As Alice Sebold relates in her chilling memoir Lucky, she was considered fortunate for surviving a violent, devastating rape in her freshman year at Syracuse University. The woman before her had not been so "lucky": She was murdered and dismembered.
The shadow of this fact survives in Sebold's acclaimed bestseller The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by another not-so-lucky victim from beyond the grave. It's such a maudlin premise that the book shouldn't have been successful -- in fact, Sebold's editor has told the author that the manuscript never would have been bought if she had been told what it was about before reading it.
But in her ability to convey the brutal details of crime and its aftermath -- both the imagined instance and the real -- Sebold proved herself a gripping writer. In a style that is straightforward but more than reportorial, she projected in The Lovely Bones the pitch-perfect voice of a dead 14-year-old girl who, from her vantage point in heaven, remains engaged with life on earth. The book was a sensation and appeared on most "best books" lists for 2002.
Five years later, Sebold produced The Almost Moon, the chilling tale of a woman driven by circumstances to commit an unspeakable act. The novel begins with one of the most arresting first lines in recent memory: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily."
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Sebold is married to author Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil. The two met when Sebold was in the fiction writing program at University of California, Irvine.
Part of the aftermath of Sebold's traumatic rape in college was a long period of self-abuse, including heroin addiction. After a hard trial in New York trying (and failing) to get published, Sebold decided to leave the city and ultimately applied to grad school at Irvine. ''I couldn't handle the rejection and the failure anymore...and the 'almost' of it all,'' she told Entertainment Weekly. ''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 says that her continued failures ended up creating a good mindset for her writing. "After a while, you don't think what can't be done and what can be done, because no one's going to care anyway," she said in an Associated Press interview. "You just go and have fun in your room, which is what, to me, art should be about anyway."
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From the July/August 2002 issue of Book magazine
When Alice Sebold went to the police after her horrific rape, they told her another girl had been attacked in the same place -- and killed. In comparison, the cops said, she was lucky. Sebold didn't think so:
A freshman at Syracuse University, she felt like her life was over. But in 1999, she published a memoir about the brutal 1981 assault, titled Lucky. Now, more than two decades after the attack, that word might finally be an accurate description of a writer whose new book, The Lovely Bones, is being touted as one of the season's major titles, and of a woman who finds herself, much to her surprise, in love and married. "I have a lot to be grateful for," she says.
Not that she's left the darkness behind entirely. In The Lovely Bones, Sebold, 39, tells the story of a grieving family's struggle to rebuild after the eldest daughter is murdered. The book -- told from the 14-year-old girl's perspective in heaven -- is more about heaven than about death, more about comfort than pain. "I think it walks the landscape that few writers -- or people -- can enter," says friend and fellow writer Aimee Bender. "Alice does it with this incredible grace."
The Lovely Bones represents the realization of one of Sebold's lifelong goals that was sidetracked by her life. "It wasn't my dream to grow up, get raped and write a book about it," she says bluntly. "I always dreamed of being a novelist."
After graduating from Syracuse in 1984, Sebold spent some time at graduate school in Texas before she ended up living in projects on the east side of Manhattan. She pursued writing but, she says, failed miserably. Instead, she found herself piecing together a life of teaching, working in restaurants, drinking and taking drugs. She says she did things she's ashamed of and things she doesn't remember. She scaled the heights of the Manhattan Bridge one night, and she says she can't explain why.
After ten years in the city, Sebold fled for the West. In California she got a job as a caretaker of an arts colony, where she made $386 a month, lived in an electricity-free, cinder block-and-plywood cabin and tried to educate urbanites on the charms of rural life. She read and wrote by the glow of propane lights. It was a vast improvement over the life she had abandoned. "All of this," Sebold says, "seemed easier than trying to make it as a writer while living in the East Village, wondering what pair of black pants to wear."
But she still wanted to write. So when she was accepted in 1995 to the prestigious MFA program at the University of California at Irvine, Sebold left the wilderness. At Irvine she began Lucky and started something else as well: a relationship with fellow writer Glen David Gold, who last year published the acclaimed Carter Beats the Devil. "Glen came in late to orientation and couldn't get his motorcycle helmet off, so he had to sit through orientation with his helmet on," Sebold recalls. "We immediately hit it off."
If falling for someone because he couldn't get out of a helmet sounds a little, well, odd, that's about right. "I have always felt extremely weird," she says proudly. "But I am very happy with my weirdnesses, and I want other people to be very happy with theirs." A photography book of chickens in headdresses is among her favorite possessions. She adopted her dog -- who, she was told, had been trained to sniff out drugs and bombs -- because she had a toothache and wanted to cheer herself up. And she locks up in certain kinds of conversations -- her husband says she'd rather sit in the corner reading Henry James than make small talk. "She doesn't do the 'Nice weather we've been having' thing," Gold says.
Gold -- who married Sebold in November 2001 after a courtship that included rides around Irvine on his purple BMW motorcycle and trips to the park for picnics in conjunction with basset hound festivals -- acknowledges that his wife has a few peculiar habits. Or, at least, has some unusual ways of dealing with tension: "When Alice has stress about certain people in her life, she sings rhyming couplets," Gold explains. "Some pretty hard R-rated lyrics will come around the house as Alice is expressing herself about how her day has been. So if you piss Alice off, you better hope your name is 'orange.' "
These days, though, Sebold has been able to put some distance between herself and her anger. After more than her fair share of harrowing moments, she will even acknowledge that she feels "very fortunate." And that writing dream? Two decades later, Alice Sebold just may become an overnight success.
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