February 23, 2004 12:00 PM

In 1996 Elisabeth Robinson was at the top of her game in Hollywood. A producer who had helped bring movies, including the Academy-Award winning Braveheart, to the screen, she’d arrived in London that fall to oversee her first independently produced film, The Man Who Knew Too Little. The star, Bill Murray, “was great to work with,” she says, and (though a worrier and pessimist) she was feeling upbeat.

Soon, however, Robinson’s life would change forever. She was blindsided by a phone call from her mother, saying that her sister Laurie, 28, had leukemia. Stunned, “I took the next flight home to Detroit,” says Robinson, now 43. “I assumed my parents, the doctors, somebody had it wrong.”

But Laurie’s illness was real. The prognosis for her sister (who had married a year earlier and worked in a local congressman’s office) was “dismal,” says Robinson. Laurie’s outlook wasn’t: Through two years of bruising chemotherapy and a harrowing bone-marrow transplant, “she remained incredibly, defiantly optimistic,” says the author, who spiraled into grief and confusion when Laurie died in October 1998. “I thought, ‘What was all that faith, optimism and hope for if it wasn’t going to save her life?’ ”

That question is at the heart of Elisabeth’s debut novel, a moving dark comedy called The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters. Excerpted by Vogue and described as “tough, tender and tearful” by TIME, the book follows the exploits of Olivia Hunt, a producer trying to make a film version of Don Quixote with Robin Williams while her kid sister is battling leukemia.

How did a movie exec who studied economics at Oberlin College use her sorrow as a springboard for fiction? Robinson was a lifelong scribbler who had produced stacks of (unproduced) plays, screenplays and stories. “I’ve always written my way through things,” she says. “And I knew I had to write about her to get out of this dark place.”

The novel came to life slowly. After a year of “being pretty depressed and confused,” Robinson stumbled across a quote from Samuel Johnson: “Hope is itself a species of happiness.” Through her grief, she heard Laurie urging her to understand “that you really have a choice in how you’re going to respond to whatever comes your way. Her choice was always to say, ‘This is going to be fine—I’m going to do it!’ ”

Deciding to “put everything into this long-deferred dream of mine,” Robinson saved enough money to scrape by for a year in New York City (where she had settled into a small apartment on the Upper East Side in 2000). In September 2001 she started the clock. “I had a budget and it included sardines and toast for lunch,” she laughs. “No taxis, no bottled water.”

Along the way, Robinson drew from her own life in creating Olivia’s world. Her protagonist ping-pongs between film sets and her sister’s bedside in a midwestern hospital, just as Robinson did. And while Olivia’s parents are wildly dysfunctional, she’s still part of a close-knit, quirky family, as Robinson and her sister were: Their parents—Hal, 71, a lawyer, and Rosemary, 69, a college counselor—also help run a community theater in suburban Michigan, where Elisabeth and older brother Tom (now a construction manager in New York City) performed. “We were really into it,” says Robinson (who, with Tom, started a children’s theater at 12). “That’s where my love of drama started.”

Robinson has an eye for Hollywood’s absurdities. Besides describing a date between Olivia and a Steve Martinesque comedian (who leads her to his bedroom and whips out…his banjo), she chronicles all the cheek-kissing, the brownnosing, the backstabbing. “I saw my time there like a reporter,” Robinson says. “I’d take notes after parties—I’d have a little pad with me, matchbooks with scribbles, just to remember details.”

Though never starstruck, as her sister was, Robinson was happy to use her showbiz connections to give Laurie a lift. In December 1996 she took up Bill Murray’s offer to call her sister (“a huge fan of his”) in the hospital. When Laurie picked up the phone, “she started laughing and didn’t stop for about 10 minutes,” Robinson remembers. “When she finally did, she proceeded to tell him I’d never seen some of his funniest movies. I said, Thanks a lot!’ ” Later, she says, “we had a Bill Murray film festival in her hospital room for the next few nights.”

The memory of their closeness would help carry Robinson through the tough times, including the summer of 2002, when she got writer’s block. “The last part was the most difficult,” she says. To shake things up, she went to stay in Rome, where she knew no one. “I got lonely after a few weeks, but I thought, ‘You can’t go home until you’re done.’ ” She finished the book within a month.

Ironically, talk of a movie version isn’t tempting Robinson to return to Hollywood. At work on a new novel, she’s busy spending time with her nieces (Tom’s daughters Anna, 14, and Ava, 10) and quietly savoring her success. Not so much the money—though she’s happy to say she can afford Evian again—but something even more valuable. “To make something good out of the most terrible thing I ever went through,” she says, “that’s what I was hoping for.”

Allison Adato. Natasha Stoynoff in New York

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