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'The Deep End of the Ocean'
Author Jacquelyn Mitchard
|Mitchard discusses her first nove, 'The Deep End of the Ocean'
Is this the stuff of dreams?
Web posted on:
Friday, March 12, 1999 1:31:49 PM
By Andy Culpepper
Turner Entertainment Report Senior Correspondent
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Many people find themselves battling disbelief when wild success overwhelms them unexpectedly, as in, "I never dreamed this would happen to me."
Writer Jacquelyn Mitchard might add her own wry footnote to that phrase.
She sits for this interview in the shaded courtyard of a friend's Marina Del Rey townhouse and fields a reporter's questions, ostensibly about her latest novel, "The Most Wanted". It's the last bit of business for Mitchard before boarding a plane to fly home to her other life as a print journalist in Madison, Wisconsin.
From the outset, it's clear her new book will not inspire the bulk of the afternoon's questions.
With "The Most Wanted", her second work of fiction, Mitchard finds herself in the thankless position of battling the expectations created by her enormously popular debut novel, "The Deep End of the Ocean".
The movie adaptation -- starring three-time Oscar nominee Michelle Pfeiffer -- likely guarantees enormous sales of the paperback version of her book.
Did she write the screenplay? No, says Mitchard. "You know, there are some things in life that you know will make you crazy if you do them, and you try to turn left before you head right into one of them."
No matter. Mitchard has become, in effect, her own hard act to follow, and many of her original readers have let her know it.
"Some of them have been afraid to read ("The Most Wanted") because it's so different. I think it's because the mother and child -- the theme about rescuing a child and trying to cope with loss was so strong in 'The Deep End of the Ocean.'"
With "The Deep End of the Ocean", Mitchard fashioned a story about a mother who copes with the unsolved disappearance of her young son. The tale of loss and redemption let loose a literary tide quite unexpected -- indeed, unprecedented in publishing circles. Mitchard went from a forty-something columnist and single mom to mass media sensation.
Could she have dreamed of this? Such a notion.
The novel hit bookstores in June 1996, but the storyline was actually revealed to Mitchard a few years earlier in the form of, yes, a dream. It was not the metaphorical "I always imagined I'd write a novel" exercise in wishful thinking, but an honest-to-goodness asleep-in-your-bed dream.
And get this: Mitchard came upon the idea for her second novel the same way. "I should be asleep now, I know," she laughs.
"I had a dream that was a story, and I wasn't a part of the story. And it was the first time in my life I had ever had a dream that was such a complete narrative I wasn't a part of," she says matter-of-factly. "And it just wouldn't leave me alone. And so when I was looking for something to take a huge risk on, after I was widowed five years ago, that was what I chose."
Mitchard's husband of 13 years had died. She was bringing up five children on her own. She had written a nationally-syndicated column -- "The Rest of Us" -- for more than a decade. Although she had authored two non-fiction books, she had never tried her hand at creating a work of fiction.
"I had to borrow the time, really, from my family and my friends. My family
and my friends let me lean on them," Mitchard recalls.
Fear and self-doubt were also constant companions. But so was Jane Hamilton, a close friend and an accomplished novelist in her own right.
"I'd never tried it before, I had no experience in it, I'd never taken a class in it, I didn't even know whether I could do creative writing. Plus I didn't have much money ... I didn't have any time. (Hamilton) said, 'those are all really good excuses. Nonetheless, they are excuses, and if this story wants you to write it, you should do it.'"
Mitchard hid out in an artist's colony and worked on the first 70 pages which she sent to her agent -- along with a request for a $10,000 advance to finish the book. Instead, as goes the story, her agent countered with an offer of $500,000.
Mitchard suddenly had deep pockets to help her "Deep End" come to fruition. It began a steady ascent up the bestseller charts.
One interested bystander was Oprah Winfrey. As Mitchard remembers it, "The Deep End of the Ocean" was doing quite well at that time, particularly for a first novel.
"But then it went into some sort of warp state," Mitchard emphasizes, amazement still registering in her voice some two years later. "It was beyond anything."
Winfrey used "The Deep End of the Ocean" to kick off her now-famous book club. The TV personality's legendary enthusiasm for writers reportedly had her sending a certain New Age guru's tome to a hundred friends.
So what sparked Winfrey's interest in Mitchard's book?
"I don't know exactly," Mitchard says as she considers the notion of her novel striking such a responsive chord with television's most powerful woman.
"What she said was that it was one of the books in her life that was transformative for her, that made her understand family bonds, and the way that family bonds suffer and are remade in tragedy -- better than 10 years of doing a talk show had helped her understand that. That's what she said."
The story was also attracting notice from Hollywood. There were calls from agents, producers, and actors. Someone gave the book to Michelle Pfeiffer, and in short order the movie deal was struck. (The producers went so far as to buy the rights to Mitchard's life story.)
Pfeiffer, who plays protagonist Beth, forged a strong, if unconscious, bond with the author. Both women were the single mothers of adopted daughters, and Mitchard's treatment of parent-child relationships wasn't lost on Pfeiffer.
"For me, I think ... what the movie is about is that our traditional way of defining family doesn't always apply," says the actress. "I think that ... we see a lot of change around us, and a lot more awareness of that, and you know that so much of what defines a family is not always genetic and biological."
Redefining family appears to be a theme running through Mitchard's work and, indeed, through her life.
Before the interview is concluded she deftly turns the conversation back to her second novel. It's the story of two rather unconventional relationships -- including a romance between a 14-year-old girl and a much older convict in a Texas penitentiary.
This is no romance novel, she insists, but rather another book about what family is and isn't. "The kind that you're born with and the kind you create sometimes. The kind you choose -- if you're lucky enough to find
a family better than the one you're born with."
To hear Mitchard tell it, the philosophy goes way beyond sentiment -- it's a theme taken straight from the pages of her life. "I feel many of us create alternative families who stand beside us in a way that our birth families never could, no matter our perils or our choices."
And when the author is asked to read a passage from her new book, who does she summon from its pages? Mitchard's choice is her 14-year-old protagonist, a determined teen-aged girl named Arlington.
In a clear, determined voice of her own, she reads:
"If I had to do it over I have to think I wouldn't do it the way I did. But I
guess that wouldn't have been me. You don't get to recognize your destiny for
what it is because it comes to you piece by piece, once you've got it. It might
be full of grief or happy but you know it's yours."
Jacquelyn Mitchard, widowed mother of five and bestselling author, closes the book and smiles. "I like it," she says. "I believe it, actually."
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'Deep End of the Ocean' Movie Website
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