Turning Their Theses Into Novels : Katherine Vaz of Irvine and Jo-Ann Mapson of Costa Mesa will see their graduate work in print next year.


Two Orange County writers--Katherine Vaz of Irvine and Jo-Ann Mapson of Costa Mesa--have parlayed the novels they wrote for their master's theses into publishing contracts.

Vaz, a 1991 graduate of the UC Irvine Program in Writing, sold the hardcover and paperback rights to her first novel, "Saudade," to Ballantine Books.

The novel, due out in hardback early next year and in paperback a year later, is set in Northern California and the Azores, an isolated group of islands off the coast of Portugal. It is, according to Vaz, a love story between a young Portuguese-American woman and an older Portuguese man.

"It's about both of them learning how to live with past losses and the loss that they feel when they break apart," said Vaz, 36, herself a Portuguese-American from the San Francisco area.

Although the title, "Saudade," is a word that is considered untranslatable, Vaz said it might best be defined as an overwhelming longing, or desire, for people or places that are absent from one's life.

It is, she said, "considered a state of being rather than just a sentiment."

Vaz's editor at Ballantine is Bob Wyatt, who served as the first North American editor for acclaimed Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are, Vaz said, some similarities between the "magical realism" of the works of authors such as Marquez and her novel, which experiments with language and perception.

"I think magical realism is very much the attempt to find what is the fantastic or sublime in everyday things and it's also about finding what's ordinary within wonderful or sublime things," she said. "In my case, what I'm doing is using the senses primarily to uncover what those are and to create new worlds and new perceptions according to what the senses dictate.

"At one point in the book, for example, the main character loses the ability to read or write and begins to think almost exclusively in color, and someone paints a book for her so that she can read."

Although "Saudade" was written as her master's thesis at UCI, Vaz said she worked 12 to 16 hours a day every day last summer doing a complete rewrite.

"That was after three years of work already," she said. "I think it took a long time for me to just learn the shape of the novel."

The book grew out of one of Vaz's published short stories, "Fado," which was cited in "The Best American Short Stories" anthology as one of the 100 distinguished stories of 1989. Vaz, who earned her living as a nonfiction book and magazine writer for seven years before entering the UCI writing program, now directs undergraduate creative writing and teaches advanced fiction writing at the university.

Although she won't say how much her advance was, Vaz said she's "absolutely ecstatic about the amount. I have enough to support me very comfortably while I write the next book."

Jo-Ann Mapson is equally mum about the size of her advance from Harper-Collins for "Hank and Chloe," a contemporary Western romance set in Orange County. But she will say it's enough to fulfill one of her lifelong dreams: As soon as she receives her check, she plans to fly to Nogales, Ariz., to splurge on a $500 pair of custom-made Paul Bond cowboy boots.

"I still have to keep working, though," said Mapson, who works part time for a chemist in Santa Ana. "The rest of the money I think I'm going to put in a savings account against this lovely recession we're in."

The title characters in "Hank and Chloe" are a professor of mythology at a college that, Mapson says, "looks remarkably like" Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa (where she teaches a writing class) and a horse trainer who is partly based on the woman who sold Mapson her horse.

Mapson wrote the novel, which is due out next February, as her master of fine arts thesis at Vermont College, a "low-residency" program that required her to live in Montpelier, Vt., part of the year.

She said her literary agent was convinced the just-completed novel would sell immediately, and it did, to the first publisher it was sent to.

"I'm just stunned," said Mapson, an award-winning short-story writer whose collection of stories, "Fault Line," was published by Tustin-based Pacific Writers Press in 1989.

Added the 39-year-old Mapson, who wrote a previous novel, which did not sell: "I sneaked this in before I turned 40. Hooray!"

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