Great Expectations Jenn Crowell's first novel will appear in bookstores in March. The Goucher College sophomore is poised on the brink of fame. But no one knows where it will take her. Holly Selby

February 16, 1997|By Researched by Andrea Wilson | Researched by Andrea Wilson,SUN STAFF

Stories flow from Jenn Crowell. Tales about 9-year-olds. Divorce. Horses. Road trips. British artists. At 4, she made up stories and asked her grandparents to write them down. In grade school, she wrote them herself and begged people to read her creations. In junior high, she refined them, sent them off to contests, then scribbled more. In the car. While eating. On the beach. During class.

By the time she was 17, she'd written a novel about a 30-year-old woman whose husband dies. Then, as always, she asked someone to read what she wrote.

This time, it was her professor, Madison Smartt Bell, writer-in-residence at Goucher College. In her work, Bell recognized a young writer with a maturity beyond her years, a writer already polished enough to be published. So he sent Crowell's manuscript to his agent in New York.

Now, at 18, Crowell is a teen-ager poised on the brink of adult-sized fame.

Maybe even bigger.

In three weeks, her first novel, "Necessary Madness," will be published by G.P. Putnam's Sons. She is being paid $150,000 for this book and for another as-yet-to-be-written novel -- not an enormous sum in the celebrity-driven world of publishing. But a startling amount for an unknown writer. Especially one so young.

In person, Crowell seems a mix of sophistication and youth. Her clothes are art-student funky; her straight blond hair is cut Peter-Pan style. A sophomore at Goucher College, she greets a visitor gravely, then gives a tiny, charming hop of excitement. You must excuse her, she says: She's running late, her Doc Martens got muddy during her last photo shoot, and she's had way too much coffee. She talks about "Necessary Madness" in much the same way.

"Madison said he thought [the novel] had serious commercial potential, and I thought, 'Wow,' " Crowell says. "All my life I've been as academic as the next person, and I always considered myself Little Miss Literary. I didn't see myself fitting into a genre, and I never thought, 'Oh, I'm going to write a best seller.' "

When Putnam editor Liza Dawson first read "Necessary Madness," "I was instantly transported by it," she says. But she admits, when Crowell's agent told her how old its creator was, "My heart started beating faster."

Crowell's age could make the book a sensation, propel it onto "Oprah" and into the pages of People magazine. Crowell's age could make her a star.

Since clinching the deal last March, the publishing house has announced that it's printing 150,000 copies of "Necessary Madness" -- a huge number for new fiction. It also is launching a $150,000 marketing campaign. Rights to the book have been sold to publishers in 14 other countries. Cable television's Family Channel has bought the rights to a TV movie. Audio rights have been sold. The novel is an alternative selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club. Proceeds from these advances have been estimated at $800,000 so far. And every deal makes Crowell a little wealthier.

Though the novel has yet to be shipped to bookstores, Dawson says, "It's already a success."

Perhaps so. But if the book lives up to Putnam's expectations, Crowell will face the author-of-the-moment media frenzy that has overwhelmed older, more experienced writers.

Publicity, of course, sells books. But success that comes so swiftly and abundantly can alter lives, breed envy, stunt careers.

Brett Easton Ellis was 21 in 1985 when his first novel, "Less Than Zero" became a best seller, touted as this generation's "Catcher in the Rye." His second novel went nowhere; his third, "American Psycho," was reviled for its violence.

Donna Tartt was 28 in 1992 when she was paid $450,000 for her first and best-selling novel, "The Secret History." She was featured in Vanity Fair magazine, touted on talk shows -- and was savaged in a number of reviews. She has yet to publish again.

All of which is on Bell's mind when he considers what may happen in the next few months to his young protege. "She's going to be dealing with a lot of jealousy from reviewers. I'm worried that she won't get a fair shake," he says.

"I hope she's really well started on her next book before the publicity machine starts really grinding. Then, when things get crazy, she can go into the tunnel that is her writing and pull the dirt in behind."

Bell is no stranger to the pressures of book tours, reviews and over-eager reporters. He was 25 when his first novel was published, and since then has produced 10 more books. In 1995, his novel "All Souls' Rising," was a National Book Award finalist.

Still, he shakes his head in bemusement at the idiosyncrasies of the publishing world.

"My first book sold about 3,000 copies and was reviewed in the New York Times. The next book did better, and so on," he says. "My 11th book came out last fall, and I feel as though I'm reasonably well known. But I'm probably not as well known as Jenn Crowell will be in two months."

Inevitable success

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