Oprah Propels Some First Novelists to the Stars

For a first-time writer, holding your book in your hands is a miracle of dizzying delight. To then have that book sell a million copies staggers the imagination. It's like stepping up to the plate in Yankee Stadium and hitting a home run your first time at bat.

That's what happened to Jacquelyn Mitchard and Wally Lamb.

Within weeks of being chosen by Oprah's Book Club, sales of Ms. Mitchard's "Deep End of the Ocean," the tale of a family devastated by a child's abduction, jumped from an already-impressive 100,000 copies to 900,000. Mr. Lamb's "She's Come Undone," the story of a teenager overcoming rape and self-hatred, has a staggering 3 million copies in print.

This kind of success would inspire most people to take that trip around the world they'd dreamed of; but Mitchard and Lamb didn't even quit their day jobs.

Lamb, whose crinkly-eyed smile and air of genial calm could probably disarm the most angst-riddled teen, teaches creative writing at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Mitchard, a sharp-eyed, vivacious mother of five, continues to write her recently syndicated column, "The Rest of Us."

Mitchard, however, did do a little shoe-shopping. Six pairs of cowboy boots to be precise. "I'm mad for cowboy boots," she laughs, acknowledging that this is not an opinion shared by much of the civilized world. "When I got money, the first thing I did was go out and get some."

While both say they're grateful to Oprah for singling out their work, neither seems unduly impressed by all the fuss. Lamb, whose second novel, "I Know This Much Is True," was also chosen as the July selection and has graced the bestseller list ever since, characterizes it as a "happy distraction."

"Well, you know, I probably didn't have any opportunity to feel self-conscious about it because it was so unexpected," says Mitchard from her vacation home on Cape Cod, where she and her family went to unwind after an 18-city promotional tour for her second book, "The Most Wanted" - only to be invaded by yet another reporter.

"I didn't know whether I would ever finish writing 'Deep End of the Ocean,' much less have it be published, much less have it be a hit," she says. "And so, it didn't have the kind of effect on me it might have had on someone who'd been doing it for a while. I was much more concerned about whether anyone would like reading the book."

As the first one on Oprah's list, Mitchard had no idea what to expect. "Everything about what happened with Oprah Winfrey was a gift. Because, you know, it had done just fine - for a first novel especially."

Not only had Viking bought the rights to both "Deep End" and "The Most Wanted" for a reported $500,000, but the story was also turned into a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer to be released this fall.

"We knew that being mentioned on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' would be good for sales. We had no idea that it would go through ... the rafters. As for whether it set up expectations for books to come, it did for other people, but not me."

It's a rather scary proposition. When your first performance brings down the house, what do you do for an encore?

"It's a devil's bargain," agrees Mitchard, who rushed the editing on "The Most Wanted" so Viking, her publisher, could get it in bookstores for this summer.

'I had this overwhelming need to prove to myself that I could write a story. That this wasn't just some kind of fluke," Mitchard says. "And I didn't want to take six years doing it.... But hard? Yeah. You can never be as successful as you were in the way that you were before. The challenge has been to get to the point where I was thinking about the main character, [rather] than thinking about ... how many units [it would sell]."

Lamb, who gets up at 4 a.m. to write ("It doesn't make for a very exciting night life," he says), was well into his second book before "She's Come Undone" was chosen, so he was able to work without that kind of pressure. "When I look back, as exciting as that happy distraction was, I was glad I was into the second novel. The one thing I didn't expect was that the phone never stopped ringing. And I have a hard time saying no. The way I solved it was to go back to my old neighborhood and rent an apartment. It had no furniture, no phone, just a computer. I like to call it the biosphere. And I was able to finish the book that way."

Lamb says he writes for the reason most people read: to find out what happens next. "I've been changed by both books. For me, the real heart of it is the journey itself. On a daily basis I never know where I'm going ... and I don't know how it's going to end."

His books are character-driven, rather than plot-oriented. "I just fell in love with this character," he says, speaking about Dolores, the main character of "She's Come Undone." "I felt very parental about her; I worried about her all the time." What he didn't do was coddle her.

That's even more true for Dominick Birdsey, the emotionally damaged hero of "I Know This Much Is True." By the end of this wrenching novel, the Birdsey clan has undergone every horror known to postwar America, and Dominick has had to rebuild his psyche from the ground up.

"If you were damaged in your childhood, I think probably you have to undo before you can rebuild," Lamb says. It's a subject his family became personally involved in while he was working on "I Know This Much Is True."

They took in, and ultimately adopted, a little boy in the neighborhood whose parents were alcoholic. "Damaged childhoods were very much on my mind while I was writing this book," he says quietly.

As for Mitchard, she gets more done sleeping than the rest of us do all day. She literally dreamed up the plots to both her novels. "They were striking in that they were the only two times I can recall that I've had dreams in which I was not a character. It was like seeing a film that I was meant to pay attention to."

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