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Novel Debut

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AS A FRESHMAN AT GOUCHER college in Towson, Md., Jenn Crowell got writer-in-residence Madison Smartt Bell to look at a novel she had written. He liked it and sent it to his agent. She liked it and sent it to publishers. G.P. Putnam’s Sons liked it and bought Necessary Madness last year. By the time foreign and television rights were sold, the deal was worth a reported $800,000. Since the book hit stores in March, Crowell, now all of 19, has become dazed, confused, delighted—and precociously self-aware. “The money is terrific,” she says. “But I don’t look at my novel and say, ‘Wow, this book made X dollars.’ I look at the book and say, ‘This is the book I wrote, with the story I was trying to tell, and it’s going to be in bookstores!’ ”

Crowell, who grew up in Jacobus, Pa., and attended high school in nearby Dallastown, took to writing the way Tiger Woods took to golf: from the cradle. “Not writing was never an option, kind of like breathing,” she says. As a tyke she dictated stories to her mother, S. Jane Beck-Dettinger, a receptionist, and her father, Robert Crowell, a caseworker, now divorced. In first grade she wrote in an essay that “if you don’t get published, you’re not a real writer.”

There’s no doubt now that she’s real. Crowell, who has threatened to dye her hair green for appearances, seems in many respects a typical college student. Which makes Necessary Madness all the more startling since the book tells the tale of a 30-year-old American mother coping with the death of her husband while living in England. “I subscribe to the idea of emotional autobiography,” Crowell explains. “You have to graft your emotions onto your fiction in order for it to be powerful, but at the same time go beyond your own experience.”

Of course research is key, and Crowell, a dedicated Anglophile, is hard at it. For her book tour she jokingly asked if her escort could be “a cute twenty-something with a British accent.”