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Finding a niche, and it rhymes with 'rich'

Born of anger, an 'anti-chick lit' tale of female misfits stirs up publishing-industry buzz for Martha O'Connor.

June 12, 2005|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

Kentfield, Calif. — Martha O'CONNOR tried to sell out, but no one was buying.

In 2003, O'Connor, who is now 33, had been writing novels for half her life. Four books to be exact. The first when she was 15. Although she had a literary agent, O'Connor had never found a publisher. The fourth, she was sure, would be the charm.

"I wrote a mystery with a young, sassy detective," she says, sitting in her living room on a leafy street in this Marin County neighborhood. "I thought I had completely faked out the market. I thought it should be easy to publish."

It wasn't. So O'Connor, who was raising twins and working as a freelance editor, started a fifth book. This time she wrote out of sheer rage. Three teenage girls, best friends and misfits who called themselves the Bitch Posse. A horrific act of violence. The same women 15 years later, no longer friends but bound together by their dark secret.

"I decided the only thing to do was to throw myself into a new project," she says. "It just flowed out really naturally. The characters were just there."

A few pages into the project, O'Connor thought that it was the best thing she had ever written. So did her husband, Philip, who is also a novelist. Her agent didn't. "I just don't think people will want to read such a dark novel," O'Connor recalls her agent saying. "I was devastated," she says.

Soon, she had a new agent and before long publishers were bidding on the recently released "The Bitch Posse."

Aggressively marketing the book as "anti-chick lit," O'Connor managed to stir up a fair amount of industry buzz and a glowing string of blurbs hailing her as a major new voice. "A debut worthy of Joyce Carol Oates," wrote author Edmund White.

Reviews have been less stellar. "Publishing a book as badly written as 'The Bitch Posse' is an affront to anyone who loves, reads and/or writes fiction," complained the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Others have carped about the prose but complimented the author on her defiant characters. "The story fascinates even as it repels," noted Publishers Weekly. "The result is more in-your-face, reality women's fiction, but still formulaic in its way," added Kirkus, which called the writing "a shameful afterthought."

*

A blood oath

Whatever the book's literary merits, the story seems to have stirred something in many readers. Amy, Cherry and Rennie are unlikely best friends from different backgrounds but united by dysfunctional families and a frantic desire to flee their oppressive, small Midwestern town. They cut class, drink, smoke and sleep around (including with a married teacher). Desperate to feel something, they habitually cut themselves and take a blood oath to stick together no matter what.

The story alternates between glimpses of the girls in high school and the women they later become with the earlier scenes building toward a violent climax that redefines their bond to one another.

"Young girls form intense friendships," O'Connor says. "You'd die for your friends. As people get older they put up barriers and walls. Yet we still yearn for that connection. I guess people like to remember that. These girls are different from us in a lot of ways but yet they're very much like a lot of us. We're all somewhat haunted by our past, by things we've done.

"They had been so betrayed and abandoned by the adults in their lives. They band together. They're so angry it has to come out somewhere. It's definitely not a guidebook for how to be an adolescent or a teacher. My characters make heartbreakingly bad choices, and they have to deal with those. Yet I feel there's an opportunity for redemption with all the characters. It's up to them."

You could call it feel-bad fiction. Although there's no shopping, the novel starts with a sex scene and not too many pages pass without another one. But the most unusual element is the anger and frustration that courses through the friends, both in their early lives and in their outwardly more placid 30s.

But grown-up life soon proves almost as tumultuous as adolescence. Amy seems to have achieved the suburban dream, but a tragic pregnancy and a dissolving marriage pitch her toward a crisis. Cherry lives in a mental hospital and worries that she might be released. Rennie, who bares the most superficial resemblance to her creator, lives in Marin, a struggling author who teaches school, unable to write a second book or stop seducing her student teachers.

"A lot of women's fiction is not terribly interesting or it's feel-good, syrupy family stuff that I have a hard time reading," O'Connor says. "My book deals with feelings and emotions that people don't talk about. It's not comfortable fiction. I don't like happy, nice endings. That way the book stays with the reader."

O'Connor herself grew up in small-town Illinois and admits that the characters reflect different facets of herself. She went to Bowling Green State University, where she became friends with her writing teacher Philip O'Connor, who in 1994 became her husband. They have two children. She worked in textbook publishing, taught eighth grade.

"I was somewhat rebellious in high school," she says. "If you can survive high school you deserve a diploma for just surviving. Those are hard years. We all have these dark secrets."

While O'Connor is clearly attached to her characters, she says her newfound success hasn't encouraged her to disinter her four earlier novels. "They are in the basement where they can't hurt anyone," she says.

She is working on a new novel but says she has unfinished business with "The Bitch Posse." "I'm going to sign a copy and give it to my former agent," she says.

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