Alice Sebold





Author

Born c. 1963, in Madison, WI; daughter of a Spanish professor and a journalist; married Glen David Gold (an author), November, 2001. Education: Earned degree from Syracuse University, 1984; attended the University of Houston, c. 1984-85; University of California—Irvine, M.F.A., 1998.

Addresses: Office —c/o Author Mail, Little, Brown & Company/Warner Books, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

Career

Adjunct instructor in English at Hunter College, and research analyst in New York City, c. 1985-93; published a memoir, Lucky, 1999; debut novel The Lovely Bones published, 2002; film rights to The Lovely Bones sold for a film project set to be released in 2007.

Awards: Bram Stoker Award for best first novel for The Lovely Bones, 2002.

Sidelights

Alice Sebold's debut novel, The Lovely Bones, dominated the best-seller lists for several months in 2002. The story of a murdered teenager who observes her grieving family and the impact the crime had on everyone involved, Sebold's literary tour-de-force struck a chord with readers, garnered impressive reviews, and sold 2.5 million copies in hardcover—a new record for a first-time novelist.

Alice Sebold

In an article solely devoted to this publishing phenomenon of the year, New York Times writer Bill Goldstein called Sebold's novel "the literary equivalent of that other word-of-mouth success My Big Fat Greek Wedding, " and included it in a roster of several other recent novels, more literary in spirit than purely potboiler, that had also climbed to the top of the best-seller lists. Such books, Goldstein asserted, were "a trend that appears to be blurring the boundaries of literary and commercial fiction." Sebold, for her part, was elated by all the attention. "I've been such a miserable failure my whole life," she enthused in an Entertainment Weekly interview with Karen Valby, "this feels great!"

Born in the early 1960s, Sebold spent her formative years in suburban Philadelphia. Her mother was a journalist for a local paper, while her father was a professor of Spanish at the Ivy-League University of Pennsylvania. She had an older sister who excelled in school, and while Sebold was also a good student, she was the self-admitted joker in her family. It was a way of coping with the stress inside the household, which she dissected years later in her memoir, Lucky. Her parents were undemonstrative, and her mother suffered from panic attacks and endured a secret drinking problem for a number of years. Because her parents were more intellectual than their neighbors in their upper-middle-class world, Sebold recalled that they were considered somewhat "weird," a tag that followed her into college.

Sebold chose to attend Syracuse University—in part to distance herself from her family—and it was there, near the end of her freshman year, that she was attacked while walking back to her dormitory on the evening of the last day of school for the year. She struggled with her assailant, but was badly beaten and bloodied. After sexually assaulting her in a tunnel that was once the stage entrance to a now-closed amphitheater, he let her go. She managed to make it back to her dorm, and was taken from there to a local hospital. When she gave the police her account of the rape, one cop told her that the tunnel had been the site of where a young woman was once murdered and dismembered, and made the offhand remark that Sebold was "lucky" to have walked away.

Sebold's rapist was caught, convicted, and given a maximum prison sentence, but the ordeal was far from over. She recounts in Lucky, her 1999 memoir centered around the experience, that she lost friends over it, and that even her father was disdainful that she had not put up more enough of a struggle. Somewhat surprisingly, Sebold returned to school in Syracuse, and after graduating headed to the University of Houston for a brief attempt at graduate school. She eventually settled in New York City, where she planned to become a writer. For years, she lived in the East Village—during its rattiest period, before it was an acceptable post-college, bar-and-restaurant-filled enclave—while working as a research analyst and teaching English as an adjunct instructor at Hunter College on the side. She wrote fiction and poetry, but her submissions were met with rejection. It took her several years to emerge from her post-assault experience, she admitted, and recalled her 20s as a period in which she dated the wrong men, drank too much, snorted heroin for three years, and took part in daring stunts like climbing to the top of the Manhattan Bridge.

Finally, Sebold wrote a New York Times article about her rape, which led to an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. A sentence from her article was quoted a few years later in a book called Trauma and Recovery, about post-traumatic stress disorder. As she explained in an interview with the Guardian 's Katharine Viner, reading that book was a turning point in her life. "I was failing miserably in New York, I'd written two novels that weren't published," she recalled. "And I realized I was quoted in the 'trauma' section of the book, but not in 'recovery.'" She found a therapist, and spent the next three years coming to terms with the assault. Finally, she decided to leave New York City after nearly a decade there. This was around 1994, and her plan was to move to California. "I couldn't handle the rejection and the failure anymore and the 'almost' of it all," she told Valby in the Entertainment Weekly interview about her decision. "Everybody from New York has their almost-but-not-quite story, and I just felt like I don't want to be walking around on the planet trotting out mine."

Sebold applied to graduate school in California, but was determined to relocate no matter what. "If I didn't get in I was going to buy a dozen nude-colored panty hose and get an office job in Temecula, California," she said in the interview with Valby. Accepted into the master of fine arts writing program at the University of California's Irvine campus, she took out a student loan, and met her future husband on the first day of school. She earned her M.F.A. in 1998, and a year later Lucky was published by Scribner. Its title, of course, was the word that the police officer had used in an attempt to console her. The work earned good reviews, with Publishers Weekly describing it as a "fiercely observed memoir about how an incident of such profound violence can change the course of one's life," but failed to catch on with readers. After disappointing sales of about 14,000 in hardcover, it was not even released in paperback.

Yet Sebold had already started the manuscript that would become her first published novel, The Lovely Bones. She felt compelled to chronicle her own traumatic experience first, she told Christina Patterson in an interview that appeared in London's Independent. "When I felt a sense of polemic entering the novel, I realised that I had to get myself out of there," she admitted. Finally, she finished The Lovely Bones manuscript, and it netted her a two-book deal with Little, Brown. As advance copies began circulating in the months prior to its June of 2002 publication date, a publishing-industry and bookseller buzz began to attach to it.

The Lovely Bones is told in the first-person voice of Susie Salmon, who tells readers in the book's second sentence, "I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." She recounts the crime in horrific detail: being lured by a sinister neighbor to a field, then sexually assaulted. She fought back, but was no match for the man she knew as Mr. Harvey. "I wept," Susie recalls. "I began to leave my body; I began to inhabit the air and silence. I wept and struggled so I would not feel."

Police never find Susie's remains, save for an elbow, for Harvey had put her body inside a safe and buried it in quicksand. Susie chronicles the posthumous events from above—the police investigation, her father's belief that the culprit was indeed their neighbor, the grief and detachment that drives her mother into an adulterous affair and abandonment of Susie's teenage sister and very young brother. In heaven, Sebold reveals, "life" is somewhat better. Apparently the afterlife is tailored to the desires of the individual, and Susie's is a teenage girl's version of heaven: she goes to school, but there are no teachers, and the textbooks are fashion magazines. She lives in duplex with a friend, has unlimited access to peppermint ice cream, and there are also lots of dogs around. An "intake counselor" serves as her new mentor in the afterlife, and Franny helps Susie realize that she is not in heaven quite yet, and must first break the chains to her earthly relationships. The Salmons eventually reknit the fabric of their family together, Harvey comes to a violent end, and Susie's best friend discovers she has a strong ability to connect with the departed.

Reviewing The Lovely Bones in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani gave it high praise. "What might play as a sentimental melodrama in the hands of a lesser writer becomes in this volume a keenly observed portrait of familial love," Kakutani noted, "and how it endures and changes over time." The Times ' notoriously frank critic did concede that the plot falters toward the end, but "even these lapses do not diminish Ms. Sebold's achievements: her ability to capture both the ordinary and the extraordinary, the banal and the horrific, in lyrical, unsentimental prose; her instinctive understanding of the mathematics of love between parents and children; her gift for making palpable the dreams, regrets, and unstilled hopes of one girl and one family," Kakutani concluded.

Sebold's debut novel spent weeks on the best-seller list, and Little, Brown even ponied up funds for a television advertising campaign—a rare occurrence for a first-time fiction writer. For several weeks, The Lovely Bones outsold competition that included titles from Nicholas Sparks, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy, and was selling at the rate of a million copies a month at one point. Perhaps more impressively, it had not even enjoyed the boost of being included in television personality Oprah Winfrey's hitmaking book club, either. A writer for London's Guardian newspaper, Ali Smith, theorized about the appeal of Sebold's book for American readers. "Perhaps the reason," Smith noted, "is something to do with the aftermath of public mourning after [the 2001 terrorist attacks], the reassurance and satisfaction of being able to hear the voice of the gone and to piece together the future after cataclysm."

The Lovely Bones was optioned for film, and in early 2005 the director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson, signed on to the project. Creating the "heaven" from which Susie tells her story was a challenge for any filmmaker without resorting to fluffy clouds or other potentially ludicrous imagery, but Jackson had also done Heavenly Creatures, a cult-classic New Zealand film from earlier in his career based on a true story of two teenage girls whose elaborate fantasy life seems to propel them to commit murder. The film version of The Lovely Bones was slated for a late 2007 release.

Sebold spent some of her best-seller earnings on retiling the bathroom of the home she shares with her husband, Glen David Gold, whose first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, was also a literary sensation. They live in Long Beach, California, where Sebold rises at 3 in the morning to write. She even managed to make a success out of the disappointing first book, Lucky which was reissued in paperback and racked up impressive sales in 2003, thanks to the success of The Lovely Bones. Sebold hoped that, in the end, the aura of shame, of victimhood, that attached to women who had experienced a traumatic sexual assault would dissipate. Such an event, she noted, is "a story of survival, which is actually heroic," she pointed out in the interview with Viner in the Guardian. "The stereotype is that you're always weak or passive or falling apart—so you don't talk about it because if you do, people will change their opinion of what you're capable of. When the truth is that you're probably capable of a lot more if you survived rape."

Selected writings

Lucky (memoir), Scribner (New York, NY), 1999.

The Lovely Bones: A Novel, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2002.

Sources

Periodicals

Book, July/August 2002, p. 64.

Booklist, July 1999, p. 1903.

Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2002, p. 15.

Daily Variety, January 19, 2005, p. 1.

Economist, September 7, 2002.

Entertainment Weekly, July 12, 2002, p. 74; August 16, 2002, p. 39.

Guardian (London, England), August 17, 2002, p. 21; August 24, 2002, p. 18.

Independent (London, England), June 6, 2003, p. 4.

New Statesman, August 19, 2002, p. 39; June 30, 2003, p. 51.

New York Times, June 18, 2002, p. E1; July 14, 2002, p. 14; October 21, 2002, p. C7.

Publishers Weekly, June 21, 1999, p. 44; June 17, 2002, p. 41; July 29, 2002, p. 22; December 23, 2002, p. 15.

Time, July 1, 2002, p. 62.

Online

Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.

—Carol Brennan



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