Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is driving me through the desert in her gold Hyundai Santa Fe. The scrubby, arid habitat outside Albuquerque, N.M., seems alien -- like Mexico, or Mars, or some made-up landscape cobbled together from images of both. Whatever it looks like, it feels as far away from New York City as you can get on this planet. But it's in the clubby, polished publishing circles of New York where 34-year-old Valdes-Rodriguez's story begins.
Last June, the one-time journalist became a publishing supernova when the rights to her dishy novel, ''The Dirty Girls Social Club,'' sparked a feverish four-day auction. After St. Martin's bagged the book -- about six professional, successful, fashion-conscious Latinas -- for just under $500,000, Columbia Pictures snapped up the movie rights for Jennifer Lopez. A year later, ''Dirty Girls'' has made the New York Times best-seller list its first week out. Having picked me up at the Albuquerque airport, Valdes-Rodriguez is giving me a grand tour of the city. She is surprisingly centered for someone who has generated this much buzz; but then, big, highly charged stories have a way of getting sucked into her gravitational field.
Tales have been circling ''Dirty Girls'' for some time, spinning so fast it's hard to bring them into focus. There's the one about how Valdes-Rodriguez wrote the 308-page novel in six days. (Close.) There's the one about how her agent began fielding offers within 24 hours of submitting the book to publishers. (True.) There's the one about how interns hovered around copy machines to inhale chapters. (Also apparently true, if hard to confirm.) And there's the really big one about how she did it all while broke and unemployed, after sabotaging her own journalism career. (Depends on whom you ask.)