WHEN RANDOM House called Mary Cahill with an offer to buy her book about a suburban homemaker caught up in a murder mystery, she replied that her agent would get in touch with them the next day.
Then the Ellicott City writer went out and found herself an agent.
"Once Random House wants to buy your book, it's very easy to get an agent, although no one would talk to me before that," she says. "It's like this: If you won the lottery today, you'd have no trouble getting a loan, right?"
Her novel, "Carpool," is a comic mystery. Its heroine, Jenny Meade, spends most of her time chauffeuring her three children to and from various schools while she dreams of recapturing her former life as a pilot. Along the way, she seeks friendship and guidance from the Old Moms' Network, a group of fellow car-poolers who meet regularly at McDonald's and become tangled in the plot.
One day as Jenny savors a few moments of solitude in the graveyard next to her daughter's nursery school, she stumbles upon the body of a neighbor. Before long, a plot teeming with murder, espionage and adultery transforms the monotonies of her daily driving route.
"Carpool" is filled with funny, sharp-edged observations that brighten the book like the old-time bouquets its characters buy from the local flower lady. It also seems destined for success, judging from Random House's publicity commitment.
Few books arrive with their own bumper stickers.
"Carpool" is also the first book to have its national tour mapped exclusively through the suburbs. Cahill will visit Winnetka, Bryn Mawr, Highland Park, Scarsdale, Greenwich, Brookline, Walnut Creek and Chevy Chase in pursuit of readers.
The campaign began several months ago when a small item in The Wall Street Journal celebrated the fact that the 46-year-old author had beat a million-to-one odds by selling her first novel to Random House without the help of an agent.
Cahill didn't appear on the scene quite as suddenly as the blurb would suggest. A free-lance writer for the past 11 years, she has written essays for the Washington Post and The Evening Sun as well as a bi-weekly humor column for the now defunct Howard County Journal. A screenplay she wrote after working as a researcher for the movie "Diner" won her a $5,000 grant from the Maryland State Arts Council in 1982. And she attended many writing seminars while working at home raising her two children, now teen-agers.
"One thing they say at all those conferences is to write about what you know," she says. "I figured that I could write about a car pool. If you drive the same route day in and day out, you really notice tiny changes along the way. I thought a character would notice some things that could lead to all kinds of interesting discoveries."
Cahill grew up on a tobacco farm in Bowie and got her bachelor's degree in English and Spanish from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. Although she had always loved writing, she believed she had nothing to say as a writer when she graduated from college. Instead, she taught elementary school in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties while her husband, now a pediatrician, went to the University of Maryland's medical school.
When her first child was born, she decided to stay home. Seven years later, when her second child was toddling around, the urge to write returned. She recalls it came quite unexpectedly one day while she was on jury duty.
"I found I had a lot to say because no one had listened to me for years!"
Before long, Cahill also found writing provided an important freedom.
"I like it because you have total control over what happens. That's why I like novels. In your life you can control nothing. So it's very therapeutic. And I do fantasize about things that I see, what this is like and what that is like. I really like doing research."
For "Carpool," Cahill attended FAA ground school at Howard Community College, hung around the county air field talking to pilots, and sought advice from an assortment of people in different professions.
She persuaded ABC newsman Sam Donaldson and the late Jerry Turner to serve as readers and advisers for another novel about a famous television news anchor who suffers a head injury and regains consciousness only able to speak Elizabethan English.
Frederick writer Jean Byrd, a close friend and colleague, praises Cahill's ironic sense of humor, a wit she suspects fuels her creativity.
In "Carpool," for instance, Jenny gets carpal tunnel syndrome from hours spent shifting gears in the service of others. She meets an esteemed sculptor who specializes in Objets du Chainsaw. She imagines herself soaring 5,500 feet above the frustrations of her life while her husband plans his escapes underground with caving buddies.
Cahill says she has relied upon the criticism and support of Byrd and such other writer friends as Marie Forbes, who writes for a newspaper in Carroll County. She spent two weeks in the Outer Banks with Byrd while they both revised their novels and critiqued them.
"I push my friends who are writers even harder than they push me," Cahill says. "When you're trying to do something and you have nothing to lose, give it a shot. All Sam Donaldson can say is, 'I'm too busy to see you.'
"Basically, you really have nothing to lose by sending your manuscript around. That's what I keep trying to tell them. There are four million publishers out there, you just gotta keep trying. . . . It takes a long time and just sheer, hard-headed perseverance."
Cahill runs a household, works part-time as an editor for a medical publishing company and still finds the discipline to sit down and write almost every day. As she works on her third novel, the story of the changing relationship between a mother and her son, she has found that a few more things -- like book tours and interviews -- are getting in the way.
"I feel better when I'm producing, I just feel better that way," she says.