Along for the Ride : Jo-Ann Mapson is on the 'Blue Rodeo' circuit, but she'd rather be writing in Costa Mesa.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a handful of rave reviews in tow, Jo-Ann Mapson has left on the second leg of a 22-city publicity tour for her new contemporary Western novel "Blue Rodeo."

The Costa Mesa author's itinerary during the next two weeks includes stops in Boston and New York followed by sweeps through Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee.

On the whole, however, she'd rather be in Costa Mesa.

"Writers are hermits," Mapson said before leaving Friday. "Writers like to stay home. It takes a lot of alchemy to change your personality into a public person."

The thought of promotion--a round of newspaper interviews, readings and signings--never played a big role in Mapson's dream of becoming a published author.

"I think there's a lot of misconceptions about what a publicity tour involves," said Mapson, 42. "It's a business trip basically: There's many plane rides, a different hotel room every night that you get to between 10 and midnight. You get one meal a day if you're lucky; the rest of the time you're eating airport peanuts."

And there's no guarantee how many people will even show up at a book signing.

Although Mapson has been pleased with the turnouts for signings in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Midwest during the first half of her publicity tour in June, she acknowledged that "sometimes there's no one there, and the publicity didn't arrive, or the books aren't there. You never know what's going to happen."

The same can be said for book reviews. But Mapson needn't worry.

"Blue Rodeo" (HarperCollins; $22) is receiving even more flattering reviews than her 1993 critically acclaimed first novel, the Orange County-set "Hank & Chloe."

A review in the New York Times praised Mapson's "tart and funny prose," likening the Southwestern romance to "a pleasing piece of country music." The Los Angeles Times calls it a "romantic, elegant, low-keyed Western for our time."

Set in secluded northwestern New Mexico, "Blue Rodeo" tells the story of Margaret (Maggie) Yearwood, a just-turned-40 woman who is intent on building a new life.

Emotionally reeling from an unexpected divorce from her Hollywood screenwriter husband and the sudden deafness of her teen-age son, Peter, from a bout with meningitis, Maggie has moved into a rented farmhouse in the tiny town of Blue Dog to establish state residency so her son can attend a boarding school for the deaf.

Peter, embittered by his parent's divorce and struggling to figure out how he fits in the deaf and hearing worlds, angrily shuns his mother.

But like "Hank & Chloe," Mapson's new novel is also a love story.

Maggie's new neighbor is middle-aged cowboy Owen Garrett, a man with a past he'd just as soon forget: "a sorry night" in Colorado when, with a quart of whiskey under his belt to numb the news that his wife had left him for another man and taken their daughter with her, he accidentally killed a man in a pointless bar fight.

Described by Publishers Weekly as "the Marlboro man with a tender and sensitive streak," the earthy, working-class Owen and the brooding, equally honest Maggie form a friendship that quickly turns to romance.

"They remind each other of the simple things in life, the simple pleasures, and I think they reaffirm in each other that there's someone inside each of them worthy of love," Mapson said.

Romance is a recurrent element in Mapson's fiction, and she has no reservations about "Blue Rodeo" being referred to as a contemporary Western romance.

As she sees it, "the term romance has totally been trashed. Everyone thinks of bodice-rippers. Romance has to do with a whole way of life, the landscape and history, rather than just tearing your clothes off."

Her next novel, "Shadow Ranch," which she is writing under a new two-book contract, features a romance between an 80-year-old former citrus grower and the ex-stripper he marries.

"I love to write about love because that's what we're all about," Mapson said. "That's why we do everything we do. I just think it's fascinating."

Mapson said she borrowed her novel's title, "Blue Rodeo," from the name of a song written by Laguna Beach author T. Jefferson Parker's late wife, Cat.

"Her voice is so poignant it still makes me cry every time I listen to the tape," she said. "I think the song is about kind of a greater good than just what we humans do on Earth, and it's about loss and the kind of love that you have to have to let somebody go. The first time I heard it, it gave me chills up and down my spine, and I could never stop thinking about it, and I thank Jeff from the bottom of my heart for letting me use it."

Mapson said she has constantly been asked on her book tour to explain the meaning of the novel's title.

"I think there's two things that go into the title," she said. "One is that blue is a real spiritual color; it's a healing color in the Native American culture. The other thing is the idea of rodeo being kind of like an event where you are trying to stay on a wild creature. And that's another aspect of this book: the difficulties these people go through. It's much like being in a rodeo."

Mapson said she doesn't sit down to write with a deliberate message in her novels.

"I get nervous when people say, 'What are the themes in your book?'--a question my editor asks frequently," she said. "I'm not the type of writer who sets out with a deliberate theme in mind. Maybe something evolves over the course of the book.

"I think my main character, Maggie, learns that the depth of love she has for her son surpasses his difficulties as a teen-ager, and she figures out she's got the courage to go on. Owen learns that he can't be rootless any more. He's got to go back and fix his past."

As for teen-aged Peter, "I don't know if an adolescent can learn anything, " Mapson said with a laugh, then added: "He learns to trust again, and he learns to trust women, and he just basically tries to find his place in the world."

Mapson said she always taps "real-life people" in creating her characters, but Maggie and Owen are "mainly a conglomeration of different people" she knows. As for Peter, she laughed and said her 16-year-old son, Jack, "will probably forgive me some day."

Mapson, in fact, dedicated the book to her son: "For Jack: listen up."

"I hope," she said, "that maybe in 10 or 20 years he can go back and read it and realize all the Angst and the unhappiness that happened during these (teen-age) years was really supported by a great deal of love."

Mapson said she and her son are both getting along "great now, but the last four years--oh, my God.

"I think that Jack taught me the lesson in this book. It wasn't so much me saying to him, 'Listen to this, you little dope.' It was more him saying to me, 'This is what pain is like when you're an adolescent.' "

Mapson's son also provided inspiration for the character of Peter in another way: He has a moderate hearing loss in one ear.

"We took a couple of classes of sign language together, and our teacher was deaf," Mapson said. "I asked the teacher if there are any heroes for the deaf in literature. He told me there weren't. Moreover, it was really difficult for those who are profoundly deaf from birth to find their way into literature, so I thought I'd try to put a character who lost his hearing, which is something I could imagine."

Mapson, who has been riding horses since she was a child and has owned a horse the past 12 years, figures she'll always write about the contemporary Western world.

"I'm still very interested in that whole world," she said. "After I finish 'Shadow Ranch' I'm writing the sequel to 'Hank & Chloe,' which will take place on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.

"I think that the more a writer discovers his or her own voice, those influences that shaped you as child emerge, and that is what you want to write about. (The West) is where my family comes from. My interests have always been with horses and animals and the landscape and wild places, and it was never acceptable to write about those concerns when I was in high school or college or even grad school. But those are like my issues, my passions."

Mapson said she began writing short stories in grade school--always, she added with a laugh, "stories in which the main character was a middle child who was ignored grievously by her family."

But it wasn't until 1982, she said, that "I turned my hand to the short story in a serious way." Her efforts have been rewarded. In 1986, she won first place in the California Short Story Competition sponsored by the Squaw Valley Writers' Community, and in 1989 her first collection of short stories, "Fault Line," was published by Pacific Writers Press.

Novels, however, have now taken a priority in her writing life.

"I prefer them because I really like creating a world. That's fun. But I miss the (short) story a lot," she said. "I've got many ideas in the back of my head I'm trying to get to. I'm also getting really interested in journals."

She began one at the beginning of the year.

Journal writing, she says, "is highly overlooked as a form of creative writing.

"I think that it's really a way of going back and taking a look at these things that seem like simple activities and begin to see how they affect your life. They do, and if you treat that kind of writing with the same kind of care that you do writing a novel, poem or a story, you end up with a rich kind of experience."

Journal or not, Mapson wouldn't think of going on tour without her portable computer. As she puts it: "Mr. Laptop comes with me."

"Actually, I think it's what keeps me grounded," she said. "Inevitably something will get screwed up and canceled, which gives you four hours to do nothing in a strange city. I just sit down and write."

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