Two weeks before the publication of The Almost Moon Alice Sebold's long-awaited follow-up to 2002's The Lovely Bones, her first novel which has sold nearly 10 million copies around the world the book got a rave in London's Evening Standard. ''I don't believe that I properly closed my mouth the entire time I was reading it,'' the critic wrote. ''It's a strange, wild, even hysterical book.'' Sebold, who reads her reviews even though she knows she sometimes shouldn't, turned to a friend afterward and said, with her great big laugh, ''Well, this just lines the cage for the blood to come.''
And how it's dripping down. A rash of reviewers from Publishers Weekly and The New York Times to our own critic here at EW have shaken their heads in stern disapproval of Sebold's latest effort. The trade magazine Booklist called the novel, about a ruined suburban woman who kills her dementia-crazed mother, ''grim and grimmer.'' ''I'm completely faithful that her audience is going to follow her into all the dark places she takes them,'' says Sebold's long-time agent Henry Dunow. ''But anyone who thinks it's easy to write the book that follows The Lovely Bones should give it another think. She goes out into the world with a bull's-eye on her back.''
There was a while there, during the three years Sebold spent on the never-ending promotional train of The Lovely Bones, that she resigned herself to never writing again. Then some time went by and she decided maybe she would still write but never publish. ''You think when something so great happens that it's all going to be great,'' she says today, at a coffee shop near her new house in San Francisco, where she lives with her husband, novelist Glen David Gold. ''But I never really imagined being successful for me success was getting published and being able to get a teaching job at a small liberal arts college. That was my dream.''
Instead, months after critics and readers clasped The Lovely Bones to their hearts, she suddenly found herself a public figure worthy of an infamous takedown in The New York Review of Books. (''You represent America,'' paraphrases a laughing Sebold. ''America sucks. So do you.'') ''Writers observe, and I suddenly became observed for a long stretch of time and aware of myself in a way that I've never been before.... I wanted to be that bird back in the tree looking down on the world. As opposed to, I don't know, the bird on the street getting run over by a truck.''
Yet here she is, with another novel and that bull's-eye on her back. So what got her back in front of her computer? ''It was a couple things,'' says Sebold, who was 39 when The Lovely Bones came out and had spent all those lonely years leading up to then feeling like a failure. ''One was 'F--- you people. I'm going to write and publish another book.'''
Sebold, now 45, had felt proud and fortunate to have signed a modest two-book contract with Little, Brown. She was supposed to turn in her second novel just six months after The Lovely Bones came out. But there was no sense of time and quiet to crank out another book. ''They were totally cool with waiting,'' she says of her lucky publisher. ''There wasn't a lot of pressure.''
She fully understands that she will be forever defined as the author of The Lovely Bones that her future work will be measured against its monster success. But Sebold has nothing but gratitude for the young narrator, 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who catapulted her out of obscurity. ''As soon as I kind of severed myself from the Mack truck that was Susie, and she wasn't dragging my corpse behind her, then I just enjoyed watching how you can put something out into the world and have no idea what's going to happen to it.''
Determined to eliminate some of the white noise of sudden fame, Sebold and her husband packed up their dog and two cats and moved from Long Beach, Calif., to Ojai, a small town outside of L.A. ''I needed some sense of control,'' she says. ''For three and a half years we lived in a town where I'd go to the bookstore to buy a book and they didn't know who I was. It was wonderful.''
It was in this reclaimed shadow of anonymity that Sebold first started fleshing out her new main character, Helen, who is raw and broken (and about as far from the sublime serenity of Susie as one could imagine). The Almost Moon's obsessions history, family, individuality, and the constant battle among the three were in part inspired by her grandmother's death at 96. ''My mother was 73,'' says Sebold, ''and I really felt like that was the first time she had gotten to live free upon the earth. And that was devastating to me that somebody could be so fully owned for the majority of their life.''
This December, after her American book tour and a promotional tear through England, Holland, and Italy, Sebold, her husband, and her agent will head to Philadelphia to hang out on Peter Jackson's Lovely Bones film set for a week. While she's hugely impressed by Jackson's pedigree, and the new life he'll bring to her first novel, she isn't expecting a special chair with her last name cursived onto the back. ''I think it's nice if we like each other and can look across the material that we share for a limited period of time,'' she says. ''They've been very inclusionary, but whatever they do, it's their film.'' The movie stars Ryan Gosling, Rachel Weisz, and Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, who will play Susie. Sebold watched Ronan's casting tape but has yet to have a conversation with the girl. ''What would I say?'' she wonders. ''Uh, here's a copy of my new book. Maybe in 40 years you can play the main character and it'll take that long to get anyone in Hollywood interested in this one!''
By all rights, Sebold should be bathing in cash right now and, yes, the royalties from The Lovely Bones alone allow for quite a comfortable life. But since she was locked into a two-book deal, there was no taking her publisher to the mat for millions for The Almost Moon. Nor did she pull in a wad of dough for the Lovely Bones movie, since she sold the rights before the novel became a phenomenon. ''It's about love, baby!'' jokes Sebold.
This winter, while visiting Jackson's set, Sebold will drive to her parents' nearby suburban home for dinner, where she'll embrace her very-much-alive mother. Poor Mrs. Sebold. A neighbor who'd gotten wind of The Almost Moon's matricidal plot recently accosted her and pronounced, ''You look pretty good for a dead woman.'' So now when the author's mother goes walking in the morning, she wears a T-shirt that says ''I Am Not a Fictional Character.'' These Sebold women they have a sense of humor.
The covers of Sebold's books all blend into one another. Don't blame the author.
When the folks at Little, Brown first presented Sebold with the concept for The Almost Moon's jacket, they pitched a gauzy yellow, with that same fade-out wash and typeface as her giant best-seller, The Lovely Bones. She pointed out that the color too closely resembled the reissue of her memoir Lucky, and her husband pushed for the bracing tomato red. ''When I saw it, I was like, 'enh,''' she says. ''But I like the red better. I just think of it as Blood Mountain.'' Critics who sniff that she's riding The Lovely Bones' coattails can blame her publisher. ''That's not Alice's call,'' says her agent. ''That's all about marketing. The last thing she would do is seek to capitalize on her success.''