Sunday, September 8, 2002
New York Nighttime in Manhattan. Guests slip past the red velvet ropes of a hot midtown cocktail lounge and go inside to munch complicated hors d'oeuvres and toast a new novelist.
Award-winning author Jonathan Franzen, AOL/Time Warner Book Group CEO Larry Kirshbaum and a host of others are celebrating Alice Sebold and her best-selling "The Lovely Bones."
"I don't think Alice knows yet how the world changes once you get this sort of recognition," remarked Franzen, who last year was on the receiving end of media frenzy surrounding his novel, "The Corrections."
Sebold began to get an inkling of her success in early July, when was in San Francisco for the start of a national tour. As she checked into her hotel, a clerk showed her the San Francisco Chronicle's best-seller list. It was topped by her novel.
"He handed me the thing and I just said, well, you can't write it ï¿½ it's obscene," Sebold said, laughing. "That was the first time I felt like something's happening here that I don't totally understand and have, literally, little to do with. I may do my little tours and interviews and stuff, but it's really the book that people are having a relationship with."
Sebold's novel opens with a graphic depiction of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, who, from heaven, narrates her death and its heartbreaking aftershocks on her family.
"There are two types of readers in my mind ï¿½ the ones who are incredibly hip and wouldn't be caught dead reading about heaven, and the others, who would never want to read about a raped and murdered child," said Sebold's husband, Glen David Gold, author of the novel "Carter Beats the Devil."
"So," he continued with a laugh, "Alice should have alienated 100 percent of her audience."
From the start, Sebold has had the right supporters. Her novel shot to the top of Amazon.com six weeks before its publication date, following Anna Quindlen's May 22 declaration on the "Today Show": "If you only read one book this summer, read 'The Lovely Bones."'
A June 2 recommendation by New York Times book critic Janet Maslin on CBS' "Sunday Morning" and a glowing front-page review from Michiko Kakutani 16 days later in The New York Times Arts section built even more interest, and it hasn't stopped.
"Good Morning America" recently selected "The Lovely Bones" for its book club.
The book is in its 14th printing from publisher Little, Brown, with more than 1 million copies in print. It is No. 2 on both The New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists.
Not bad for an author who had "failed for so long" that she no longer had the expectation of success. Although, as Sebold explained, that attitude was more of a blessing than a burden when she started "The Lovely Bones" in 1996, after writing several novels that fizzled.
"After a while, you don't think what can't be done and what can be done, because no one's going to care anyway," she said. "You just go and have fun in your room, which is what, to me, art should be about anyway."
Sebold, 39, began working on the book while enrolled in the University of California at Irvine's graduate program in creative writing ï¿½ the only program to accept her, and from a wait list.
"The first chapter came all at once and without any conscious conceit on my part," said Sebold. "By the time I was done with that, I had the voice of Susie and she had told me where she was, what had happened to her and some of the basic dynamics of her family."
Sebold had another story waiting in the wings ï¿½ her own. In 1981, during her freshman year at Syracuse University, she was brutally beaten and raped by a stranger. Her testimony would eventually send him to jail, but not before he had fashioned a new world for her, a world in which there were "two styles available: the safe and the not safe."
Sebold had long been encouraged by friends to write about her rape, but it wasn't until a memoir class at Irvine with author Geoffrey Wolff that she felt able to address her past.
"I read the first 15 pages and I was just stunned ï¿½ not just by the material but by the representation of the material, which was clinical but not cold," recalled Wolff, best known for his memoir "The Duke of Deception."
"It had an absolutely gruesome wholesomeness; the writing itself had so much vigor that it trumped the horror of the subject."
Wolff and Sebold worked on the memoir as a side project, with Sebold eventually halting her work on the novel to finish what would become "Lucky," published by Scribner in 1999; this October, Little, Brown will issue the paperback edition, starting with a printing of 75,000.
With the memoir finished, Sebold was able to go back to the novel, unfettered by memories.
"Instead of writing an autobiographical first novel I wrote a memoir. I just cut straight to the chase," she says with a laugh. "That way, it allowed me to go back and write a novel that was free of any of that need to write about rape."