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Meet the WritersImage of Jacquelyn Mitchard
Jacquelyn Mitchard
"Jacquelyn Mitchard has considered changing her name legally to The Deep End of the Ocean. This is because her own name is much less well-known than the title of her first book," so read the opening lines of Mitchard's biography on her web site. Granted, the writer is best known for the novel that holds the distinct honor of being the very first pick in Oprah Winfrey's book club, but Mitchard is also responsible for a number of other bestsellers, all baring her distinctive ability to tackle emotional subject matter without lapsing into cloying sentimentality.

Mitchard got her start as a newspaper journalist in the ‘70s, but first established herself as a writer to watch in 1985 when she published Mother Less Child, a gut wrenching account of her own miscarriage. Though autobiographical in nature, Mother Less Child introduced the themes of grief and coping that would often resurface in her fiction. These themes were particularly prevalent in the debut novel that would nab Mitchard her greatest notoriety. The Deep End of the Ocean tells of the depression that grips a woman and her son following the disappearance of her younger son. Like Mother Less Child, the novel was also based on a personal tragedy, the death of her husband, and the author's very real grief contributes to the emotional authenticity of the book.

The Deep End of the Ocean became a commercial and critical smash, lauded by every publication from People Magazine to Newsweek. It exemplified Mitchard's unique approach to her subject. In lesser hands, such a story might have sunk into precious self-reflection. However Mitchard approaches her story as equal parts psychological drama and suspenseful thriller. "I like to read stories in which things happen," she told Book Reporter. "I get very impatient with books that are meditations - often beautiful ones - on a single character's thoughts and reactions. I like a story that roller coasters from one event to the next, peaks and valleys."

The Deep End of the Ocean undoubtedly changed Mitchard's life. She was still working part time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison writing speeches when the novel got Oprah's seal of approval and went into production as a major motion picture starring Michelle Pfeiffer. She didn't even consider leaving her job until, as she recounted to Book, "my boss finally said to me, ‘You know, kiddo, people whose books have sold this many copies and are being made into movies don't have this part-time job.'" So, she left her job despite misgivings and embarked upon a writing career that would produce such powerful works as The Most Wanted, Twelve Times Blessed, and The Breakdown Lane. She has also written two non-fictional volumes about peace activist Jane Addams.

Mitchard's latest Cage of Stars tells of Veronica Swan, a twelve-year old girl living in a Mormon community whose life is completely upturned when her sisters are murdered. Again, a story of this nature could have easily played out as a banal tear jerker, but Mitchard allows Veronica to take a more active role in the novel, setting out to avenge the death of her sisters. Consequently, Case of Stars is another example of Mitchard's ability to turn the tables on convention and produce a story with both emotional resonance and a page-turning narrative, making for a novel created with the express purpose of pleasing her fans. "Narrative is not in fashion in the novels of our current era; reflection is," she told Book Reporter. "But buying a book and reading it is a substantial investment of time and money. I want to take readers on a journey full circle. They deserve it."

  (Mike Segretto)

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Good to Know
Mitchard is certainly most famous for her sophisticated adult novels, yet she has also written two children's novels, Rosalie and Starring Prima, as well as Baby Bat's Lullaby, a picture book. She currently has three new children's books in development.

Now that Mitchard has officially scored a successful writing career, what could be left for the writer to achieve? Well, according to her web site, her "truest ambition" is to make an appearance on the popular TV show Law and Order.

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In the spring of 2005, Jacquelyn Mitchard took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
There were two books: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote made me understand the elegance of simplicity and the urgency of thorough, obsessive research, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This book profoundly illustrates the kind of book that that I might one day hope to write. It tells universal truths about poverty, loss, decency, pity, love, maturity and courage, through the vehicle of a deceptively simple story.

Another big influence was In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden, a British author best known for her children's books, and National Velvet by Enid Bagnold, whose style as a writer I think was the most influential on mine (almost too much). It's a wonderful, beautiful book, evocative from the first paragraph establishing the Cornwall countryside as a character; not a "young person's" book exclusively any more than Charlotte's Web.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote -- This early sixties story was the first example of "reative realism," and its even-handed portrayal of the victims and the murderers, the society that surrounded them, the sympathy and the grace.... I fell to my knees in admiration.

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith -- It's a deceptively simple story of Irish immigrants, but told through the eyes of the perceptive, dreamy, ambitious Francie Nolan. This was the book I wished I could write, and wished I would write.

  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë -- The obsessive, willful, hopeless love of Heathcliff and Catherine is way over the top. How can anyone fail to be swept away?

  • Andersonville by McKinlay Kantor -- This tale of human cruelty and ultimate justice, told through the eyes of Confederate prisoners, is what made me understand that history was only the stories of people at the lyric turning point in their lives.

  • Birds of America by Lorrie Moore -- Funny, perfect, pristine, the best short-story writer of my generation, Lorrie is my friend and I am her acolyte. She hits more three-baggers per page than anyone, without ever making it look on purpose.

  • Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner -- This straightforward and beautifully written story of a young professor and his wife, and their friendship with a dynamic faculty couple, is as poignant and powerful a portrayal of friendship over generations as has ever been written.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- Suffice it to say that the temporary loss of my copy, signed with regards by Nelle Harper, sent me to bed for a day. This is the book for any writer, obviously. My son nearly got expelled from class when his teacher read the passage in which Atticus, who has delivered the closing argument of his life and knows he has lost his battle to save Tom Robinson, leaves the courtroom. The town reverend instructs Atticus's daughter, Jean Louise, to stand up, "your father's passing." The teacher started to cry and my son burst out laughing. She asked him, in that teacherly way, if he found something funny. He said helplessly, "Only that my mother can never read that part to us without crying either!"

  • Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen -- Kill me. I'm a hopeless romantic. I know the true story, and I know how vaguely racist and terribly overblown this story is; but the writing is undeniably majestic, suitable to the subject, and portrays a time that is lost forever, if it ever existed.

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- The bard of Minnesota inadvertently (perhaps) told of his own insecurity and foiled ambition through the story of the blowsy, boastful Jay Gatsby and the callow Nick Carroway. This book closes with the most magnificent passage in all American literature.

  • The Woman in Black by Susan Hill -- There is one great ghost story besides Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, this is it -- the winner and heavyweight champion.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

  • To Kill a Mockingbird -- I love this for the same reasons as the book; it is the ultimate story about the quiet that embodies real courage. I see Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and the young Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.

  • Out of Africa -- This is redundant, but I cannot resist Meryl Streep, no matter what her accent.

  • The Hours -- Another movie that was somehow loyal to the literary masterpiece by Michael Cunningham. The misbegotten understanding of the luxuries of the literary life, as portrayed by Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris, were unforgettable.

  • The Member of the Wedding -- You made me include only ten books; and this way I get to mention the luminous young Julie Harris and the song "His Eye is On the Sparrow."

  • Broadcast News -- I think this is the greatest screenplay, perhaps, ever written. I laugh; I cry; I am proud to have been a reporter for thirty years.

  • About a Boy -- Faithful to the brilliant book by Nick Hornby, this mordant, hysterical movie about a guy who masquerades as a single father is too funny and insightful for words.

  • Love, Actually -- Listen, I'm a sap.

  • The Knight's Tale -- My family and I are obsessed with this movie. Heath Ledger doesn't hurt.

  • Boys Don't Cry -- I thought that if Hilary Swank didn't win an Oscar for this movie, they should break the mold and never use it again. If anyone could see this story, no matter what his or her orientation, and not be moved, that person has no soul.

  • West Side Story -- This was the first "grownup" movie I ever saw. It also was the first Broadway musical. I was awestruck, and even in the fourth grade, I knew it was meant to suggest Romeo and Juliet.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    Oh, please. Music is my whole life. Show tunes, rock, punk, rap, classical -- while writing A Theory of Relativity, I listened to Claire de Lune twenty-seven times straight. My true talent is not writing, but knowing the lyrics of just about every pop song, including the Disney ones, since about 1938. Try to stump me. I listen to about everything except German opera.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    We'd be reading The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, in case someone else missed the classic novel of Gettysburg, or, if we read modern books, we'd be reading Lorrie Moore's novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? or Alice Elliott Dark's wonderful book Think of England.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I like to give, as gifts, a writer's whole oeuvre -- unless it's 120 books -- like all of Martha Grimes, or Michael Cunningham, or Jane Hamilton, or Grace Paley or Penelope Lively.

    For babies, I like to give what I think are each of the seminal books for the first five years of life.

    I also like to give signed books. They are indeed relics. My very favorite gift even given me, besides the Harper Lee book, was a first edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn made out by Betty Smith to her agent, given me by my agent. When I opened the book, letters to him from her fell out, describing her marriage, after knowing the man only a few weeks, to the love of her life -- I'd known my husband only five weeks when we married. I cried so hard my whole family had tears in their eyes.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I always get dressed and brush my teeth, but I have no office. I write on a writing desk with a laptop computer, or in my bed, where I can see the hills and trees.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    My first novel was bought by the first publisher who saw it -- in three days. Then I experienced bad reviews, slow sales, a climb back onto the lists and to some respect. It was a reverse life.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
    I wish everyone would read Dean Bakapoulous' novel Please Don't Come Back From the Moon or Tenaya Darlington's Maybe Baby.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Stop waiting! Have scathingly brilliant ideas and send them to agents today!

    Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview:

    "I got my first job at a newspaper this way: I'd been fired from my teaching job, mostly for teaching about Martin Luther King in a very rich, backwater town of white country squire types, and was working as a waitress in a German restaurant. I had to wear a dirndl and puffed sleeves. I was on my dinner break -- anyone who has ever worked in food service knows you don't eat where you work because you've seen the food made -- and I walked past a storefront that said ‘REPORTERS WANTED.' I thought, ‘I can do that.'"

    So I walked in, and it was all dark, except in the back where a small man was sitting on a high stool scribbling in a notebook. He had on Kelly green pants and a red-and-white striped shirt. He looked up and asked, ‘Why are you dressed like that?' I responded, ‘Why are you dressed like that?' He hired me to cover the sewer and water commission.

    I was uniquely qualified, since I'm a plumber's daughter. And, oh, yes, we got married six years later. My husband Dan was a wonderful writer and editor, and a very stern taskmaster about my writing. He died eleven years ago from colon cancer, leaving three sons, aged nine, six, and three. His last name was Allegretti, an Italian musical term that means "quick" or "lively." When I met Chris, the second love of my life, five years later, his last name was Sornberger, with a soft "G," a Danish name. He wanted to adopt the boys and the daughter I had since adopted, but the older boys said, "How will we ever fit both names on a driver's license?" So Chris, who is a real sweetie, changed his last name, taking his middle name – Brent -- as a last name, for the children's sake."

    You cannot stump me on the lyrics to a song I have heard. I know more lyrics to show tunes than any gay man living. I love horses, but am currently forbidden to ride since breaking both my hands and dislocating a hip in a fall two years ago (and it was, to be fair, during a jump, and, to be fair, the horse, not I, decided to jump the fence). I would have twelve children if I could. I'm still as excited about writing as I was when I wrote the first words of my first novel. I love research. I'm currently researching, for a character, social communication among bats. I love bats. You know, they're not rodents. They're an order of their own, the largest order of mammal species on earth, chrontera, which means ‘winged hand.' Bats eat nearly 2,000 insects per hour, especially mosquitoes, another reason I love them, and they can live more than 30 years and raise only one pup each year, sleeping with their wings wrapped around their babies."

    "I love coffee and oysters."

    "I hate rudeness, of any kind -- on the road, on the phone, from people who want my money but don't want to give me simple civility. I don't give my children things they don't ask for nicely. I believe in chores and no grades below B's unless the teacher is a real heller. I know people really do mind if your dog jumps up on them; so I've trained mine to stop on command."

    "I think a great many writers are braggarts and phonies. Not my friends. But other people. They brag about Saul Bellow as if having known Bellow makes them smarter. I knew Arthur Miller; it made me more humble. I'm not much on braggarts, of any variety. People hear you best when you whisper, I was once told by someone who'd won a Pulitzer Prize."

    "I've had children every possible way you can have one: by marriage, the regular way, through adoption, IVF and surrogacy."

    "I think thunderstorms are the sexiest thing."

    "I love spiders; but I have a mortal terror of worms, not snakes. I've picked up a nine-foot King snake, but I will not touch a worm."

    "I'm allergic to chocolate, which led to one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I was in Washington, D.C. for the second Clinton inaugural, and I was in a bookstore, standing in line. The Deep End of the Ocean was all over the store, and I was telling my date -- a guy I couldn't stand -- about my allergy to chocolate. When I got up to the front and got out my credit card, the woman at the counter said, "I really want to shake your hand." Naturally, I thought it was because my book had been number one on the bestseller lists for months. I thought that, upon seeing my credit card, she recognized my name as the author of The Deep End of the Ocean. But she said, ‘I've never met anyone else who's allergic to chocolate!'"

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  • About the Writer
    *Jacquelyn Mitchard Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *Mother Less Child, 1985
    *Jane Addams, 1991
    *Jane Addams: Peace Activist, 1992
    *The Deep End of the Ocean, 1996
    *The Rest of Us: Dispatches from the Mother Ship, 1997
    *The Most Wanted, 1998
    *Twelve Times Blessed, 2003
    *The Breakdown Lane, 2005
    *Cage of Stars, 2006
    *Now You See Her, 2007
    *Still Summer, 2007