Alice Sebold certainly knows how to grab her readers' attention. Consider this first sentence from her best-selling 1999 memoir, Lucky: "In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered."
And the opener from her first novel, 2002's The Lovely Bones: "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."
And here's how Sebold begins her latest, The Almost Moon: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily."
It's as if she were practically daring you not to read compulsively until suddenly it's 2 a.m. and you realize, bleary-eyed, that you have to get up for work in four hours.
But Sebold demurs when asked about her trademark opening lines, claiming she doesn't spend much time or thought on them. Instead, she writes them quickly so she can get on to the business of storytelling.
"It takes me so long to find the character, by the time I find her, it feels like she's been waiting around tapping her foot for years. She's impatient and ready to tell her story," Sebold says during a phone interview from her home in San Francisco, which she shares with her husband, Carter Beats the Devil author Glen David Gold.
Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, sold more than 1.8 million copies in its first year of release and went on to become on one of the top-selling novels of the decade. After that head-spinning success, she is probably prepared for most anything this new novel brings her way. Yet one thing made her nervous: having her own mother read a book about a daughter who is driven to murder.
Her mother's verdict? "She liked it," Sebold says. "I'm very lucky that my mom's a big reader. She's able to understand that fiction writers work with material that's there for a reason. She's a very sophisticated, intelligent reader.
"I was fearful," she continues. "But family relationships do continue to surprise you if you're open to being surprised."
Certainly the family dynamic in The Almost Moon is anything but predictable. Helen Knightly has spent her life coping with her mother's mental illness. Often cruel and distant, her mother suffers agoraphobia so severe she can't leave the house without being wrapped head to toe in blankets. When Helen gets her first period, her mother—who can't bear not to be a part of this rite of passage—accompanies her to the drugstore fully cloaked in blankets.
After her father's death, Helen spends years taking care of her aging mother, driven by a toxic mix of duty, guilt and resentment.
"For years I had done my penance for blaming someone who was essentially helpless," says Helen. "I had warmed baby food and fed it to her with long pink spoons pilfered from Baskin-Robbins. I had carted her to doctors' appointments, first with blankets and then with towels to hide the world from her."
Finally, Helen snaps. During the next 24 hours, she grapples with what she's done, and what she should do next. Her still-devoted ex-husband flies in from across country to help her cover her tracks, but ultimately, Helen has to decide whether to face up to her mother's death.
Remarkably, although the book unfolds within a 24-hour period, the story never feels claustrophobic. The Almost Moon is incredibly fast-paced; it's the jittery, forceful story of a woman who sifts through her past to discover what brought her to such desperation. Readers, in turn, are compelled to acknowledge some of their own darkest thoughts. It may not be an easy read, but it's supremely rewarding.
Writing an entire book set in a single day is the kind of challenge Sebold savors, much like telling The Lovely Bones in the voice of a dead teenager.
"I like to break rules," she says. Telling a story in 24 hours allowed her to explore "pressures and limitations and what they can inspire. I am drawn to things that are going to force me into a corner."
After The Lovely Bones, Sebold found a certain freedom to break any rules she wanted. Her success brought financial security, to be sure, but she also no longer felt compelled to explain her writing choices.
"I decided I was just going to do my work," she recalls. "I realized if I concerned myself worrying in a micromanaging way about being judged, literally my head was going to explode."
The only opinion she seeks is her husband's. Sebold met Gold in the 1990s while both were attending the University of California-Irvine's writing program. They are successful novelists with very different approaches to their work. Gold, she says, is "Mr. Research," and shares regular progress reports on his work. Sebold, meanwhile, is a more solitary writer, allowing Gold to edit her but not talking much about plotting and characters.
"He only knows what's going on in my book when he reads the pages," she said.
While The Lovely Bones was Sebold's breakthrough book, she believes her memoir Lucky has also had a major impact. The searingly honest portrayal of the aftermath of being raped as an undergraduate has, she hopes, opened up the national conversation about rape.
"I think it helped make it an easier conversation," she says. "It familiarizes strangers with the experience in a way that decreases the isolation."
With just three books to her name, Sebold already has created an enduring body of work that is both wise and thought-provoking. Even so, she acknowledges she has a lot more to say.
"The luxury of being a writer," she said, "is that you don't retire."
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.
Read a review of The Lovely Bones.