Spend enough time with an author and you learn what a difficult business writing is: the wheel of rejection, the struggle for recognition, the cruel calculus that seldom rewards excellence with a good wage. Rare is the writer who can negotiate it all gracefully.

Susan Isaacs has. By 15, she had learned a writer's essential lessons: 1) reading is the best teacher; 2) an outsider has an enviable vantage; 3) politics, in any form, is grist for drama. But that wasn't all -- she had a library card, a mother who urged her to read without restrictions, and a father who loved tall tales. Shortly after her 12th birthday, her father, an electrical engineer, moved her small family from Brooklyn to Cincinnati, and her world changed. She met her first Protestant. She played with children who adored Nixon. She went from a Jewish neighborhood to the heart of conservative America. She didn't know it then, but those three years in Ohio were a blessing: Discomfort, like air, is what a novelist breathes.

Much of her story she tells above. After four years at Queens College, she landed her first job as a slush-pile reader at Seventeen magazine. She rose to senior editor but left office jobs behind to live in the suburbs with her husband, a federal prosecutor, and raise their two children. She wrote speeches for political campaigns. By her mid-twenties, she had published a novel, Compromising Positions (1978), and it was chosen as a Book of the Month Club dual main selection, along with The World According to Garp. It made the bestseller lists, as every novel of hers since has: among them, Almost Paradise (1984), Shining Through (1988), After All These Years (1993), Red, White and Blue (1998) and Long Time No See (2001). She wrote a screenplay ("Hello Again," starring Shelley Long) and saw three of her novels made into movies. In October, she will publish Anyplace I Hang My Hat, about a political reporter who goes in search of the mother who abandoned her as a baby.

A past president of the Mystery Writers of America, Isaacs attributes her success to her taste for a good mystery story. "What a smart form of writing!" she says. "It taught me everything I know." As she dictates her novels into speech-recognition software, she is blissfully free of pencils, pens, keyboards, writer's block -- all obstacles that can stand between her and the page. "I'm desperate to write," she says. And she does. Every day. Like breathing.

-- Marie Arana