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''The Most Wanted''

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Your average neurotic writer, watching her first novel kick off Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, catapult to the top of the best-seller lists, and turn into a starring vehicle for Michelle Pfeiffer, would do one of two things: buy a small South Seas island and call it a day, or suffer a meltdown worrying that her next novel could never be a worthy follow-up to her debut — in this case, The Deep End of the Ocean, the tale of a kidnapping that forever altered one family’s life.

But Jacquelyn Mitchard is far from average. She passed on all purchases except five pairs of cowboy boots (”very Yoko Ono”) and continued a whirlwind publicity tour for Ocean. One night, exhausted from hours of interviews and book signings, she fell asleep and dreamed about a beautiful 14-year-old Texan who falls in love with a convict. And when she woke up, Mitchard knew she had discovered her next novel: The Most Wanted, which would be told from the point of view of the girl, Arley, and her 39-year-old attorney, Annie.

”The dreams I’ve had in my life about outlaws and pretty girls are in the single digits,” the 45-year-old author says modestly, sitting in the Madison, Wis., home where she’s single-handedly raising five children, who range in age from 2 to 22. ”My 14-year-old son says, ‘Hard job. You go to bed, get up, and write it down.”’

Mitchard didn’t write her first novel until she was 40. Recently widowed and a new adoptive mother, the author was working as a newspaper columnist when Viking paid $500,000 for Ocean and her next, as-yet-unwritten book. Ocean was published in June 1996 and sold well, even appearing at the bottom of some best-seller lists, but when Winfrey plugged the book in September 1996, hardcover sales leaped from 100,000 to close to one million. Viking expressed its gratitude by requesting that Mitchard’s second novel be written, edited, and in bookstores in time for 1998 beach reading. ”We worked very hard and very fast,” admits Wanted’s editor, Pam Dorman. ”We did three full edits in two months. No one would want to do that again.”

Especially not Mitchard. ”It made me mental at first,” she says. ”But I really felt like a one-trick pony. I was mortally curious to find out if I could write another novel, even a bad one. I was listening to those things about the Don McLean phenomenon — how are you going to write another ‘American Pie’? Well, you’re not.”

Indeed, The Most Wanted — which goes on sale May 18 — shares little with the somber Deep End of the Ocean (the movie version of which comes out this fall). Wanted ”is a melodrama,” Mitchard says unapologetically. ”I knew I wanted to write a romance, [the kind of] doomed scenario that has been happening since prehistory and will be happening as long as we have skin over our bones.”

Mitchard’s skin is thin enough that she won’t be reading Wanted‘s reviews, and she’s not waiting by the phone to see if the movie rights are sold. She has sent the book to Oprah — but only, she insists, as a personal gesture. ”People who decide at the age of 40 to become a novelist when they’re widows with five children are people who know how to complicate things on their own,” Mitchard says. ”So I guess nothing that could happen or not happen to this book could be worse or better than I imagine.” Or dream, for that matter.

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