Random House shifts Ellicott City author's novel into high gear 'CARPOOL' TAKES FAST LANE

August 16, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

You spend enough time in cars, schlepping the children -- your two and several others -- all over Howard County, and anything can happen. You can talk to the dog and feel cheated by life and wonder if it's all worth it.

Or you can write a novel -- right there in the car, scribbling down notes and impressions while waiting for another of the countless lessons, classes, ballgames, etc., to conclude and the kids to come bounding back into the car.

For Mary Cahill, a free-lance writer from Ellicott City, those stolen moments have become one of the unlikely success stories in publishing this year. At a time when most major publishers do not handle unsolicited manuscripts, her first novel was picked out of the slush pile at Random House. "Carpool," a witty, sometimes dark look at suburbia as seen by one eternally car pooling mother, will be published Sept. 3 with a first printing of 35,000 -- an unusually high figure for a first novel -- and an aggressive, cross-country marketing campaign.

And it all started with what Ms. Cahill calls "a smart remark."

"I can remember being at a party somewhere, and someone said, 'Well, what do you write?' " says Ms. Cahill, 47. "I was doing feature articles, commentary, magazine articles, but I just didn't want to get into that.

"So I said, 'Well, they say you write what you know, so I'm working on a novel called "Carpool." ' "

Ms. Cahill says this, as she does frequently, with self-deprecating wit, her dark brown eyes accentuating her smile with an amused look. "Carpool" is laced with her sardonic tone. Early on, her protagonist, Jenny Meade --like Ms. Cahill, with "short, curly hair and a rosy complexion" -- ruminates:

I'm thirty-five years old -- I began reciting the litany to myself -- I have a college degree; I've been co-owner of an air delivery service, and designed a safety device that is being used in all single-engine aircraft. And now, with three children in three different schools, I seem to be spending all of my time in a silver hatchback. If Henry Ford were alive I would strangle him.

Another time, Jenny nearly crashes into some cows that have wandered in front of her car while she is driving along a country road. She leaps out of the car and shouts sternly -- and reflexively -- to one of the offending animals: "GO TO YOUR ROOM!"

"Basically, the first thing that attracted me was the title, and the cover letter," says Jennifer Ash, the Random House editor who, as an editorial assistant, plucked "Carpool" from the slush pile. "I was raised in the suburbs. I thought: 'What new light could she shed on the car-pool suburbs?' Right off, though, I could see it was very funny."

Set in Howard County (called Clark County), "Carpool" details the life of four car-pooling women, whose social meetings must be squeezed into fleeting moments at local fast-food places before the next pickup of the little ones. It's not all suburban angst; "Carpool" soon becomes a mystery involving a suspicious death, espionage, illicit trysts and the continued destruction of the rural way of life in the county.

"Carpool" depicts an often empty existence for Jenny and her three car-pooling friends. Their husbands seem detached and unaware of their frustrations; the children take them for granted. Jenny wishes she could resume flying, but her life revolves around her battered '79 Honda. Meanwhile, she is growing ever more estranged from her husband.

Ms. Cahill acknowledges that she often depicts suburban life as depressing for many women. "Is it a dreadful life? Uh-huh," she says with a laugh. "There's certainly no satisfaction [in car pooling]. I don't think 20 years from now my children are going to say, 'You know I really appreciate you driving me around all that time.' They'll appreciate other things, but I know they won't appreciate that."

Yet, she says quickly, "Would you be better out in the city or better out on the farm? I don't think so. You've got different

problems if you're raising kids in the city. And I grew up on a farm. There's a lot of isolation there.

"You do it for the kids -- there were a lot of small kids when we moved here 15 years ago. And I have a lot of terrific friends who really support each other. This was the right place at the right time."

After growing up on a tobacco farm in Bowie, Ms. Cahill went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., then taught elementary school in several jurisdictions in the Washington-Baltimore area. When the children -- now 19 and 15 -- began school, she stayed home (her husband, Ed, is a pediatrician) and began the car pooling life.

She wrote one other novel before "Carpool," a long book about a network anchorman who is shot in the head and begins !c speaking Elizabethan English. No one was interested in it -- "They said it was really bizarre, and it is. But I still think it's better than 'Carpool.' "

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