When Ann Hood says she has always wanted to be a writer, an ambition one would not call rare, she's not just talking about a lifetime of daydreaming.

The 30-year-old Washingtonian wrote her first novel when she was a fifth-grader at Providence Street Grammar School in West Warwick, R.I. "A Ride on a Carousel" was 20 or 30 pages long, about a lonely little girl who found a deserted carousel that took her back in time and to a place where she had friends. Finally the little girl had to decide whether to live in the past or the present.

The next step was finding a publisher. Hood, 10, sent her novel to Bennett Cerf, the founder and chairman of Random House. "I saw him on 'What's My Line?' and they said he was a publisher." Cerf, she reports, replied that he was "always interested in new talent" and asked Hood to send along her stuff when she was a little older.

Random House missed its chance. Now Hood is a grown-up, and Bantam Books is publishing a slightly longer novel that, you might say, explores some of the same themes and dilemmas as "A Ride on a Carousel."

The new book, "Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine," was put under contract two years ago on the strength of a few disconnected chapters. When the full manuscript came in last year, Bantam iced the cake. Along with Glenn Savan's "White Palace," Hood's novel was chosen to launch the Bantam New Fiction series, a late bid for a piece of the quality paperback market blazed by Vintage three years ago with its runaway success, Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City." Bantam has nearly 40,000 copies of the Hood book in print.

Determined as she has been for 20 years, Hood still seems dazzled by the turn her life has taken. Sitting on the back porch of the Burleith row house she shares with novelist Bob Reiss, she says, "As much as I wanted to write, I thought, who would read this?"

Even now "I still feel very much on the other side," she says. "When I meet a writer I really admire or respect, I'm still awed, dumbfounded, excited and all of that. I sort of hope I always keep a little bit of that."

The possibility that Ann Hood will become hard-bitten or celebrity-crazed seems remote: Consider her concern for appearances. Dressed in flip-flops, black stirrup stretch pants and a polka-dot top falling from her shoulders, her hair a jungle, Hood can't imagine changing her clothes for the photographer.

More remarkable still, this certifiable warmth has survived Hood's interim career (1979-1987) as a flight attendant, with its round-the-clock regimen of congeniality and zombified good cheer.

"It took parts of my personality and improved on them," Hood says of her airborne years. "I do act like a flight attendant, but I think I always did to a degree. At dinner parties, I ask everyone if they'd like a beverage."

"Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine" is not, some will be chagrined and some relieved to hear, about the life of a flight attendant ("stewardess" is a word that does not cross Hood's lips, or those of anyone in her company).

The novel is a slender group portrait of a clutch of women, college friends from the '60s, and their children. The glue in these tales is the perverse physics of generational action and reaction.

For Sparrow, born in the Age of Aquarius, her name is her destiny. Her mother Suzanne is an ambitious Boston businesswoman, taut of bearing, correct and cold, for whom Sparrow's long-gone father represents an era best forgotten and a union best denied. Sparrow, not surprisingly, clutches a faded snapshot of her father, a hippie standing by a VW bus, and lives for the day when they will be reunited.

Rebekah is disgruntled for opposite but equal reasons. The daughter of Suzanne's college friend Elizabeth, who has remained committed to '60s values, Rebekah longs "to eat Twinkies with her lunch instead of dried fruit and nuts." Her longing for a new nose, smaller and bump-free, is even more intense, and she pinches money from her parents' pottery earnings to correct the problem.

One intriguing thing about this novel of two generations is that the author belongs to neither; Hood was born in 1956. "But I did have an older brother," she says, "who was five years older than me. I was fascinated by the things he and his friends were doing. I used to say, 'Why aren't I the older one? Why wasn't I born then?' "

Hood recalls going to the Vietnam Moratorium with her brother, wearing a black armband, in the eighth grade. "I loved it. I loved that whole era."

And the teen-agers in her novel?

"When I was 15 or 16, those were my most wonderful years and my worst years, so of course they left an impression on me ... The thing about Rebekah's nose really came out of whatever my insecurity was. It wasn't my nose, but everybody's got something. I wore glasses. I remember going to my ninth-grade dance. It was the first time I wore makeup, and I had to put on glasses."

Last winter, Hood found herself reading from her novel before an audience at the University of Alabama.

"I read the part about Rebekah getting the nose job. In that part, she hates everything from the '60s. As I'm reading, I look up and I see that the audience is full of older people -- around 40 -- in flannel shirts with big beards. And I'm thinking, 'I picked the absolute wrong thing {to read}' because in a way I'm laughing at them.

"I was so nervous, until the reception afterwards, where one of them came up to me and said, 'I'm dying because my daughter wants Esprit clothes.' And another guy in a suit came up and complained that his ex-wife was mad because he was feeding his daughter meat."

Hood is given to delighted, throaty giggles, usually in response to things she has just said. And the last two years' slow dawning of Ann Hood as writer delights her particularly.

She recalls a conversation with novelist Nicholas Delbanco, one of the established writers who first took an interest in her story fragments, at the Breadloaf Writing Program in the summer of 1985.

"At that point, I could not have thought to myself, 'I'm going to sit down and write a novel.' I'd only been writing seriously for about a year. It seemed like too big a project. But Nick kept referring to 'your novel' and finally I said, 'Nick, this isn't a novel.' And he said, 'Well, what would you call stories that have the same characters, the same story line ..." Hood lets loose again, mirth from a geyser.

"So I thought: Wow, I'm writing a novel."

Delbanco, expressing modest pride in having given Hood a well-timed nudge, says that a teacher at Breadloaf "looks at an awful lot of manuscripts. Hers stuck out like a sore thumb from the fist of work one normally receives."

He praises the "emotional honesty" in Hood's fiction -- "a simplicity of diction together with a complexity of character. She paid attention to the way human beings work, and the way words ought to be worked around them."

Hood, who flew with TWA for six years, completed the novel "on the New York City subways going out to Kennedy ... I always carried notebooks, and would write on layover, and when I flew internationally for a while, on long flights to Cairo, 13-hour nonstops. They leave at night, the passengers are asleep. You're not supposed to be writing books ... but that's what I was doing."

Those days are over. Hood is finishing her second novel, Reiss his fourth. They'll spend the summer shuttling between New York City and a family retreat near Jacob's Pillow, Mass., and plan to be married on Labor Day. Then, who knows? They may come back to Washington, or they may travel abroad for a while.

"Our plans change daily at this point," she says, basking in the uncertainty. "A lot of my old boyfriends were lawyers with rigid schedules. This is wonderful. When we want to take off to go skiing we just can."