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Publishers Weekly Features

A Budding Crop of First Fiction
-- 1/10/00
Like the flowers that bloom in the spring, these debut novelists hope for green results

Darin Strauss
Chang and Eng

Dutton (June)
Darin Strauss has never been a conjoined twin or a circus act. And unless he has been reincarnated, the 29-year-old has never lived in the 19th century. Despite these obstacles, Strauss's ambitious debut novel is written in the first-person voice of an identical, attached twin who achieved fame in America in the 1800s as a circus act.
Chang and Eng adds layers of fiction to the real-life story of conjoined twins born in Siam in 1811 (their notoriety spawned the term "Siamese twins"). While many novels from first-time authors deal with the writer's own past, Strauss says he never felt comfortable writing about himself. "I didn't want to tell the story of a young man similar to myself, going through the things I went through. I'd rather tell juicy stories about extraordinary lives."

The seed for Chang and Eng was planted when Strauss was home sick from his job as a financial reporter in New York. "I was watching Oprah," Strauss begins, "and her guests were two young female conjoined twins. Speaking simultaneously, the sisters said something that really intrigued me: ˜We're a big girl now.' I thought writing about conjoined twins would be a great way to explore the notion of language and self-identity." At the time, Strauss had been reading Virginia Woolf's Orlando, in which the protagonist switches gender, so the use of language to define identity was already prominent in his thoughts.

Soon after, Strauss became enthralled by the life of Chang and Eng, who eventually got caught up in the Civil War, married two sisters and fathered a total of 21 children. "They became huge celebrities, and it was fun to examine what fame was like in that time," the author says. In his research, Strauss discovered the facts of Chang and Eng's life were mostly "sideshow myth, clouded in obscurity." As a result, he felt free to invent.

The task of telling Eng's story in first-person may seem daunting to most writers, whether they're first-timers or old pros. But Strauss says having a true but little-known story to work with can make writing a first novel easier. "When there's a skeletal beginning, middle and end to work with, it's easier for a first-timer to get a feel for the novel form. On the other hand, it was a challenge to put myself in the mind of a Siamese twin in the 19th century.

"But taking that challenge made me realize the truth of something a professor once told me," Strauss continues. "Technically, he said, bees' wings are too small to allow them to fly, and the only reason they can fly at all is because they don't know that."

--James A. Martin

Sales tips:Though the two books are vastly different, Chang and Eng is likely to attract fans of Memoirs of a Geisha, says Brian Tart, Dutton editor-in-chief. Both are historical novels about fascinating, little-understood Asian characters who are social outcasts; both are written in the first-person by writers who could only have imagined their protagonists' journeys. Dutton's primary marketing push is to distribute "tons" of galleys, says publicity director Lisa Johnson. "The key is to get as many people as possible to read this book, because to read it is to fall under its spell." Advance word has been strong; Joyce Carol Oates calls the work "a remarkable first novel."

Sharon Oard Warner
Deep in the Heart

Dial (Apr.)
Tackling an issue like abortion is a daunting task for any writer, but for a first-time novelist, it's "very brave," says Dial's Susan Kamil, who adds that Sharon Oard Warner's Deep in the Heart, an emotionally charged story of a woman who terminates her pregnancy against her husband's wishes, marks "the beginning of what will be a wonderful career."
Warner didn't set out to write a book about a controversial issue. "The idea came out of a conversation I had with an old friend of my husband's," she says. "He poured his heart out one night, lamenting the fact that he seemed to hook up with women who didn't feel any maternal urges. He really wanted to have children, but he didn't feel that it would happen. This made me consider the shift of balance of control in relationships between men and women, and how the advent of birth control has changed it. I thought this was fascinating, and then the issue of abortion grew out of that, as a natural consequence of the character's actions."

The author, who is director of Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico, where she teaches full-time, also founded and runs the Taos Summer Writers' Conference. She's published a collection of short stories (Learning to Dance, New Rivers Press) and edited an anthology about AIDS (The Way We Write Now, Citadel Press), but Deep in the Heart is her first novel. It took her seven years to complete--not surprising, given her workload. "I always tell my students that we all have the same 24 hours, it's just a matter of how you choose to divide those hours up," Warner notes with a laugh. "With a job, a marriage and two children, I've basically had to give up my free time."

Not that she's complaining--Warner loves the writing process, but she also thrives on the balance in her life that her other commitments provide. "I really enjoy teaching," she says. "I think if I only wrote I would be very lonely. I don't quite need that much solitude!" Her book's path to print was not a smooth one. Originally sold to Ticknor & Fields by an agent she prefers not to name, it was sent out again after that publisher was dissolved, but didn't generate any offers. Finally, Warner's agent counseled her to "put it in a drawer and write another novel." This news devastated Warner, but fortunately, she decided instead to send it to another agent--Kim Witherspoon. "It was one of those pivotal moments," says Warner. "It was very hard for me to call Kim and ask her to read it, but she was immediately enthusiastic, and she sold it right away." She is especially heartened, Warner says, by the early response her novel is generating. "People seem to understand what I was trying to do by approaching an issue that I think is really important in our culture through characters."

--Heather Vogel Frederick

Sales tips:"When I first read the material, I felt that Sharon was in the same category as Sue Miller or Jackie Michaud," says Kamil. "The Good Mother and The Deep End of the Ocean are both character-driven books, and the same is true of Deep in the Heart. She's dealing with subjects that are very complicated and have ramifications all throughout families, and she is an extraordinary writer of character."

Jones Clones
Let's play a new game called Find the Marketing Hook of the Moment, or Where's Bridget? Playing Away by Adele Parks (Pocket Books, July) "picks up where Bridget Jones left off." Ready to Fall by Claire Cook (Bridge Works, May) is described as "a Bridget Jones's Diary gone midlife, suburban and wired." The heroine of Jane Green's Jemima J (Broadway, June) is dubbed "an overweight Bridget Jones." World of Pies by Karen Stolz (Hyperion, June) is compared by its publisher to last year's bestseller from Viking, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, which was itself compared to Bridget Jones. And yet, differences abound.
"Playing Away is a very edgy book," says Emily Heckman, Pocket Books executive editor. "It's the story of a 30ish woman with a big, boisterous circle of girlfriends, who also seems to have a perfect marriage. She g s on a business trip and has an affair, which she can't keep from her friends. It's different from Bridget Jones because it explores the terrain of married life and what happens when the idealistic blush is off. It's also wickedly funny and very sexy." Incidentally, Heckman reports that Playing Away is Penguin U.K.'s lead title for April.

Barbara Phillips, Bridge Works editor, declares that Ready to Fall "appealed to me because a), it's very funny; b), it's about love over the Internet; and c), it's about a wife and mother in her 40s who says to herself, ˜Is that all there is?' It's a theme that all kinds of women can relate to." Cook, who composed much of the book in her car while her five-year-old daughter took swimming lessons, "writes in the naïve, longing-for-something-else style that was so impressive about Bridget Jones," adds Phillips.

In Jemima J, a young woman who's 100 pounds overweight meets the hunk of her dreams via the Internet and must change from ugly duckling to swan when he insists they meet. "This is a romantic comedy that also has its poignant moments," says Lauren Marino, Broadway senior editor. "She transforms herself, but finds that that d sn't make her any happier." Jemima J was a bestseller in the U.K., notes Marino, and thus helped confirm the Bridget Jones phenomenon that identified a previously undertapped audience of young women, single or married, finding their way through both their professional and love lives.

"We were the underbidder on Melissa Bank's book, so World of Pies was a natural leap for me. I fell in love with it immediately," says Hyperion executive editor Leigh Haber. "What connects these two books is an intrepid, youngish woman, who, underneath it all, has a wise voice." Set in a small Texas town, "the issue of race arises through a pie-baking contest." A pie that's entered was actually baked by the white entrant's black maid, "but the book is not really about race," says Haber. "It's about place and adolescence and a girl slowly becoming a woman"--and as a bonus, recipes are included. Hyperion has announced a 60,000 first printing and a $100,000 ad/promo campaign.

--Robert Dahlin

Christin Lore Weber
Altar Music

Scribner (Mar.)

For young Elise, the protagonist of Christin Lore Weber's first novel, the world seems a threatening place. Her father has returned from WWII to the family's home in the harshly beautiful northern lake country of Minnesota, but he is ravaged by injury and terrible memories of lost comrades. Her mother, meanwhile, has withdrawn emotionally into a joyless and rigid Catholic faith. Only at the piano keys, where she has proven herself a prodigy, d s Elise find release from her fears and from the budding sexuality that torments her. Then, at 12, she has a vision of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and interprets it as a call to monastic life. What she d s not know is that the nunnery will demand the sacrifice of her musical gift, triggering a crisis of faith and sanity that will force a terrible choice.
For the Medford, Ore.--based Weber, 59, it is a choice with which she is intimately familiar. Weber, who also grew up in Minnesota, abandoned not only a high school boyfriend but also an early literary vocation to enter a convent at age 17, where she remained for 14 years. During her three-year novitiate, writing was forbidden her, but she would scribble notes in her Daily Missal and p try locked in a bathroom stall. "The nuns used to warn us not to mix up art and spirituality," recalls Weber. "They would tell us, ˜Don't confuse aesthetics with ascetics.' I don't believe that, and that was part of why I left the convent."

After leaving the nunnery, Weber worked in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area as a pastoral care coordinator and director of a women's spirituality center and pursued graduate degrees in theology and psychology. In 1975 she was married, but her husband died abruptly of cancer in 1985. Later that year, John, her former high school boyfriend, whom she hadn't seen in 27 years, called her on a whim. They were married the following year and moved to the West Coast. "He saved my life; I was a mess," recalls Weber. "It was like God sent him to me."

Weber published her first book, WomanChrist, a feminist spiritual tract, in 1987. Her editor at Harper San Francisco, Jan Johnson, spotted her talent for storytelling and encouraged her to embark on fiction. Johnson also introduced her to agent Candace Fuhrman, who agreed to represent her, although it would be several years before Weber had a manuscript ready. "In my mind," says Weber, "a novelist was like the royalty of the writing world. I was in awe of the idea, and I didn't believe I could do it. But Jan kept pushing me." Altar Music eventually developed from a quest that has preoccupied Weber all her life, the exploration of ecstatic spirituality both inside and outside the confines of formal religious practice. Says Weber, "I had a dream of the way that God was in the beautiful, in the vast, and in the passionate. I went into the convent to find that, and I left the convent to find that as well."

--Mallay Charters

Sales tips: Editor Sarah McGrath calls the novel "an amazing introduction into the intimate culture of religious passion," noting that its issues of "emotional appetite, sacrifice, salvation, family love and sexual desire reach everyone." Scribner is touring Weber to Portland, St. Paul/Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle, and will advertise the book nationally.

Steven Varni
The Inland Sea

William Morrow (Mar.)
If Steven Varni had not ventured out in search of furniture wax on a June day in 1993, he would never have seen the "Help Wanted" sign in the window of New York City's legendary Books & Co. He would not have been interviewed, promptly hired and, over the next four years, worked his way up from packing books in the basement to store manager. It was his time at Books & Co. and the people he met during those years that introduced Varni into an extraordinary circle of friendship that culminated in the publication of The Inland Sea.
During his stint at Books & Co., Varni worked steadily--and secretly--on his novel, a series of 12 interconnected stories that span 25 years in the life of writer Vincent Torno and his conflicted relationship with his traditional Italian-American family, their wine and beer business, and his hometown in California's San Joaquin Valley. "I tried as much as possible," he says, "not to let people know I was writing. But I gradually had to let the store's owner, Jeannette Watson, know in order to explain my reluctance to accept the promotions that were offered me. I didn't want to take time away from my writing."

After the closing of Books & Co. in 1997, Varni gave a copy of the novel to Watson and to several authors with whom he had become friendly through his work at the store. "Oscar Hijuelos was kind enough to send it to his editor, and Walter Mosley encouraged me to send it to one of his agents." But it was Watson's longtime friendship with Morrow senior editor Meaghan Dowling that provided the perfect match.

When Varni sent his manuscript to Dowling, he included a cover letter mentioning that he had sent along a quote from a writer friend. Dowling was unimpressed--until she opened the manuscript to discover that the friend was playwright Arthur Miller. Varni had often taken copies of Homely Girl to Miller's apartment for the writer to autograph for Books & Co. and "he'd sign and we'd talk." When Varni finished his first draft, he "very gingerly and very hesitantly wrote asking if Miller would read it. There was no way I ever would have asked him in person. And if he hadn't responded, I never would have mentioned it again." But respond Miller did, as did Dowling and William Morrow.

While waiting for the publication of The Island Sea, Varni has begun a second novel and a collection of stories, and is currently working as a research assistant for Gerald Clarke, collecting letters for a volume of Truman Capote's correspondence. Varni credits his years at Books & Co. with giving him realistic expectations for his novel. "I know how much work is done on behalf of books by publicists and editors and how difficult it is to get attention for fiction. Like most people, I never thought of myself as being lucky. But now, having worked with Jeannette and having Meaghan as an editor, I feel amazingly fortunate."

--Lucinda Dyer

Sales tips: PW's review praised Varni's "graceful prose studded with keenly observed details" and called his work an "impressive debut [by] a talented writer." Says Morrow director of media relations Sharyn Rosenblum, "We're planning grassroots promotions in New York, San Francisco, L.A. and California's Central Valley, and tie-in promotions to American-Italian cultural societies and media."

Karen E. Bender
Like Normal People

Houghton Mifflin (Apr.)
Early attention has already lent Karen E. Bender's novel about three related women at different stages of their lives a certain aura: "Eternal Love," the short story that established the lead character, appeared in Granta in 1996 and was chosen by Annie Proulx for The Best American Short Stories 1997. Joanne Woodward delivered the story in performance at "Selected Shorts" at N.Y.C.'s Symphony Space (that reading will be broadcast on NPR early this year). When the book manuscript was finished, there was a frenzied auction among five houses, with rights going for a handsome low six figures. The New Yorker published an excerpt last summer, and now Hollywood's Jaffe/ Braunstein Productions is readying a movie for TV.
"It's a tremendous first novel," says editor Janet Silver. "It's tender and poignant and beautifully done. What's really striking is Karen's ability to get into her three characters at different points of their lives, an old mom, a middle-aged person and an adolescent. All are entirely convincing."

At the book's center is Lena, 48, a mildly retarded woman who runs off to a Southern California beach with Shelley, her 12-year-old niece. The story weaves the past and present of Lena, her niece, and Lena's widowed mother, Ella, into a series of events that span years but occur in one day. "I bit off a lot," says Bender, "with two points of view, set on a single day but also over the course of 78 years. Line by line was easy, but the architecture was harder to figure out. People advised me to make one character, not to jump around. But it was important to have both; they resonate off each other. What is it to be normal, at 12, at 78? What is it like when you can't grow up? That was what I wanted to explore."

Bender, who is 30 and lives in New York City, has been writing since she was six. "A boy threw a rock at me at a birthday party in L.A. and while I was recuperating I started. My first published work was when I was 19, in Playgirl. It was an odd experience, but exciting." She had heard about writers' workshops, and after college got herself to Iowa for two years, where she studied with Meg Wolitzer, among others. "That was a powerful experience," she says. After graduating in 1992, she moved back to New York and spent four years mulling over the idea of a novel. "I wrote lots of pages. I showed what I wrote to Iowa friends and they said ˜good start.' That was discouraging because I thought it was almost done." Her next task was to figure out what she calls "the business of narrative arc."

Bender says she's been influenced by Southern writers, especially Carson McCullers. "She was a god to me. I was looking to tap into that feeling of love and loss." Bender now teaches at the Writer's Voice, an adult education program at New York City's 63rd Street Y, and has a one-year-old son with her husband, novelist Robert Anthony Siegal, whom she met in Iowa. She jokingly recommends her arrangement to others. "It's great being married to a writer," she says. "You live with someone who can read your work and help you."

--Suzanne Mantell

Sales tips: HM calls Bender's book a great handsell and compares it to Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House and Elizabeth Strout's Amy and Isabelle. The first printing has been upped to 30,000 copies in response to a groundswell of enthusiasm at sales conference. Bender will tour and attend bookseller dinners. There will be national advertising, and the book has a featured spot in HM's April fiction sampler.

Border Crossings
Not so many years ago, Canadian authors were rather underrepresented on this side of the border. Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies certainly made the crossing successfully, and in more recent times, so did Alice Munro and Carol Shields. The English Patient, novel and movie, secured an American fandom for Michael Ondaatje. Arriving soon are three debut novels.
From W.W. Norton in April comes a number one Canadian bestseller, No Great Mischief by 63-year-old Alistair MacLeod. "We used to publish Michael Ondaatje," says Norton editor-in-chief Starling Lawrence, "but something's different now with the way Americans greet Canadian writers. I don't quite know what it is." Actually, Ondaatje helps smooth the way for MacLeod with a quote calling him "one of the great undiscovered writers of our time." (MacLeod published two volumes of short stories in Canada before No Great Mischief.) "He's someone who has written slowly and carefully," says Lawrence. "This is not flashy stuff. It's a family saga that circles around and around. Events in a more-or-less present frame will remind someone of something that happened to an ancestor. Resonances are carefully constructed." MacLeod, a professor of English at the University of Windsor, Ontario, sets his novel at Cape Breton, and, says Lawrence, "in the sense that it has to do with landscape and people living in the landscape, you might think of Annie Proulx or Jim Harrison. In some ways, the book is also a Faulknerian vision of family and blood ties. By the time you finish, you realize you've never read anything like this before."

Toronto resident Andrew Pyper appears here with Lost Girls, which Delacorte will publish in May. "This was a manuscript that a scout turned me on to," says senior editor Jacob Hoye. "It's reminiscent of Primal Fear and Stephen King"--and was also a number one bestseller up north. When two 14-year-old girls are missing and presumed dead, a young attorney defending the prime suspect is drawn into a world of ghosts and psychological terror. "Even though it's set in Toronto and northern Ontario, its feeling is very American," says Hoye. "It's an eerie book, and it's exceptionally well-written. There's a kind of Flannery O'Connor feel to it." Hoye expects that the suspense factor in this gothic thriller will provide a ready passport to American audiences.

Another Toronto resident, David Macfarlane, reaches these shores thanks to Crown, which will release Summer Gone in April. "It results from a very old contract, a remnant from his first book, Come from Away, that we published maybe five years ago," says Crown's editorial director Steve Ross. In Summer Gone, a divorced father and his estranged young son take an ill-fated can trip one night. "It's a rich and multi-textured novel," says Ross, "and to some degree, David uses the can ist's craft almost as a literary device--a literary meditation on the moment of perfect balance poised between the beginning and ending of an oar's stroke, the balance between innocence and experience, life and death. The narrator is a mysterious figure, and David keeps you guessing until the very end, when he ties it all up beautifully."


John Gates
Brigham's Day

Walker & Company (June)
david gates
In 1857, 120 California-bound settlers were killed in the Mountain Meadows area of Utah. Only one person, Mormon convert John D. Lee, was ever accused of the crime. To this day, "they still don't like to talk about the massacre" in Mormon territory, says John Gates. While it's clear that Mormons and their Native-American allies carried out the killings, it's not known who masterminded the attack, Gates adds. Speculation has often centered on Brigham Young, who established the Mormon church in what is now Salt Lake City. But that controversial allegation has never been proved.
In Brigham's Day, the 19th-century massacre provides the impetus for a present-day mystery. Gates's story is set in motion with the killing of a Utah man who possesses a document supposedly proving Brigham Young's guilt. To defend the accused murderer, attorney Brigham Bybee must raise questions about the massacre that many locals don't want to face.

Gates, 53, was born and raised in Kanab, Utah, near the massacre site. "About 10 years ago, I went back when my grandfather died," he explains. Gates overheard a discussion of Deseret, the independent state some Mormons had wanted to form in 1849. "I'd heard these discussions all my life," Gates recalls, "but suddenly, I was very intrigued by them. I started researching the Mormon religion." His research followed "a kind of reverse Mormon trail. I traced them from Utah back to New York, where Mormonism began." Along the way, Gates became absorbed by the massacre, a fascination that led to Brigham's Day. He wrote the novel over seven years while he was a criminal defense attorney. (He's now an assistant city attorney in El Paso.)

The massacre continues to fascinate others outside the Mormon community as well. In August 1999, for instance, an Associated Press story about newly discovered human remains at the site was widely published. But how will Mormons react to a novel that raises dark suspicions about one of their brightest stars, Brigham Young?

"Anti-Mormons frequently seize on aspects of the church's history to condemn the religion," Gates believes. "The church's reaction has often been to suppress its ˜bad' history and focus on its ˜good' present instead." As a result, many Mormons don't know all the history of their church's past. "I think they'll find this book enlightening," he concludes.

--James A. Martin

Sales tips:With its contemporary take on an historical crime, Brigham's Day has more to offer than standard mystery fare, according to editor Michael Seidman. "It's a great summer book, the kind you get lost in on a vacation," he continues. While it has a strong plot, the novel is largely character-driven, he says. "As the characters discover what happened in the past, they are really discovering the truths about each other and themselves." The publisher plans a teaser postcard campaign prior to galley mailing; an author tour will include stops in the Southwest and West.

Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves

Pantheon (Mar.)
Mark Danielewski, 33, can't pinpoint the exact origins of his novel, an intricate, experimental horror story about a house that is larger on the inside than on the outside, but he says that its structure--a Nabokovian mix of narrated story, found manuscript and footnotes--somehow allowed him to incorporate years' worth of earlier writing into one complex, intertwining, terrifying stew. "It was able to hold not just various story lines but also thoughts of mortality, ruminations on the chasm between youth and old age, riffs on the past, present and future. Also the concept of narrative involvement versus theoretical involvement, which have very different paths." It took as much as 10 years to write, including a full year of intensive work after being bought by Pantheon, during which time the novel grew 200 pages longer and transformed itself into a slightly oversized trade paper original with 700 typographically challenging pages.
Danielewski, who lives in Hollywood, got his first taste of fiction writing at 10. "I wrote a book about a New York kid who becomes a cocaine addict, beats up a cop and g s to prison," he says. "My parents were shocked. My father thought it was immoral. And a teacher of mine in Utah called it a dirty book [it had the "f" word in it]. After that it took me a long while before I would show my work around." At Yale, Danielewski studied English literature and got rejected from every writing seminar he applied for. Later, at UC Berkeley's intensive Latin program--two years' worth of language in six weeks--he learned to read Virgil, Catullus and Ovid.

Shortly after that Danielewski headed off to Paris for a year, living on almost no money and writing constantly. "Some of this found its way into the book," he says. Film school in L.A. followed. Then his father, an experimental filmmaker who had led the family to exotic locales around the globe, died. "That shook the foundations of a lot of things," he says. "I worked at a restaurant, tutoring kids, as a plumber--all the while writing. That's always been my source. I realized then I was going to finish something."

That knowledge was enough--for a while. "I wasn't intense about getting it published but thought it was necessary to try." Interest from agents and publishers was readily forthcoming. (He calls the entire story of finding a publisher "dull, simple, straightforward.") Following his signing with Pantheon, he got down to real work again. "I began a more substantial rewrite than anyone anticipated. Edward Kastenmeier, my editor, was phenomenal during this period. He was dealing with a pretty difficult writer. The book in the end was 200 pages longer than the one he had contracted for. The book is complicated. There are games being played. People may not get it on a cognitive level, but they will on an emotive level. There are special effects, color words--the word "house" is in blue every time it appears--cinematic effects. There is a vertical footnote, you have to read it down through the book. The book grew an index." At the end of the revisions, he spent three weeks at Pantheon helping to typeset the book. "At first they must have thought I was a nut, but they realized how seriously I took the book."

--Suzanne Mantell

Sales tips:Danielewski will tour to promote his novel, and is already lined up for pieces in Spin, Gear and Talk. Rock artist P , his sister, has written a song about the novel that will appear on her next album, a spring release. Mileage from a great quote from Bret Easton Ellis: "One can imagine Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Stephen King, and David Foster Wallace bowing at Danielewski's feet, choking with astonishment, surprise, laughter, and awe." And according to Kastenmeier, "There's no other book quite like this. It's a literate horror story. It plays with the reader's sense of what a novel is, what a book is, in a new and interesting way, without a CD-ROM or anything. It's riveting and scary. "

Family Matters
It must be in the genes. Take a look at new writers sprouting on established family trees -- and not necessarily from younger generations. "I met Ann Patchett [author of The Magician's Assistant] when I was at an L.A. book festival last April," says Shaye Areheart, executive editor, Harmony Books. "We hit it off, and her agent later called to tell me that Ann's mother had written a novel. I asked if she'd written one before, and learned that, no, she hadn't. She was a 61-year-old nurse." Warning bells clanged, but Areheart agreed to look at Jeanne Ray's manuscript, entitled Julie and Romeo. After delaying the chore, she steeled herself to proceed. "It's fantastic," she exclaims. "It's fast, funny, sharp. It reminds me of Susan Isaacs at her best." The title characters are 60-year-old rival florists in Boston who, despite an endless family feud, fall in love, to the consternation of their grown children. Areheart reports that Patchett had no hand in the book and notes, "It's something that Jeanne had wanted to do, but she'd been busy with children and career." Harmony has announced a 75,000 first printing set for June, a six-figure paperback floor and movie rights have been sold to Barwood Films, Barbra Streisand's company.
Molly Jong-Fast is the 20-year-old daughter of Erica Jong and Jonathan Fast, and Villard will release her Normal Girl in June. In it, a 19-year-old girl has money, beauty and a dangerous penchant for substances like alcohol, cocaine and heroin. "What I liked right away was Molly's sense of humor and her absolutely rigorous take on New York life," says Mollie Doyle, Jong-Fast's editor. "Her observations are acerbic and smart." Doyle reveals that this first novelist had been reluctant to follow in her mother's footsteps. "She'd been in the green room when her mother was going on television, and that was something she didn't want to do." Later came a change of heart, Normal Girl and an enthusiasm to keep on writing.

Then there's Christopher Rice, 21-year-old son of Anne Rice and p t Stan Rice, whose August novel is A Density of Souls. In present-day New Orleans, several former friends from high school look back on a secret murder. "I published Anne Rice in the U.K., at Chatto and Windus," says Jonathan Burnham, editor-in-chief, Talk Miramax Books, "so when Lynn Nesbitt received Chris's manuscript, she thought he would be in good hands here." The younger Rice is "strikingly ambitious," Burnham explains, and devises a "complex plot with many characters that is completely compelling." Because of the setting, there are inevitably ech s of Anne Rice, he says, "but Chris's take on New Orleans is a long way from her historical work." A 75,000 first printing is planned.

A tall, gawky, beautiful girl who chops onions at an Arkansas pickle factory questions her Fundamentalist upbringing after finding romance with a newcomer in town in Windchill Summer by Norris Church Mailer. Married to Norman M. for 25 years, this writer naturally found her way to Random House, her husband's publisher. "Norris is a writer who engages all of your senses instantly," says senior editor Courtney Hodell. "Her voice is very different from Norman's. Actually, she started this during the Vietnam War, before she even met him. She wrote 100 pages and then put it away. It was too close to her. Windchill Summer has a light touch, although it handles a serious subject: what happens when people come back from a war."

Finally, consider John Sedgwick's deep roots. His novel, The Dark House, is a thriller about a man who likes to follow people around in his car, an activity that lands him in serious trouble. HarperCollins executive editor Dan Conaway reports that five generations ago, the writer's family produced Catherine Maria Sedgwick, who's been called America's first prominent female novelist. Her 1822 book, A New England Tale, is still in print from Oxford University Press, and Hope Leslie, published in 1827, is available from Penguin. The Dark House, a BOMC alternate, gets a 50,000 first printing. --ROBERT DAHLIN

Zadie Smith
White Teeth

Random House (May)
"If you live in a country that tells you that you have an ˜alternative lifestyle' by virtue of your skin color, it can feel very constricting," says Zadie Smith, a 24-year-old Londoner whose mother is Jamaican and whose father is British. With White Teeth, the young novelist, whose work has been excerpted in Granta, bursts these strictures for good. Using the story of the intertwined destinies of a pair of unlikely best buddies, working-class Brit Archie Jones and Bengali Muslim immigrant Samad Iqbal, as her springboard, she dives headfirst into the post--World War II urban melting pot and emerges with a searingly funny tale of mutating identities and unlooked-for loyalties. With an inventiveness reminiscent of Pynchon and a verbal virtuosity comparable to Amis and Rushdie, Smith examines religious fanaticism, women's lib, racial politics and even cutting-edge genetics as they chafe at the certainties of her protagonists' childhoods.
Two years ago, Smith was a recent Cambridge University grad who was considering a career in academia when a publisher contacted her after reading a story she'd written in school. A friend's mother advised her to shop her work at the Andrew Wylie Agency first. There she was accepted as a client by Georgia Garrett, who, after a fierce bidding war, negotiated a two-book deal with Penguin in the U.K. as well as a U.S. sale to Random House chief Ann Godoff. "It was kind of like winning the lottery, without even buying a ticket," recalls Smith, who has written steadily since childhood but had no designs on a writing career. The author, who lives with her mother (her parents are divorced), reports that having been inadvertently catapulted into the literary life still takes getting used to. "It's a bit of a shock, in the sense that I'm not doing what my peers are doing," she says. "Writing can be a lonely business, and you begin to fantasize about office parties and chasing someone around the photocopier."

So why d s she do it? "I think if you're writing you get spurred on by thinking that other people are intensely rubbish," says Smith, her taste for black humor as evident in conversation as it is on the page. "There's a lot of crap being published, and that helps. I try to read as much rubbish as I can." Authors who she thinks are not "rubbish" include Nabokov, Updike, Dickens, George Eliot, E.M. Forster and Kurt Vonnegut: "I like funny people, generally. I can't see the point of not writing funny stuff."

Smith emphasizes that the exuberant diversity chronicled in White Teeth is not meant to be p.c. "I'm not trying to write some advert for Happy Multicultural Land," she says. "But if people read it and enjoy it and feel it's a vindication of certain things that they've thought and believed in, then I'm happy."

--Mallay Charters

Sales tips:Random House plans to support Smith with a five-city reading tour, advertising in the New York Times and an NPR sponsorship. Lauds Godoff, "This really is a new and significant young voice, whose very accomplishment is that she's written this large-canvas book that takes place over many decades and involves many characters in various stages of life. It's an extraordinary work, not only for a person of her age, but for a person of any age."

Susan Merrell
A Member of the Family

HarperCollins (Mar.)
Despite a successful nonfiction work under her belt about sibling relationships and a potential blockbuster of a novel on the way, Susan Merrell, 40, calls herself a "secret writer." "I'm just getting to a place where my work life and my visible life intersect at all," she says. "I've never talked about my writing. My visible label has been ˜mother.' " It's just that identification with parenthood, however, that led Merrell to the subject of her debut novel: an adoption that d sn't work. "I think it happens all the time in real life," she says. "Fifteen percent of all special-needs adoptions are disrupted in the first year. Most people stick it out." It's those that don't who interested her and became the focus of her attention.
In the book, Chris and Deborah Latham, a Long Island couple with a biological daughter at home, adopt an 18-month-old Romanian orphan, whose early deprivations set him off course for good. The story is not so much about what happens, as it is a meticulous unfolding of how and why it d s. "I set out to address a difficult problem," Merrell says. "How to have someone do something unfathomable and still be someone I could empathize with. What kind of parent could conceivably do what Deborah Latham did? How could circumstances come together to create such a situation? I have no experience with adoptions, but I admire people who have taken on that kind of responsibility. It's an act of blind courage to become responsible for a life by whatever means; the additional bravery these parents have is remarkable."

Merrell, who is the daughter of author Maggie Scarf, grew up around writers and tried to ignore her early stirrings of interest in fiction. "Everyone said it was so hard, so brutal to be a writer. I tried on every hat in order not to do it, but I always knew I would someday." With no formal training except a short writing workshop with novelist Mark Richard, she says she's learned by doing. "I read everything. Cereal boxes. Dickens, Trollope, old-fashioned real storytelling. I like stories. People learn more if they're enjoying what they're reading. Falling for a character is such a tremendous experience. I just finished reading Plainsong, and want to read it all over again."

Though a great deal has been written about orphanage babies and their differences in brain development, adoptive parents who have seen Merrell's book have questioned whether it's a fair topic for a novel. "It's been very surprising," Merrell says of the hostility she's raised. "Whether any topic is inappropriate for exploration. The adoptive experience--there's no norm for thinking about it. My interest all along was, how complex to be part of a family. Fiction, nonfiction. I don't think I'll ever write about anything else. It's a natural extension of where my heart is."

Editor Gail Winston calls the book "tough in some respects" but very brave. "It spoke to me on a narrative level but also because of the psychological issues she's raising. Failed adoption is very real. As a parent you have to believe that if you give love, it will work out for the best. It's very provocative and exciting to read about what happens when it d sn't."

--Suzanne Mantell

Sales tips:HC is looking for early off-the-book-page attention because of the controversial nature of the material. Also, says publicity director Jane Beirn, with the book's moral question played out in a very human way, "We think it's a perfect Oprah choice." House comparisons are to Rosellen Brown's Before and After, Doris Lessing's Fifth Child and books by Jacquelyn Mitchard and Sue Miller. The publisher has announced a 35,000-copy first printing.

Steven Sherrill
The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

John F. Blair (Mar.)
Invention is a strength that Steven Sherrill seems never to exhaust. His outpouring of p ms and short stories have appeared in many literary magazines. It is his own painting that adorns the jacket of his first novel, the title of which gives proof to his fertile mind. "I have a relentless imagination," he confesses, "and that's both a blessing and a curse."
Sherrill, 38, has been writing stories for as long as he can remember, sometimes with unforeseen consequences. Now living in Highland Park, Ill., with his wife, p t Barbara Campbell, their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Maude Eleanor Rose, and dog, Glory Hallelujah, Sherrill grew up in North Carolina. "I was suspended from school when I was in the ninth grade," he says. "I wrote violent stories, and I liked the visceral response I got, but when they turned too testosterone and sexual, I got suspended for two weeks." He pauses and explains, "I've always been drawn to taking in and putting out gritty issues."

In The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, the beast with the body of a man and head of a bull supposedly killed by Theseus many centuries ago is making a tired living as an employee in a popular restaurant in the realistic and present-day American South. Over the course of two weeks, he falls in love with a waitress and has a run-in with a pair of rednecks who take exception to his otherness.

The novel adopts its name from a p m Sherrill wrote while attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1991--93. "People liked it," he says. "In fact, my wife saw the p m there before she had even met me." What a concept: minotaur as matchmaker.

"The novel extends the premise of the p m," he remarks. Asked if the beast serves as a stand-in for individuals perceived as unpleasantly different in contemporary society, Sherrill answers affirmatively and adds, "We all feel like monsters from time to time, but if we can understand ourselves, the idea is less dangerous, more workable, more human."

Sherrill calls his novel "a funny book that took me nine months to write and two years to sell." He sent the manuscript to New York agents and publishers, only to be told that it was too weird. Then he tried John F. Blair in North Carolina.

"We have an acquisitions committee made up of editorial, sales and marketing staff," says Blair president Carolyn Sakowski. "It's very unusual when all six of us agree, but we did agree that Steve had taken the Greek myth, put it in a modern setting and made it believable. It's a reflection of alienation in today's society and the loneliness of someone trying to fit in. There's humor in it, but deeper underlying matters as well."

Now working in administrative communications at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glenc , Ill., and teaching creative writing at the University of Chicago's Graham School, Sherrill is taking notes for his next novel, one that he intends to make entirely human.

--Robert Dahlin

Sales tips:Blair's Sakowski notes that the novel, which boasts a blurb by Bret Lott, will appeal to those with literary tastes and to those with an interest in Greek mythology, as well as to readers who appreciate two writers appreciated by Sherrill as well, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. The house is producing reading group guides for booksellers that can also be accessed at its Web site: www.blairpub.com.

Jody Shields
The Fig Eater

Little, Brown (Feb.)
Jody Shields may well owe her recent success to an unlikely pairing of passions--the works of Sigmund Freud and New York City flea markets. The good Dr. Freud provided Shields with a pivotal character for her novel. Flea-market finds gave her not just inspiration, but at a critical juncture, even the means to support herself.
Dora, the Viennese teenager whose brutal murder sets the stage for The Fig Eater, is loosely based on a famous patient of Freud's. A longtime reader of psychology, Shields says that his Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria "is one of my favorite case histories. It reads like a novel." The techniques used by the police detective who investigates Dora's murder are based on an actual turn-of-the-century manual of criminology (Hans Gross's System Der Kriminalistik) that Shields "randomly bought" at a flea-market book sale.

While Shields may have always harbored a fascination with things psychological, her background is as a writer and artist. She arrived in New York as an aspiring printmaker. "I was always ruining the equipment," remembers Shields, "printing on paper bags and rice paper." But the ruination was well worth it, as a piece of her work now resides in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. When not printmaking, Shields was writing on beauty and fashion for Seventeen magazine, doing a PR stint in cosmetics and writing two books on fashion history--All That Glitters and A Stylish History.

In 1988 she was hired as a contributing editor at Vogue. "I interviewed everyone from Helmut Newton to Isaac Mizrahi. I wrote on sweat, on eyebrows and once," laughs Shields, "even on nipples." From Vogue, she went on to work as the design editor at the New York Times Magazine.

By 1997, she was looking for a new challenge. "What," she decided, "could be more difficult than writing a novel?" Planning to live off her savings, Shields hunkered down and started The Fig Eater. But when money became tight, it was flea markets that came to the rescue. Since arriving in New York, Shields had put together a collection of couture dresses she'd found at flea markets--"Diors, Balenciagas, a Fortuny dress in the original box that had once belonged to Lillian Gish and cost me $20." Auctioning off pieces of her collection enabled to her to squeeze out just enough to live on until she finished her novel, which Little, Brown senior editor Judy Clain describes as having "a wonderfully elliptical, mysterious quality."

Shields is currently working with Good Machine (producers of Emma Thompson's Sense & Sensibility) on Mrs. Byrd and Mrs. Pickering, a screenplay based on a true story Shields discovered in a gardening book she bought at--wait for it--a flea market.

--Lucinda Dyer

Sales tips:Described as The White Hotel meets The Alienist, this first novel is off to a high-profile start with the sale of film rights to Miramax. A spirited auction of the British rights saw Doubleday/Black Swan come out the winner and senior editor Simon Taylor "absolutely over the moon" at having landed what he calls "one of those precious and very rare manuscripts that set the hairs on the back of one's neck on end."

Katrina Kittle
Traveling Light

Warner Books (Apr.)
Katrina Kittle got up at the crack of dawn two summers ago to drive Warner Books editor Diana Baroni to the airport, never dreaming the job she "got stuck with" as part of her work fellowship with the Antioch Writers Workshop would eventually lead to a two-book deal. "I wasn't going to ask her to read my book, I was planning on playing it cool--but she was so friendly, even at that ungodly hour of the morning." Asked what she was writing, Kittle assumed the editor was being polite, and at the time, Baroni didn't think the book was for her: "I figured I could offer some criticism at the very least, so I gave her my card." A few months later, Baroni received Kittle's manuscript and after letting it sit for four weeks, plunged into the material. "I read the entire thing in one sitting and I was sobbing at the end. I thought, ˜Oh my God, this is so good!' At our editorial meeting, I actually started my pitch by saying, ˜You're not going to believe it--this woman drove me to the airport at a writing conference, I read her novel and I love it!"
Baroni was impressed that the strength of Kittle's writing and her well-drawn characters "just stayed with you." This poignant coming-of-age story centers on Summer, a dancer whose career is ended by a horseback-riding injury. Returning to her childhood home in Ohio to teach high school, Summer becomes immersed in her brother's life when she discovers he is dying of AIDS, and moves in with him and his lover. She is transformed by the power of their loving relationship.

Kittle emphasizes that her novel is not autobiographical, though, while teaching high school in Dayton, Ohio, she did volunteer at an AIDS service organization (for which she now works part-time). "I dealt with homophobic students who acted like the disease could never touch them. During AIDS Awareness Week, I passed out statistics about the number of infections and deaths in this area, and I distinctly remember one girl saying, ˜Three hundred-and-one, well, that's not very many.' I just wanted to slug her. The difference between 300 and that lonely little 301 was a face and a name. I was initially drawn to writing a story that would put a face on AIDS for them."

Traveling Light started as a short story, and was expanded from the brother's point of view in early drafts. When Kittle realized that gay men whose novels and memoirs dealing with AIDS told their stories so beautifully, she changed the viewpoint of her book to his sister, Summer. "What I could offer was a character who could be a point of entry to an AIDS story for a reader who might find the gay male perspective a barrier. I wanted to create a book that would be accessible to readers with views like my former students, as well as ones who would be interested in a story that had gay characters and strong gay relationships. That was my goal--to touch both of those audiences."

--Hilary S. Kayle

Sales tips:Warner is pushing a major word-of-mouth campaign and Baroni has high expectations. "I haven't met anyone who's read this book who hasn't liked it. I hope it can be the next Bridges of Madison County because that's how that book started--everyone felt a connection to it." She feels Kittle has appeal for readers of Nick Sparks, Jane Hamilton, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Wally Lamb.

Henry Porter
Remembrance Day

Simon & Schuster (May)
No stranger to the written word, British journalist Henry Porter was surprised at how utterly hooked he was by the fiction-writing process. "It's such good fun compared to journalism. I heard somebody say, and I agree, that it's like the difference between black-and-white film and Technicolor."
Porter, who is the U.K. editor of Vanity Fair and a frequent contributor to the Guardian, the Observer, the Evening Standard and the Sunday Telegraph, says he's not a particularly avid fan of thrillers, and thus the idea for Remembrance Day--whose plot centers on a terrorist bomb in London that's triggered by a cell-phone call--was pure serendipity.

"It was weird, actually," he notes. "I was lying in bed and the idea came into my head that you might be able to use a cell phone as a trigger device for a bomb. A day later, I was reading a story in the Herald Tribune about an explosion in Hungary, and the entire plot essentials more or less came to me then and there, as if my subconscious had been working away."

He tackled the research for the book with professional vigor ("as a journalist, you know where to go to look for things"), investigating the worlds of British espionage, the IRA, science (the hero is a geneticist) and explosives (sadly, he says, his idle musings about cell phones turned out to be entirely plausible), then found himself on a path that diverged sharply from the one he is accustomed to following in his newspaper and magazine work.

"What journalists research is factual," he explains. "In fiction, you're researching the kind of characters that might operate in a particular world. You're looking for feel and texture, and the trick is to blend what you're making up with actual research, to give it verisimilitude."

Porter, who says he's tinkered with fiction before (but has "never shown it to people"), was a bit nervous about submitting his novel. "I was rather gloomy about getting it published," he recalls. "I had written quite a lot of it, and gave it to an American agent here in London, then didn't hear back. I felt completely humiliated, but as it turns out, he actually lost it! By the time he confessed I had hooked up with another agent, Georgina Capel."

Capel liked what she read and asked for more. "So I went off and wrote more, and she sold it to Orion," says Porter. "I was lucky, I suppose." Perhaps the biggest delight in this whole new venture, says Porter, is "the complete joy of sitting in a room by yourself writing a book and then finding that people are seeing what you're describing, and that you're communicating something to the reader. That's a hell of a feeling."

At work on a second thriller--this one set in New York--Porter says he's cut back on his freelance load to make room for fiction writing. He has plans for a third thriller, and after that, "we'll just see what happens."

--Heather Vogel Frederick

Sales tips:"I loved the whole idea of the book," says editor Michael Korda, who ranks Porter with such writers of "first-rate thrillers" as John le Carré and Eric Ambler. "Somebody who g s around exploding bombs with a cell phone is definitely a new twist on terrorism." Selected by the Economist as one of its Books of the Year, Remembrance Day will be featured in the publishers' Inner Sanctum newsletter.
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