Stories flow from Jenn Crowell. Tales about 9-year-olds. Divorce. Horses. Road trips. British artists. At 4, she made up stories and asked her grandparents to write them down. In grade school, she wrote them herself and begged people to read her creations. In junior high, she refined them, sent them off to contests, then scribbled more. In the car. While eating. On the beach. During class.
By the time she was 17, she'd written a novel about a 30-year-old woman whose husband dies. Then, as always, she asked someone to read what she wrote.
This time, it was her professor, Madison Smartt Bell, writer-in-residence at Goucher College. In her work, Bell recognized a young writer with a maturity beyond her years, a writer already polished enough to be published. So he sent Crowell's manuscript to his agent in New York.
Now, at 18, Crowell is a teen-ager poised on the brink of adult-sized fame.
Maybe even bigger.
In three weeks, her first novel, "Necessary Madness," will be published by G.P. Putnam's Sons. She is being paid $150,000 for this book and for another as-yet-to-be-written novel -- not an enormous sum in the celebrity-driven world of publishing. But a startling amount for an unknown writer. Especially one so young.
In person, Crowell seems a mix of sophistication and youth. Her clothes are art-student funky; her straight blond hair is cut Peter-Pan style. A sophomore at Goucher College, she greets a visitor gravely, then gives a tiny, charming hop of excitement. You must excuse her, she says: She's running late, her Doc Martens got muddy during her last photo shoot, and she's had way too much coffee. She talks about "Necessary Madness" in much the same way.
"Madison said he thought [the novel] had serious commercial potential, and I thought, 'Wow,' " Crowell says. "All my life I've been as academic as the next person, and I always considered myself Little Miss Literary. I didn't see myself fitting into a genre, and I never thought, 'Oh, I'm going to write a best seller.' "
When Putnam editor Liza Dawson first read "Necessary Madness," "I was instantly transported by it," she says. But she admits, when Crowell's agent told her how old its creator was, "My heart started beating faster."
Crowell's age could make the book a sensation, propel it onto "Oprah" and into the pages of People magazine. Crowell's age could make her a star.
Since clinching the deal last March, the publishing house has announced that it's printing 150,000 copies of "Necessary Madness" -- a huge number for new fiction. It also is launching a $150,000 marketing campaign. Rights to the book have been sold to publishers in 14 other countries. Cable television's Family Channel has bought the rights to a TV movie. Audio rights have been sold. The novel is an alternative selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club. Proceeds from these advances have been estimated at $800,000 so far. And every deal makes Crowell a little wealthier.
Though the novel has yet to be shipped to bookstores, Dawson says, "It's already a success."
Perhaps so. But if the book lives up to Putnam's expectations, Crowell will face the author-of-the-moment media frenzy that has overwhelmed older, more experienced writers.
Publicity, of course, sells books. But success that comes so swiftly and abundantly can alter lives, breed envy, stunt careers.
Brett Easton Ellis was 21 in 1985 when his first novel, "Less Than Zero" became a best seller, touted as this generation's "Catcher in the Rye." His second novel went nowhere; his third, "American Psycho," was reviled for its violence.
Donna Tartt was 28 in 1992 when she was paid $450,000 for her first and best-selling novel, "The Secret History." She was featured in Vanity Fair magazine, touted on talk shows -- and was savaged in a number of reviews. She has yet to publish again.
All of which is on Bell's mind when he considers what may happen in the next few months to his young protege. "She's going to be dealing with a lot of jealousy from reviewers. I'm worried that she won't get a fair shake," he says.
"I hope she's really well started on her next book before the publicity machine starts really grinding. Then, when things get crazy, she can go into the tunnel that is her writing and pull the dirt in behind."
Bell is no stranger to the pressures of book tours, reviews and over-eager reporters. He was 25 when his first novel was published, and since then has produced 10 more books. In 1995, his novel "All Souls' Rising," was a National Book Award finalist.
Still, he shakes his head in bemusement at the idiosyncrasies of the publishing world.
"My first book sold about 3,000 copies and was reviewed in the New York Times. The next book did better, and so on," he says. "My 11th book came out last fall, and I feel as though I'm reasonably well known. But I'm probably not as well known as Jenn Crowell will be in two months."
No one who knows Crowell finds her success startling. For almost as long as anyone can remember, she has been making up stories -- and repeating them to anyone who would listen. At 14, she joined a writers' group whose members were middle-aged women. A few years ago, her parents transformed the extra bedroom in their house into a writing room for their daughter.
"I'm surprised at the amount of money that she's being paid," says her mother, Jane Beck Dettinger. "I'm not at all surprised that she has a book being published, and I'm not really that surprised that she's this young. Knowing her, it was just a sure bet."
Crowell grew up with her mother, stepfather and half-brother in Jacobus, Pa., a rural community about an hour from Baltimore. It is the kind of town where everyone knows everyone -- and most people make the drive to nearby York, Pa., when they're in the mood for fun or for shopping. Even York, Crowell notes, "just got its first Borders in December."
As a child, she loved Brownies and Girl Scouts. She and her cousins spent hours re-enacting scenes from "Little House on the Prairie." And, like myriad little girls before her, she fell in and out of love with horses.
In school, Crowell stood out as the girl who eschewed the blandness of fashion in favor of personal style. The one who hung around after class to discuss things like apartheid. The one who excelled at debates, but who couldn't do math and hated chemistry. Mostly, though, she was the kid who carried everywhere a notebook crammed with works-in-progress.
"She would finish her work early, and then she'd pull out her short stories and write and write and write, and I just let her get away with it because she always did her work," remembers Dallastown High School's Sally Kashner, who taught Crowell in ninth grade. "She was always waving manuscripts at me. She'd always say, 'I wrote this. Will you read it?' "
Crowell also routinely sat in the front row of class. She couldn't see the blackboard otherwise. She was born three months premature, and a lack of oxygen damaged her retinas, leaving her vision quite poor. "I don't know if I'm technically legally blind," she says. "I lived with it all my life so I feel like it's not a huge problem."
The young author doesn't drive, and to write or to read, she must lean very close to her books or computer screen. She's already bought a new computer with her book money, she says; her next big purchase may be software that enlarges type.
Perhaps the visual handicap forced Crowell to look inward instead of out. She was unlikely to become an Olympic equestrienne, a neurosurgeon, a famous fashion designer. Imperfect sight, however, does not impair the ability to 'u experience and to imagine.
Always, Crowell's dream was to be a novelist. When the conversation turns to writing -- to structure, narrative voice and themes -- her commitment is evident.
Her 17th summer
She wrote "Necessary Madness" during the summer that she was 17. She'd finished her junior year of high school and was planning to attend Goucher through a program that allows students simultaneously to complete their senior year of high school and freshman year of college. And she'd worked with the narrative voice of her main character since she was 14, and wrestled with grief as a theme since she was 16.
"I had this real sense of urgency: 'If I don't do this now, I'm never going to get it done. I won't ever again have three uninterrupted months to really get this done,' " Crowell says.
So she pushed herself, sometimes writing longhand, sometimes on a word processor. And she told the tale of a 30-year-old American whose British husband dies of leukemia. The setting is England, and in the 194-page story, the protagonist, named Gloria, recalls the turmoil of her youth, which includes a tragically reserved father who eventually kills himself, and a mother who gave up a career as a cellist to raise her daughter.
Gloria has an 8-year-old son, befuddled in-laws and a lifetime's worth of experience with grief.
Crowell wrote her novel without visiting England. She traveled there for the first time last summer -- a treat paid for with some of her book money. For the book, she learned about the country from British sitcoms and from Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole books. And she synthesized her own experiences -- the death of a grandfather, a stillborn sibling and several complicated
operations on her eyes -- and wove them into the emotional texture of her novel.
Dawson, an executive editor at Putnam, is careful to point out that "Necessary Madness" is not a conventional coming-of-age story. Its focus is not early sexual experiences or the emotional upheaval of going off to college, and much of it unfolds in scenes from the past juxtaposed against those of the present. The reader learns of Gloria's past as Gloria learns about herself. Gloria grows as an adult grows -- by trying to integrate her experiences as a woman with those she remembers from her childhood.
In the manuscript that Crowell gave him, Bell saw a book that combined popular romantic themes with literary sensibilities: "A literary novel that editors will like and can get behind, but will say to themselves, 'We can sell this to all the people who liked the "Bridges of Madison County,' " he says.
"It's not the kind of thing you would normally see in freshman writing."
In the 10 months since Crowell signed the deal with Putnam, there has been a steadily increasing hum of interest in "Necessary Madness" -- carefully orchestrated by Putnam to explode in March, when the book appears in stores.
The hum began last June, when the New York Times published a business article about the sale of Crowell's book. It built as several mentions of the book appeared in Publishers' Weekly -- the bible of booksellers. And it continued as companies in 14 countries bid on the right to publish "Necessary Madness."
By summer's end, book professionals were taking notice, says Robert Teicher, a fiction buyer for Borders. "I read the New York Times -- that got the buzz going. It went from there to PW [Publishers' Weekly]. And over the next few months I saw references to the book in a number of articles. Before the publisher even approached me about the book, I began to develop a bullishness toward it."
Though he won't give specifics, Teicher says he placed "a huge order for first-time fiction."
At Putnam, Dawson gives all first-time writers what she calls her "Publishing 101" lecture. She tells them that for a novel to have a shot at great popularity, dozens of things, large and small, must fall into place:
There must be an eye-catching cover with swell quotes displayed upon it, she says. There must be foreign sales. It would be nice if the movie rights sold. And a hook to entice reporters to produce special features about the author would be helpful.
Then, "I tell them no writer gets everything," Dawson says.
"So Jenn got everything: The quotes. The audio sales. The foreign sales. The TV. The photos. The catalog. It's all in place so that she can be launched."
To prepare for the coming book tour and media onslaught, Crowell has practiced fielding questions from reporters in role-playing sessions with the college public-relations director. She has discussed the pitfalls of fame with her agent, Jane Gelfman. And, on Bell's advice, she is working hard on her second novel -- which will be set in Iceland -- as she juggles interviews and photo shoots with Russian and poetry classes.
"When I thought about success, I never pictured the trappings of commercial literary success," Crowell says. "I just wanted to craft the best incarnation of the story I was dying to tell, and if the commercial literary world embraced it -- great. If not, then you go small press, and you stay in obscurity for awhile."
For Jenn Crowell, obscurity is no longer an option.
That night I had the dream.
I was standing with my father in total darkness at the side of the M6 motorway to Manchester. Suddenly two cars came from opposite directions, washing us in the terrible gleam of their headlights and slamming into each other. We saw the driver of one car, a young girl, fly against the windshield, her eyes wide. "Adrienne," my father sobbed, and clutched me to him, burying my face against his chest and holding me there until I suffocated.
I'd dreamt the same thing for years. This time, though, I didn't startle out of sleep right away like I normally did. I dreamt that Jascha Kremsky held my head under in the river Lethe, and I fought, unable to decide whether to struggle to the surface or let the water take me down, torn between the need to remember and the desire to forget.
From "Necessary Madness" by Jenn Crowell
On the circuit
L Jenn Crowell is scheduled to appear at the following places:
Chapters, A Literary Bookstore
Washington, Tuesday, March 11
7 p.m. to 8: 30 p.m., (202) 347-5495
Borders Books and Music Towson
Thursday, March 20, 7: 30 p.m.
Bibelot at Timonium Crossing
Saturday, March 22, 3 p.m.
Goucher College "Literary Lights: Goucher Writers Return"
Saturday, March 27, 8 p.m. If you plan to attend. call (410) 337-6180
FAME AT AN EARLY AGE
Publishes his first book, "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets" (1893) at 22. His second novel, "The Red Badge of Courage," is published the following year and becomes an instant classic.