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‘Breakdown’ speeds Mitchard on her way

Now on fourth book, novelist recalls her Oprah boost
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jacquelyn Mitchard pressed the play button on her answering machine and heard a voice saying, “Hi. This is Oprah Winfrey. I read your book, and I’d like to talk to you about it. Would you please call me.”

Mitchard erased the message, suspecting that one of her friends was pulling a prank. Two more messages from Winfrey were likewise ignored. Finally a fourth, sterner message: “Could you please do me the courtesy of returning my phone call?”

The chastened author made the call, and she and Winfrey laughed over the incident. Mitchard recalled that Winfrey told her that she would like to have Mitchard on her TV show but that she never features fiction writers.

Two weeks later, Winfrey decided to start a book club, and she chose Mitchard’s novel, “The Deep End of the Ocean,” for the first selection. After that, life changed for the Wisconsin widow and her four children. She was now a best-selling author with her first novel.

Mitchard — a lovely, vivacious 52 — came to Los Angeles recently in the final stages of an 18-city tour that had her crisscrossing the United States to promote her fourth novel, “The Breakdown Lane.” The central figure is Julieanne Gillis, who seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Jacquelyn Mitchard.

Both are former reporters who write answers to letters from troubled newspaper readers. Both have lost their first husbands — Mitchard’s to cancer, Gillis’ to desertion. Both are left with little means and three children, including a boy with a brilliant mind despite a learning disorder. And both have happy second marriages, Gillis with a high school sweetheart, Mitchard with a carpenter 12 years her junior.

'Stubborn unwillingness'After her first husband died, Mitchard adopted another child, and she and her husband, Christopher Brent, have added two more to the mix. She now has six children living at home, the oldest boy having returned to the nest.

“Don’t believe any novelist who tells you, ‘I am not this character, and this character isn’t me,”’ Mitchard cautioned.

Julie, the heroine of “The Breakdown Lane,” has a “stubborn unwillingness to part with things that are clearly not hers anymore,” the author added. “I think that is a characteristic that I share. I was a widow with too much pride to accept the help that I needed. I learned the hard way to accept that help.”

Mitchard has been writing all her adult life. She started on a weekly newspaper where her boss was Dan Allegretti, who would become her husband. Both worked on the Capital Times in Madison, Wis., and she began writing her weekly columns for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel more than 20 years ago; they are now syndicated in 100 papers.

Allegretti died of colon cancer at 44. After a period of intense loneliness, Mitchard began dating “but my dates didn’t consider my children as value added.” After she sold “The Deep End of the Ocean,” which became a well-received movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer, she began another novel, “The Most Wanted,” which concerned a mature woman who marries a younger man. Then, in a remarkable coincidence, the handsome carpenter came to repair Mitchard’s bathroom tile.

Knowable charactersMitchard’s success as a novelist seems to stem from the fact that her books are about families, with which readers, particularly women, can identify.

“Even if they’ve never met her or seen her on TV, I think customers feel like they know her,” said Mary McCarthy, vice president and general manager of Harry W. Schwartz Books, which has four stores in Milwaukee. “They know about the problems with her husband, her kids, how she’s screwed on her credit card. Her books have characters who are very much like her. You feel you know this person from the newspaper.”

Mitchard’s life has little changed by what Oprah hath wrought. She and Brent still live just outside Madison, although in a house that he built to accommodate the growing family.

“I got a minivan, and I started buying the kids’ clothes in a store instead of at garage sales,” she said. “I make a decent enough living; no one who has six kids is rich. They wear out shoes, they drink seven gallons of milk a week. ... I’m not a different person. Same friends, same clothes, same 10 pounds to lose.”