At eighteen, American writer JENN CROWELL netted £400,000 from her first novel. She looks set to repeat the success in Britain. Words: Deirdre Molloy
‘Early in life I was visited by the bluebird of anxiety.’ Woody Allen once told New York Times Magazine. For American writer Jenn Crowell. youth has been less of an ordeal. The nineteen-year- old novelist has breezed out of ‘quaint’ small-town Pennsylvania and into adult life with a bestseller on her hands. Her creative success owes more to crashing the glass ceiling than to Freudian insight born of adolescent nightmares.
Necessary Madness. the debut novel in question. was penned by Crowell at age seventeen during her last year at high school. It netted her £400,000 in pre- publication rights in America last year. British publishers have now shelled out £2()().()()() to launch the book this side of the Atlantic.
They’re calling it a love story for the end of the 20th century. but lv’eeessarv Madness is more remarkable for its English setting and grasp of adult psychology.
The story centres on 30-year-old American émigre Gloria Burgess. who faces life alone with her eight- year-old son in London when her artist husband Bill dies of leukaemia.
You might expect the young author felt daunted by the complex issues she was tackling in the plot. which encompasses illness. grieving and a history of parental estrangement.
‘I was aware that it was a bit of a stretch.‘ says Crowell. ‘but I’ve always been very ambitious and up for a challenge imaginatively. so l felt reasonany confident that the emotional power of what I was dealing with would propel me along.‘
For a teenager who had never travelled abroad. Crowell‘s depiction of London is pretty impressive. even if her semi-Bohemian character's love of fish and chips for tea seems a little anachronistic. Iler research — reading Sue Townsend‘s Adrian Mule novels. combing through guide books and watching British sitcoms like Absolutely Fabulous and Are You Being Served." — has come in for some scrutiny.
‘I did watch some sitcoms. but it‘s been blown out of proportion] laughs Crowell. ‘I‘ve always been a bit of an Anglophile and I’m interested in the idea of transcending your own culture. I do realise that Absolutely Fabulous is not the last word on British culture.‘
Despite the novel‘s trauma-laden storyline. replete with unhappy childhood scenes and the anguish of
‘I've always been a bit of an Anglophile, but I do realise Absolutely Fabulous is not the last word on British culture.’
Jenn Crowell: adolescents are doing it for themselves
Bill's declining health. Gloria emerges as a strong. capable woman.
In fact Gloria is the first fictional fruit of Crowell‘s budding. upbeat feminism. But unlike her
literary mentors Margaret Atwood and Jeanette
Winterson. Crowell decided at the outset that her
writing would be pitched to a wider audience. ‘I‘ve always
been walking the line between commercial and
literary fiction and I really like blurring those boundaries.‘ she says.
In this respect. (‘rowell typifies the upcoming generation of women who wear their ambitions lightly on their sleeves and aren‘t lost for role models. She takes inspiration from her pop heroines Tori Amos and Bjork. both known for their boundary—defying musical talents.
While publishing success has pushed her into the spotlight and onto a plane-hopping publicity schedule. Crowell has no intention of letting it derail her academic career.
The only chink in her armour of confidence is that her youth is skewing some critics‘ response to her work. ‘I don‘t want anyone to go easy on me because of my age but by the same token I don't want it to be held against me either.‘ she says.
When teenagers like Jenn (‘rowell stake their claim to equal treatment. the prospect of a level playing field for women is no longer in the realms of feminist fairy tale.
Necessary Madness by Jenn Crowell is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £10.99.
preview BOOKS The Write Stuff
Alex Garland’s successful debut novel The Beach is destined for the Trainspotting treatment. It has all been a bit of a surprise, really.
NAME: Alex Medawar Garland AGE: 27
PREVIOUS JOBS: None. I didn't work before writing, I studied history of art in Manchester.
ROUTE TO BECOMING A WRITER: I started about two weeks before my finals at university, partly because my girlfriend at the time had trained to be a lawyer and I suddenly just thought 'oh, god, she’s got something to do and I don't’. That was it, really, although there wasn't much encouragement around.
DAILY ROUTINE: I write at nights. lfl don't go out I’ll start around ten and work till about three so my routine for the day is to edit what I wrote the night before. Most days I like to go out at some point and I definitely go out in the evenings otherwise I’m locked in my flat the whole time and go a bit crazy. I'm working on my next book now and it should be done by the end of the year and out in spring 98, probably.
INFLUENCES: JD. Salinger, Kazuo Ishiguro, J.G. Ballard and James Fenton are the big four. I'm not very well read, I often wish I was. ljust read those people and really liked them.
AM BITIONS: There really isn’t one. I didn’t have a burning ambition to be a writer, I just fell into it.
FEARS: I'm afraid of so much stuff but my biggest fear is that I'm not going to have a decent wife and family. Sounds stupid, but there it is.
INCOME: I'm not going to give an exact figure — I don't even know why, actually. I've never understood why people never give exact figures, I just sort of feel it’s the thing I'm supposed to say. I've done well for myself. I've been able to buy a flat. I didn't have a snowball’s chance in hell of doing that before and now I can. (Brian Donaldson)
I The Beach by Alex Gar/and is published in paperback by Penguin at [5. 99.
13—26 Jun 1997 THEIJST 93