Gillian Flynn
October 27, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Amanda Starkey bears a crescent-moon scar on her hand, a bite mark her pretty sister Mathilda gave her the night she drowned in a frozen lake. Mathilda’s 3-year-old daughter, Ruth, also seems to remember drowning that night and is haunted by memories of an ”ice baby.” What happened? That’s the mystery of Christina Schwarz’s debut novel, Drowning Ruth, which just hit No. 1 on Publishers Weekly‘s best-seller list. An Oprah’s Book Club nod no doubt helped spur sales (800,000 copies are in print). But the intrigue also comes from the sly nature of the novel itself, which places readers primarily in the hands of Amanda, a World War I-era nurse who is the unreliable, manipulative (and, perhaps, mad) narrator. As more than a decade passes, Amanda hides the truth from her niece — and the readers. ”I can’t imagine her telling anyone anything honestly,” admits Schwarz. ”Even though I love her.”

Schwarz had time to let the romance bloom; the 32-year-old Yale grad began tinkering with the character back in 1989. She spent nearly five years writing the book, working odd jobs while her husband, Benjamin Schwarz — now an Atlantic Monthly editor in Boston, where the two live — provided extra support. ”It’s scary looking back, because I see how it might not have worked out at all,” says the Wisconsin native. ”I just hoped I’d have enough money from the book to justify starting another one. It’s done more than that.”

Indeed, hardcover rights to Ruth inspired a heated auction, and on the same day Doubleday won out, Miramax snapped up the film rights for director Wes Craven (Scream). ”My husband was out running — I ran eight miles trying to find him. Really fast,” Schwarz laughs. ”I didn’t find him until I got home and he was in the shower.” She is still too close to her volatile creations, however, to indulge in the casting game. ”To me these characters are Amanda and Ruth. I can’t see actresses playing them.”

You May Like