Touched by An Oprah
A Pulitzer Prize is nice. A Nobel even nicer. But to hit the literary jackpot these days, what an author wants is an Oprah. Nine or so times a year since September 1996, Oprah Winfrey has chosen a book to discuss on her TV show—she calls the segment Oprah‘s Book Club—setting off a buying onslaught in the nation’s bookstores. Granted, there are people who are troubled by her choices. Most of the Oprah books “play on base sentiment” and only help readers “learn what they already know,” writes critic Gavin McNett in the online magazine Salon. But by generating new excitement about reading—and millions in sales—the talk show host has undeniably given the publishing industry a lift. “I never dreamed the response would be this tremendous,” says Winfrey, 45, who was honored on Nov. 17 in New York City by the National Book Foundation for her “influential contribution to reading and books.”
Of course, she also touches the public through her charitable gifts and movie and TV productions, most recently the highly rated ABC movie Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays with Morrie on Dec. 5. But reading is special, she says: “Books opened windows to the world for me. If I can help open them for someone else, I’m happy.” Some of the authors she cherishes—Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Bill Cosby—were famous before they were selected for her club. Many were not well-known and have seen their lives transformed. Here are their storybook tales.
Mother of Pearl
Last October, Melinda and Ray Haynes were still living in their oak-tree shaded, five-room trailer in Grand Bay, Ala. By then four months had flown by since Winfrey had championed Haynes’s first novel, Mother of Pearl, and launched the author’s life into warp speed as the book’s print run zoomed from 10,000 to 720,000 copies. With royalties pouring in, Haynes, 45, soon abandoned her intention of staying put in the trailer. “I suddenly wanted a house with a doorbell,” she says. “It was just something I needed to do.”
These days the Hayneses live outside Mobile in a French-style, five-bedroom house “with more porch space than the trailer itself,” says Melinda. There’s also a new silver BMW Z3 convertible parked in the garage. “It’s like we won the lottery!” says Ray, 57. “This is the house that Oprah built.”
The daughter of a Protestant minister and a schoolteacher in Hattiesburg, Miss., Melinda married a preacher’s son at 18, had three children and later became so desperately unhappy that she attempted suicide at 32. Converting to Catholicism helped her recover, as did her second marriage, in 1995, to Ray, a computer technician who encouraged her to write. Haynes says that writing Pearl, a tale of friendship and family in 1950s Mississippi, brought her even closer to her own kin. She set up college funds for daughters Kristin, Spring and Shiloh, who also got a car. (Even so, she sometimes wears a T-shirt that reads, My Mom Wrote Mother of Pearl and All I Got Was This Crappy T-shirt!) But one of the greatest gifts of Melinda’s success is a true sense of self. “The fear of failure is always with me,” says Haynes, who has finished a second novel. “But now it’s balanced with something much bigger.”
In his previous life as what he jokingly calls “a running slime dog of capitalism,” Chris Bohjalian, 39, toiled at a Manhattan ad agency. His wife, Victoria Blewer, 39, traded bonds for Shearson Lehman. But in 1986 they left it all behind for the pastoral life in Lincoln, Vt. There he wrote columns for The Burlington Free Press and worked on his first novel, she took up photography, and they welcomed the birth of daughter Grace in 1993. Even after his fifth novel, Midwives, was published in 1997, all was relatively quiet—until Oct. 18, 1998.
“It was 4:30 in the afternoon, there were guys in the house trying to fix this antiquated furnace, my daughter had a friend over for a play date, the cats were running around, and the phone rings,” Bohjalian recalls. When a woman who introduced herself as Oprah Winfrey began telling him how much she enjoyed Midwives—about a woman’s travails after she performs a cesarean section on a woman who dies—Bohjalian said, “Yeah, sure, who is it really?” “She laughed and said, ‘It’s me! It’s really me!’ ” he recalls. “That’s when I realized it was Oprah Winfrey.”
Winfrey chatted with him for a few minutes. Then a producer explained that he would need to keep mum until the news that his book had been selected was announced on the show 10 days later. The book-club machinery immediately kicked into high gear. Within minutes, Bohjalian’s publisher, Vintage Books, called to say that they had ordered an additional 650,000 copies. (Winfrey asks that all Book Club selections be made available in affordable paperback editions with the Oprah‘s Book Club logo.) The copies were shipped nationwide to bookstore and online retailers in plain boxes marked, Oprah‘s Book Club Number 19—Do Not Open Until October 28. After she made the announcement on TV, Amazon.com instantly e-mailed customers who had asked for word of the next Oprah selection. On the same day, Bohjalian says, “I received 200 phone calls and hundreds of e-mails. People are so happy for you.”
Thanks to Winfrey’s divine intervention, sales of Midwives shot from 100,000 to 1.4 million copies—”dramatically, exponentially more than I ever expected to sell in my entire life,” Bohjalian says. His second novel, The Law of Similars, is selling briskly, and his latest work, Trans-Sister Radio, is due in April. All the same, Bohjalian says he won’t succumb to the trappings of celebrity: “My daughter’s school bus still arrives across the street. I still write 5 to 10 a.m. most mornings. I still do my errands in the afternoon.” And Bohjalian, who continues to write for the Press, treasures the little things. Recalling the fan who baked him a congratulatory apple pie, Bohjalian says, “I’ll savor that taste of her affection. It will always be with me.”
The Book of Ruth
A Map of the World
The voice on her telephone answering machine says, “We press cider on Thursdays,” and Hamilton, 42, still occasionally accompanies her husband, Bob Willard, 51, to the Dane County farmer’s market to sell produce. But being twice blessed by Oprah has made life far more comfortable for them and their two children at their Rochester, Wis., apple and pear orchard farm. “All these new readers gave me freedom. I don’t have to worry about having a real job,” says Hamilton, who bought her husband a lawn tractor for his birthday and is now finishing her fourth novel. “Oprah gave me—and my books—a bigger, wilder life than I’d ever have imagined.”
Breath, Eyes, Memory
It took a bit of doing for Edwidge Danticat, 30, to get her first novel onto Oprah Winfrey’s nightstand. She first met Winfrey in 1997 on the set of Beloved in rural Pennsylvania, where the Haitian-born writer worked as an extra. When a mutual friend there suggested she give the talk show host a copy of her book, Danticat took a $50 cab ride to Philadelphia the next day and bought a copy for Winfrey.
The gambit paid off. One night the following spring, Danticat, then a creative writing teacher at New York University, returned home and played back her phone messages. “When I heard it was Oprah, I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ ” Then she got suspicious: “After we talked, I looked around the room, thinking, ‘Maybe there’s a hidden camera here?’ ” Then she got excited: “I thought, ‘Wow! Maybe I’ll get some dates!’ ”
Danticat’s second book, Krik? Krak!, had been nominated for a National Book Award before Winfrey selected Breath, the tale of a Haitian girl born as a result of rape who joins her mother in America. After Oprah‘s show, Danticat avoided bookstores because, she says, “I didn’t want people to think I was checking up on sales.” Instead she flew to Key West and then Haiti for two months.
Danticat, who lives in Brooklyn with her parents, is still seeing one of her post-Oprah dates, a man she met in Haiti who lives in Miami. But mostly she writes. Her third book, The Farming of Bones, was published to critical acclaim last fall, and she’s currently assembling an anthology of Haitian-American writers. “I have more work ahead of me,” she says. “I don’t feel like I can rest.”
From time to time, Bret Lott would tell his wife, Melanie, his agent and even himself that his 1991 novel about a woman and her daughter with Down syndrome would be a great Oprah book. “But Jewel was out of print,” he says, “and Oprah really had not been in the habit of pulling books out of the dustbin of literature.” Having his fantasy come true was “like an out-of-body experience,” says the 41-year-old English professor at South Carolina’s College of Charleston. “It was surreal.”
The Lotts, who are born-again Christians, have donated money to several charities, including Samaritan’s Purse, a relief organization run by Billy Graham’s son Franklin, and a school for deaf orphans in Rwanda. Jewel’s newfound success—it has sold some 1.2 million copies—has also allowed Melanie, 40, to quit her part-time job as an administrative consultant to an engineering firm. The couple has decided to enlarge the new house they’re building in the Charleston suburb of Mount Pleasant. And though nearly a year has passed, Lott says he still appreciates the advice Winfrey offered before his appearance: “The thing she kept saying was, ‘Don’t worry about anything. Remember, we want you to have fun!’ ”
A. MANETTE ANSAY
A. Manette Ansay was 17 years old and an aspiring concert pianist when her hands began to ache. Unable to diagnose her illness, doctors were baffled as the pain spread; in 1987 it had become so debilitating, despite several operations, that she had to wear arm and leg braces. Even after her symptoms abated, Ansay, now 35, knew her dream was over. “I was looking for something as transcendent as music that I could do sitting down,” she recalls.
Ansay found it in fiction—producing four novels between 1994 and 1997. They were critically well-received, but there wasn’t a bestseller in the batch. Not, that is, until October, when Ansay got the call from Winfrey about Vinegar Hill, Ansay’s story of a woman coming to terms with dark family secrets. “After years of being told I’m not marketable, suddenly the average Joe and Jane on the street are reading my book,” she says. “I feel connected to a readership I’ve never known before.”
Her family has nurtured her dreams from the start. When Ansay became physically unable to write, her mother, Sylvia, typed her revisions. Her father, Dick, a real estate entrepreneur, took it upon himself to distribute copies of Vinegar Hill to bookstores. Her husband, Jake Smith, 33, is no slouch in the support department, either. He followed Ansay to seven different cities as she pursued her education and took teaching jobs at universities.
The eighth time was the charm. In May the couple moved from Nashville to Manhattan, where Ansay writes full-time and Smith is director of online communications for a music company. Ansay’s still-undiagnosed nerve disease has affected her eyes and limits the time she can read and write. But thanks to Winfrey, she can now afford to hire someone to read to her. “I’ll be able to use my time at the computer strictly for work,” she says. “And I can read all the books I want without waiting for them to come out on audio.”
She’s Come Undone
I Know This Much Is True
When Winfrey chose Wally Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, five years after it was published, Lamb recalls, “it was like the cast of ER jolting my main character back to life with those electrode things.” Though he is one of only four authors to have two books selected—along with Toni Morrison, Kaye Gibbons and Jane Hamilton—Lamb, 49, hasn’t lost his perspective. “I still drive an old clunker of a car, and my kids keep me humble,” he says. And he lives in the same house in Norwich, Conn., with his wife, Christine, 49, an elementary school teacher, and their three sons. Lamb quit his 25-year job as a high school English instructor to write full-time, but he volunteer-teaches at a women’s prison. “Oprah has a lot of fans behind prison walls,” he says.
Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman
“I was standing in the shower when Oprah called to say that she had chosen my first two books,” says Gibbons. “I nearly swallowed my tongue, I was so surprised.” A self-described “neurotic supermom” of three girls, five cats and four dogs, Gibbons, 39, loves to cook every night, watch soap operas and putter around her two-story brick home in Raleigh, N.C. “The money from Oprah allowed me to do all that for a year and a half,” she says. “At the end, I felt rested and ready to do another book.” Gibbons, who was orphaned at 12, spent a portion of her windfall buying books for a children’s home in the nearby town of Oxford. As a result, the institution got a lot of attention—and enough contributions to hire a part-time librarian.
The Deep End of the Ocean
The leader of the pack, Mitchard, 47, was the first author to be touched by Oprah—with her first novel no less. Rich with royalties, the widowed Wisconsin writer bought a retreat in Cape Cod, Mass., hired a personal trainer and a personal assistant and by 1998 had finished her second novel. (The Most Wanted didn’t fare as well as Ocean.)
Mitchard’s personal fortunes changed too. One morning in March 1998, carpenter Chris Sornberger, now 33, came to do the tile in her bathroom; two months later they were married. “Your husband dies young, but then you win the literary lottery, and everyone lives happily ever after,” says Mitchard, who’s raising five children in her rambling, rural home near Madison, Wis. “But it could easily have not worked that way.”
River, Cross My Heart
Breena Clarke has a confession to make. She thought Oprah‘s Book Club was a dumb idea. “When she announced she was doing this, it seemed foolish,” she says. “I was one of those people who thought books and television couldn’t work together. Of course, that was absolutely wrong.”
Clarke’s tale of a young black girl coping with the drowning of her baby sister enjoyed good reviews and decent sales before being anointed by Winfrey last October. But afterward, sales swelled to a million copies. For Clarke, 48, the jackpot is bittersweet. River is a response to the death of her 14-year-old son, Najeeb Harb, from a fall in 1989. It began as a short story, but then in 1991 she met author Ernest J. Gaines, who encouraged her to turn it into a novel. Clarke then grappled for eight years with her pain and loss to complete it. “Writing the book was really cathartic. When it was first out, it felt like sending your child to kindergarten—you’re not sure how people will treat it,” she says. “But people have been sensitive, and that’s been very helpful.”
Clarke, who has worked for three years administering the Editorial Diversity Program at Time Inc. (PEOPLE’S publisher) in Manhattan, isn’t giving up her day job. “People keep asking me, ‘Have you turned in your resignation yet?’ ” Clarke says. “But I tell them no, let’s not be rash.” Nor is she planning any major shopping sprees. “I haven’t gotten any money yet, and I’m so risk averse,” she adds. Aside from planning a nice retirement, she and husband Helmar Cooper, 58, a stage actor, will renovate their gingerbread Victorian house in Jersey City, and she does intend to splurge on one gift for herself. “I’m a real Macintosh addict, so I shall be buying an iBook,” she says. “I’m not sure what color I want. Tangerine is cute, but it may be a little too loud.”
In the time known as B.O.—Before Oprah—Fitch’s home had dry rot, her husband had an aching tooth, and she couldn’t draw a crowd with a pencil. At one reading of her work, recalls Fitch, 44, “there were six people, and I knew three of them, two of whom were sent by my in-laws.”
But since Oprah made Fitch’s Oleander a Book Club choice, it has been standing room only. After Winfrey called the novel—a mournful tale of a girl shuffled through foster homes after her mother commits murder—”liquid poetry,” Fitch said goodbye to 20 years of obscurity and hello to ka-ching. She watched with astonishment as White Oleander shot up the bestseller list and the movie rights were bought by an ER executive producer’s company. “I was in shock,” says Fitch, a Los Angeles native. “I still am. I was used to having my stories published in journals with two copies of it as my payment.”
Fitch, who spent four years writing White Oleander, says friends used to ask her, “Do you know anyone who knows Oprah?” Fitch did not. But she still flushes with pleasure when she recalls answering the phone at her part-time job as a writer for a government-relations firm and hearing the fateful words, “Can you please hold for Oprah Winfrey?” Says Fitch: “She’s the patron saint of American writers. Thanks to her, I get to have more of a career than I might have.” And a few pragmatic improvements. Fitch says the dry rot in their home has been repaired, and she and her lawyer husband, Steve Strauss, 43, finally made “all those doctor’s appointments to take care of 10 years’ worth of ignored body parts.” She adds, “We got my husband’s tooth fixed right away.”
Fitch has begun working on her next book. But she is never so busy that she forgets her debt to her benefactor. “I feel like the old Chinese belief—the one where when somebody saves your life, you belong to that person forever,” Fitch says, laughing. “I really feel that way about Oprah. I send her notes updating her on the life she saved.”
Paula Chin, Christina Cheakalos
Reported by: Eric Francis, Liza Hamm, Kathleen A. Kelly, Margaret Nelson, Barbara Sandler, Natasha Stoynoff, Cynthia Wang, Fannie Weinstein, Gail Wescott, Paula Yoo and bureau reports