Two years ago, my wife and I were enjoying a nice dinner al fresco in Charlottesville, Va., while a few tables away a woman and her husband were trying in vain to control three boys. We thought they were hilarious — flying ice cubes, straws in nose a la walrus, all the classics — but mom and dad were struggling to quiet the kids without adding to the mayhem or their own rising embarrassment.
Later that night at the hotel, we found ourselves riding the elevator with those exhausted parents. “Where are your boys?” I asked. Before they could answer, the doors opened, and one of the little guys let out a battle cry and darted past. Without his shirt on.
That’s how I met their mother, Sarah Pekkanen. She was at the Virginia Book Festival to promote her first novel, “The Opposite of Me,” and since that time she’s become a periodic reviewer for The Washington Post.
More importantly, her career as a novelist has exploded into a writer’s dream. (And the boys, she tells me, have calmed down. A little.) Now an international bestseller, with a glowing endorsement from Jodi Picoult, she’s got a new three-book deal with Atria/Simon & Schuster to bring out a novel every spring through 2015.
Tuesday night she was at the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, Md., where she grew up, promoting the release of her latest book, “These Girls.”
Pekkanen told the audience that years ago she used to come to this store and wander the shelves, making a little space at the exact spot where her novel would go someday. “And then security would take me away,” she dead-panned.
A former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, she wrote her first novel at Chuck E. Cheese while her boys ran through rolls of tokens.
With no idea how to find an agent, she went to Barnes & Noble and looked for books like hers. “I read the acknowledgment pages to find out who their agents were. Then I went home and Googled them.”
Soon after getting an encouraging response from Karin Slaughter’s agent, she began to wonder if she’d made a mistake, so she screwed up her courage and wrote a note to the famous thriller writer to ask if her agent was legit. Two minutes later, an e-mail message came back: “This is Karin Slaughter’s agent. I answer Karin’s mail when she’s on tour. . . . Don’t worry: I’m checking you out, too.”
Pekkanen turned in the manuscript for her fourth novel last week, and now she’s published in 10 countries (Russia’s the latest). There are also discussions underway about making her first novel into a TV show in China.
Screenwriting is her latest interest. “I just signed with a film agent. Nothing may happen,” she laughs, “but three years ago, I never thought I’d have a book here, so who knows.”
Among the fans in attendance was Eleanor Brown, whose debut novel, “Weird Sisters,” is enjoying tremendous success in its new paperback edition — No. 2 on the independent bookstore bestseller list. Like Brown, Pekkanen writes about women and “the important relationships in women’s lives,” she says.
“I’m just going to write about vampires after that.”
Her boys would approve.