers who nurtured hopes of a simple happy ending after Hank &Chloe's deliberately abrupt conclusion will find instead an often painful tale of entangled affections and loyalties. Junior Whitebear, a local boy who made good as a jewelry designer in New York, returns to the Navajo reservation to bury his father and ends up delivering Chloe's premature baby. His attraction to the skittish new mother, which is reciprocal, sparks a triangular drama that, by the final chapter, has involved a second generation.

Released by Mapson's longtime publisher, HarperCollins, Loving Chloe reminds us that, as Junior says, "not even love patches every hole" -- a summing-up that could serve as an epigraph for any one of her books.Asked why she has returned to Hank and Chloe after two intervening novels, Mapson replies: "I wanted to know what happened next. I had this idea about Junior coming in and upsetting everything, and it just wouldn't go away. There's all kinds of love in the world, and sometimes one love isn't enough to sustain a person over a lifetime. Maybe that's not such a terrible thing-that's what this book looks at."

Reading and Riding

At 45, with a cascade of brown curls and wire-rimmed glasses framing cautious eyes, Mapson is a candid but essentially reserved woman who seems truly at ease only when vividly delineating her dogs' personalities or providing affectionate thumbnail character sketches of the friends whose frequent phone messages punctuate a two-hour interview. Her enduring but volatile marriage and stormy relationship with her 19-year-old son, by contrast, are subjects she can neither leave alone nor discuss at a length greater than one-sentence asides. It seems that this middle child, who says of her four siblings, "they all had talents, and I didn't," is more comfortable in the role of observer than protagonist.

Growing up in Fullerton, Calif., Mapson was equally passionate about horses and books. But the income from her father's business (manufacturing circuit boards) didn't stretch far enough to include extras for five kids. "There wasn't any money for hobbies; my sister and I used to sneak over the fence and ride the neighbors' horses. Reading really saved my life; it kept me afloat and allowed me to travel."

From an early age, Mapson wrote stories and poems, a predilection her parents hoped she would put aside for something more practical. When they objected to her choice of a creative writing major at the University of Redlands, she "got bullheaded," she says, and decided to work until she could pay for the degree of her choice herself. In 1974, she married Jack Allison, a painter and sculptor; in 1977, she completed a B.A. in creative writing at California State, Long Beach, and "got pregnant because I was afraid to go to graduate school." Their son, Jack, was born in 1978 with a rare blood disease that took four years to be correctly diagnosed and treated; Mapson didn't resume writing until he entered kindergarten.

The mid-1980s were a frustrating time. Money was tight, and Mapson held down a variety of menial jobs (cleaning houses, typing résumés, doing data entry) to supplement her husband's salary from a commercial sign company. A few of her stories had won local prizes, but she couldn't seem to get published.

"I was going through a real rough patch-in my life, in my marriage, with my son," Mapson recalls. "For a while I stopped writing; I just couldn't do it anymore. But I was riding horses five times a week. I had this new trainer who was a lot like Chloe, very down-to-earth with a wild love life, and all the people I met at the stables were just so out of the ordinary compared to the kinds of people I normally dealt with. I thought, ''Well, I'm going to work with horses, I can get along without writing.'"

Instead, she found her voice. "I ended up learning how to write from that experience; it taught me how to get to the heart of the matter emotionally. I really recommended that anyone who wants to write have a very physical hobby that takes you away from books and criticism, because it teaches you, it informs you, and it changes your writing." One result of this sea change was a short story about Hank and Chloe, written as a gift for Mapson's husband one Christmas when they couldn't afford presents. When she read it to an informal writer's group she attended, "They loved it; they said, 'This is so different from anything you've written; you're really onto something here; keep going in this vein.' I'm so neurotic that I need the validation of others, but I knew something new and energetic was happening."

Things were starting to break for Mapson. In 1989, Pacific Writers Press issued a collection of her stories, Fault Line. That same year, she entered the non-resident M.F.A. creative writing program at Vermont College, from which the novel Hank & Chloe eventually emerged. Soon thereafter, she met Deborah Schneider, the "agent and friend" to whom Loving Chloe is dedicated.

"It was an incredible validation," Mapson remarks of Fault Line. "I could be unpublished again for a decade and I'd still be okay." She didn't have to wait that long, but there were still some setbacks to endure. Fault Line had the limited sales and reviews common to small press publications. Schneider tried but failed to sell a first novel written before Hank &Chloe that later metamorphosed into Shadow Ranch. "It wasn't worthy of being published," Mapson says. "I had bitten off way more than I could chew."

Despite her pride in the Hank and Chloe stories, she was similarly self-deprecating about the full-length version of their romance she sent to Schneider just before she completed her M.F.A., "asking in my usual despondent fashion, 'Do you think there's anything worth saving here?' Deborah called while I was getting ready to graduate and said, 'I can sell this book.' I replied, 'Well, it's really rough, I need to work on it.' She said, 'Too late; I've already sent it out,' and I went, 'Oh, well, another chance down the drain.'"

On the contrary. HarperCollins editor Janet Goldstein called Mapson mere weeks later. "I was really down, I'd been home maybe two or three weeks from graduate school and I didn't have anything looking me in the face except a teaching job-which I really did like, but writing was what mattered. So there I was, watching All My Children and dusting, when the phone rang. It was Janet -- I didn't even know who she was -- talking a mile a minute about how much she loved the book, she was going to take it to a meeting, she wanted me to FedEx her all this stuff. I had never FedExed in my life! Three days later, it was sold as part of a two-book contract."

The second book was Blue Rodeo, written in one year ("I'm an editor's dream, compulsive about deadlines") while Mapson was teaching full-time at Orange Coast Community College. A tender portrait of middle-aged love gives the novel its hopefulness; an unflinching depiction of mother-son conflict based largely on her own experiences provides the bite. "That one was really tough; I had some dark nights of the soul over it. When Janet told me to cut the first 200 pages [material dealing with the heroine's divorce and her son's life-threatening illness] and make them a flashback, I cried for about a week."

Despite the tears, Mapson followed Goldstein's advice, as she had in drastically changing the original ending of Hank & Chloe . "I knew she was right in both cases. Janet's a good editor and so pleasant to work with." She thinks equally highly of Terry Karten, who assumed responsibility for Shadow Ranch after Goldstein moved to Broadway Books. "Terry has a global picture of a manuscript, and her criticism comes from that. But she's also very precise: she will go all the way down to the bones of a sentence if she feels there's something that isn't right, which I deeply appreciate. She keeps me from looking like a fool."

A Region in Transition

In Shadow Ranch, canny depictions of octogenarian millionaire Bop Carpenter, his grandchildren's ambivalent feelings about his wealth, and their shared distaste for the over-development of southern California combine to create a sharp portrait of a region in transition. Yet the heart of the story is the family's sorrow over the death of Bop's four-year-old great-grandson, a loss prompting individual varieties of grief that seem at first to be moving spouses, siblings and progenitors farther apart rather than closer together.

Each of Mapson's novels grapples with the thorny question of how to transcend suffering without either ignoring it or wallowing in it. Why is this such a pervasive theme? "I guess I have my own issues, my own griefs, my own losses," she says. Pressed to be more specific, she alludes glancingly to the rigors of a Catholic upbringing and a family history of alcoholism, then moves on. "I suppose to some extent the fiction is cathartic," she says. "But in a really strange way, because it doesn't deal directly with what I've gone through. I'm interested in exploring that fear of grieving and providing an example of alternatives that help in going beyond it."

It's clear that, for Mapson, even more than for most authors, her work is the cherished means of "going beyond." Since she gave up teaching in 1996, she writes seven days a week. "Everyone talks about being drained and having to take years off after writing a book; I'm just the opposite."

She hasn't quite finished her fifth novel, which concerns the sisters Lillie and Rose Greenbroke, who first turned up in Fault Line, but she's already roughing out the sixth. "When I get to the last three chapters of a book, I always start the next one," she explains. "I like to get it tucked away to think about later." She is considering writing a sequel to Blue Rodeo, and there could be a third Hank and Chloe book focusing on Chloe's young friend Kit. "I have this serial mentality," says Mapson. "I don't like to end books, I could keep going with these people forever. I tend to leave it so that you could come back later and see what happens."