That sophomore jinx

Times Staff Writer

For all of her startling lyricism and her capacity to defy genre classifications, Alice Sebold finds herself standing at a rather prosaic book-business crossroads: The “Next Book” after the “Big Book”; the dread “sophomore novel.”

Sebold, the author of the 2002 blockbuster “The Lovely Bones,” would just as soon build a bridge over this customary moment and quickly step to the next. “Like, wouldn’t it be best if there could just be the third book?” she said, quite reasonably, over coffee in the late-lunch hush of a San Francisco restaurant. She and her husband, the novelist Glen David Gold, now call the city home after eight years in Long Beach and three in Ojai. “I went through the idea, ‘Well, I could never publish a book again, that’s just the simple way! I could just write one and it doesn’t have to be published. I can read it. My friends can read it.’ ” She laughed, looking into the deep dark of her coffee cup. “But it’s almost become such a stereotype that you figure, one good review, goal! I’m done. On to No. 3!”

If only: Five years, multiple drafts and two new cities later, Sebold’s new book, “The Almost Moon,” arrives this week: It’s the tale of a decades-long emotional dance between a mother and daughter, Clair and Helen Knightly, taking place in the narrow space between love and hate and madness. It feels drawn in the hues of an unsettled sky.


It’s also, of course, the long-anticipated follow-up to her seismic event of a first novel, which sat on the New York Times bestseller list, both hardcover and paper, for 78 weeks. “The Lovely Bones,” as many, many people already know, told the story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who was brutally raped and murdered, but who also beguilingly served as her own story’s narrator. From the perch of the afterlife, “her Heaven,” she takes measure of what loss means on either side of the divide.

What made its success that much more remarkable (read: newsworthy) was that Sebold, then 39, seemed to have come out of nowhere: a graduate of UC Irvine’s MFA graduate program, whose book was sold on the strength of its early pages. While Sebold already had a critically acclaimed memoir under her belt, 1999’s “Lucky,” about her rape as an 18-year-old -- and its lingering after-effects -- as a fiction writer she was considered to be relatively unknown.

The novel quickly emerged as a ubiquitous read for book groups, train commutes and waiting rooms across the country -- and just as quickly became an easy target for certain members of the literati. But no matter: The book still has a strong, steady pulse -- with more than 5 million copies now in print and a film adaptation to be directed by Peter Jackson going into production in a few weeks. All of which is why, with “The Almost Moon,” Sebold has girded herself for come-what-may.

Plans are big -- national television and major print advertising, large-venue appearances across the country and a quick jaunt overseas. But early word isn’t across-the-board glowing: along with some positive or mixed reviews, a few out-and-out sharply barbed pans have hurtled in from high places. It’s been called “unremittingly bleak,” “grim and grimmer,” “dark.” While Library Journal calls it a “daring, devastating novel,” Publishers Weekly has deemed it “disappointing,” a “sophomore effort not in line with her talent.”

Sebold understands the vagaries of the business, how the scale can tip. “I know that there are going to be people who are going to be put off by this book just because the last book did so well,” she said, “and people are going to be put off from it because they liked the other book. These are the things that are outside of our -- one’s -- control.” So, for the moment, as for reviews, she’s not doing more than skimming them quickly. “Both Glen and I have this Baby Bird/Big Bird thing where he’ll look at it and kind of just say: ‘This is what you need to know,’ ” It’s better to have read them, otherwise I’ll just imagine that they are worse than they really are.”

Over the edge

Undeniably, Sebold knows her way around imagination’s dark corridors. “The Almost Moon” also travels down emotionally treacherous and murky passageways; its narrative, like “Lovely Bones,” is set in motion by a violent act. The book’s emotionally burdened middle-age protagonist, Helen, has long struggled to see herself, and to be seen. She works as an artist’s model, sitting nude for students at the local college who sketch her into some semblance of being. Helen moves through much of her life like a somnambulist, still puzzling over the debris of her failed marriage, fetching and caring for others, eclipsed by the vast, variable needs of her mercurial mother, until she is suddenly pushed over the edge and does the unthinkable -- kills her aged, mentally unstable mother.

This revelation will ruin nothing: The shocking action, in now-familiar Sebold style, occurs on the very first page, in the first very first sentence: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily. Dementia, as it descends, has a way of revealing the core of the person affected by it.”

The arc of the story -- which transpires over 24 hours -- unfolds mostly in a quick-paced, stream-of-consciousness series of flashbacks, and endeavors to piece together -- more for Helen’s sake than for ours -- just how she got to this tragic place.

It’s disturbing and unrelenting, Sebold knows, and some will take to it and others won’t: “But for me, it’s like when you meet somebody who has done something intense, but you don’t know anything else about them. You want to know, ‘What’s the deal with that person?’ So that’s the desire on my part to have a little bit of ‘that deal.’ to get at that.”

It is precisely that -- that desire, that keenness -- says Michael Pietsch, executive vice president and publisher of Little Brown, that has garnered Sebold her legion of readers. “Her prose is often stunning, both because of the beauty of the language and because she is fiercely brave. She’ll go into the darkest places and come out with the light. and that’s what she’s done again in ‘The Almost Moon.’ ”

Like ‘Lovely Bones,” “The Almost Moon” defies easy categorization. Both move as swiftly as thrillers, probe deeply as family drama and are told in the lyric, almost dreamlike prose she’s become known for. But it took awhile for Sebold to to find her writing rhythms again. “Susie, the main character [of “Lovely Bones”] is a very strong force. So I went on the road to help Susie,” Sebold said. “But at a certain point, it was like: ‘Oh, you’re fine on your own. I’m exhausted. You’re doing beautifully! I’m just going to get out of here.’ So there was this sense that she was much stronger than I was.”

It took about two full years for Susie to make room for Helen (and add to that the 3 1/2 years it took Sebold to put “The Almost Moon” together end-to-end). “I feel that I was lucky I had the ideas for this book, kind of the central obsessions, before I went on the road, before ‘Bones’ was published, before any of that hit,” she said. “I had notes in my head. I didn’t have my character and I didn’t have my story, but I had my obsessions.”

More than anything she craved quiet. Ojai offered it and “more nature, more trees.” After “Bones,” “I quickly began to understand that one of the most important things about being a writer is being able to observe. And if you’re being observed you can’t observe. So my experience of touring began to feel toxic for me as a writer. That’s part of the reason I moved to Ojai, because I really wanted to mimic the bird in the tree. Just disappear and observe again.”

She put herself on an immersion schedule for six- to eight-week intervals, rising in the dark, at three or four in the morning, passing her husband in the hallway on his way to bed. “The nice thing about Ojai was that it was isolated. But by the time we left it, we were a little crazy. It had really begun to turn in on itself,” she admitted. “The last year we were like the gingham dog and the calico cat.”

But that’s what it took, draft after draft, seeing her way clear to Helen’s voice. “Only after working on the book from other perspectives, telling the story from various points of view -- it’s about finding the voice that can bear the weight of the whole story,” Sebold said. “And so at a certain point what was the most challenging voice? What was the most direct voice -- and it’s the one who the story is about -- the woman who kills her mother. ‘So, do it Sebold,’ ” she said. “You have to almost lead yourself into a place by pretending that you’re never going there.”

A father’s insight

About midway through “The Almost Moon,” Helen recalls a conversation she had with her father, his gentle attempt to explain not just her mother’s illness but one of life’s most bittersweet truisms. “So much in life is about almosts, not quites.” Like the moon? the daughter asks. “The moon is whole all the time,” he explains, “but we can’t always see it.”

It’s those tough, tight spaces that people have backed themselves into, the bad luck or tragedy that befalls us, the compromise, the glass half-full, that we have to settle for, that Sebold has become the troubadour of.

“Living with Helen was a lot like living with Susie,” Sebold said. “The irony is that Susie is dead and she’s trapped in some major way, and Helen is trapped in some major way too. To me, the only hope either one of them may have is greater understanding.”

Because of her deed, and the dark procession of events that follow, Helen is not as instantly winning as Susie. Sebold knows that. Her hope is that it will make her not less sympathetic, but more human:

“What I’m fascinated about is how people are not open to the fact that we are flawed human beings, and that we can be flawed and still human,” Sebold said. “And that they are probably sitting there with their flaws too and pretending that they have none -- or feel like they have to pretend that they have none.”

Like Helen or hate her, Sebold said, “She’s a piece of work. But most interesting people are.”