First Book -- Sans Agent -- Printed By Random House

Countian's Novel, "Carpool," Is Literary Guild Selection

June 30, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

It happens about as often as hitting green lights all the way out Route 40, and it's happening to Mary Cahill.

The Ellicott City resident's name is not a household word yet, but in September, New York publisher Random House hopes to make it one. With a 35,000-run printingof her first novel, "Carpool," the publisher will send her across the country to promote the book, which has already been sold to the Literary Guild book club.

The book's protagonist is a housewife who discovers murder and espionage while driving about suburbia.

Described by Random House as"a novel of suburban frustration" and the country's first "suburban mystery," the book was discovered in a pile of unsolicited manuscripts called the "slush pile."

Publication of such obscure works is a once-in-a-decade event for some publishers, while others don't even spend money to sift through them.

But the 46-year-old Dunloggin resident's novel caught the eye of a young editorial assistant at RandomHouse, and this fall the publisher will send Cahill on the "first-ever suburban book tour."

The tour will take Cahill to the United States' most prominent suburbs, including Scarsdale, N.Y., Winnetka, Ill., and yes, even Columbia, Md.

Cahill is following in the footsteps of authors such as Tom Clancy and Judith Guest, who also were discovered in publishers' "slush piles."

"It was closest to me in the pile. That's the way it works," said Jennifer Ash, the Random House editorial assistant who picked "Carpool."

She is one of a team of editors, assistant editors and editorial assistants who every one or two months sift though unsolicited manuscripts, which arrive at a rateof about 75 a week. Ash has since been promoted to associate editor,in part because of her find.

"Her cover letter said something about all the millions of Americans that are being car-pooled a year, and I grew up being car-pooled," said Ash, who grew up in the New York City suburb of West Orange, N.J.

The book conveys "the frustrationof carting your kids around," Ash said, adding that "it had a kind of Erma Bombeck flavor to it.

"I thought this is probably what my mother and father were thinking when I used to ask them for rides," Ash said.

On the advice of Random House publicist Peter Vertes, Cahill declined requests for interviews.

Vertes said he preferred all interviews to coincide with the book's publicity campaign.

The book's 35,000 first printing is "quite large for a first novel," Ash said.

Ash wouldn't disclose what the Literary Guild paid for "Carpool," except to say that it was "into the five digits."

While not exactly famous, Cahill has plenty of other writing experience. Her columns have been published in The Evening Sun, the Washington Post and Modern Maturity magazine.

She also did research for the Barry Levinson film, "Diner," and was named "Baltimore's Best Humorist" by William Donald Schaefer when he was still the city's mayor.

Her humor columns draw on her experiences with her husband, Dr. Edward Cahill, 46, and her two children, Ted, 19, and Katie, 15. From her suburban viewpoint, she has poked fun at opera obsessions, managed to connect dairy farming to the Strategic Defense Initiative, and even examined howhumor can be a way of coping with the death of a loved one.

And what do suburbanites on the Cahill's cul-de-sac think of their neighbor's success?

"We're really happy for her. Why not? They're really good neighbors," said Robert L. Hylton, a 61-year-old retired businessman.

The Hyltons and Cahills have lived on half-acre lots across the street from each other for more than a decade, he said.

While Hylton said he is planning to get the book when it comes out, 13-year-old John Sniscak, another neighbor, is not so sure.

"I'm not sure, 'cause I don't know that much about it. I might," he explained.

Like Ash, Sniscak said he can relate to the idea of being car-pooled about "to the pool, to school and stuff because I don't use the bus."He said he doesn't use the school bus because there's always a work-bound parent handy.

Cahill's past writings reveal the sort of comic flair that got her noticed by Random House.

A 1987 op-ed column in The Evening Sun begins:

"There's a dead gerbil in my freezer.

"It's in a brown paper lunch bag marked 'Lenny, R.I.P.'

"It's not the dead gerbil that bothers me so much as the thought that someonemight reach in the bag in the dark, thinking they're going to sneak some brownies, and when they pull out Lenny, they might drop dead, too, and then I'd have another cadaver to deal with. I don't know what I'd do with the other one; the rest of the freezer's full of peaches,and the ground, under two feet of snow, is frozen too hard to bury anybody, which is why the damned gerbil's in the freezer in the first place."

A 1973 graduate of Towson State University with a master'sdegree in childhood education, Cahill began her paid writing career in the late 1970s, writing a bimonthly column in the now-defunct Howard County Journal.

In 1980, she scrounged for 1960s nostalgia to lend authenticity to the movie, "Diner," for which she was paid $500 aweek for six weeks.

She said she was "in the kitchen, minding my own business" when a friend called to tell her about the job.

"I threw down my dishrag, sent the kids to a neighbor, drove to town and got the job," she said in a 1982 Howard County Sun interview.

In 1982, she received a $5,000 fellowship from the Maryland Arts Council for her screenplay, "Easy Winners," which was based on her experiencedoing research for "Diner."

She said at the time she planned to use the money to get her writing career geared up and start working ona novel.

"I'm going to set aside some of the money for baby-sitting," she said then. "I need somebody to gainfully employ the childrenwhile I'm doing some of the big projects I have planned."

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