Perhaps the best way to measure how success has changed Susie Moloney is to compare her trailers. In the driveway of her modest home on Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario is a slightly decrepit, 4.5 m, blue and white trailer, with just enough room for two people to stand. There, Moloney completed her second novel, A Dry Spell, a supernatural thriller about a rainmaker and a woman banker trying to save a drought-stricken North Dakota town. The book, due out on Sept. 6, was bought by Bantam Doubleday Dell in the United States and Doubleday in Canada. Tom Cruise's production company scooped up the film rights, and publishing contracts have been struck in 13 other countries. It all adds up to a deal in the neighborhood of $2.5 million. Now, Moloney does her writing in a 9.5 m, gleaming silver Airstream - complete with shower, awning and wooden deck - which is parked on a piece of land she owns a 10-minute drive away. But in terms of conspicuous consumption, that's about the largest item on a short list of luxury goods that Moloney has acquired since her windfall. "I don't think I have a concept of how much money that is," says Moloney, 35, who notes that a 10-year period of single motherhood left her with thrifty habits. "I mean, you're talking to someone who once thought, after getting a hand mixer, that her life would be complete if she could just get a blender."
Diminutive and husky-voiced, Moloney rolls her own cigarettes and peppers her conversation with comic hyperbole and wry asides, often at her own expense. It's a tone that permeates her weekly column, known as "Funny Girl," which she still writes for four Northern Ontario newspapers. She often uses her family life as fodder, portraying it as barely controlled domestic chaos, although she rarely names husband Mick, 43, nor sons Josh, 16, and Michael, 2. And she is proud that despite the recent upheavals in her life, she has missed only two columns. "I was in a café a little while ago and watched a woman open the [Manitoulin] Expositor and read my column first," recalls Moloney. "I kept nudging my girlfriend and telling her, 'First - she read my column first!' "
Moloney lives in Little Current (population 1,675), the largest town on bucolic Manitoulin Island at the north end of Lake Huron, where she arrived in August, 1990. She was following the man she had fallen in love with in her native Winnipeg, Mick Moloney, an energy-efficiency contractor who had been offered a job near Manitoulin. "I came here for six months, and just stayed," the author says. "I love it here. I like knowing my neighbors and seeing the same faces on the street. I like knowing what's happening this weekend around town. I like things to stay the same." Only half joking, she adds: "I don't like personal growth - you can write that down."
But Moloney's life contradicts that statement. Born Susie Schledwitz and raised in Winnipeg, the middle child of three, she has been writing stories for as long as she can remember. "As a kid, I used to watch TV programs and then rewrite the plots into story form," she says. Those early forays into prose were at least partly a refuge from a difficult childhood. Her mother became ill with cancer when Susie was 7, and died four years later. As a teenager, Susie became estranged from her father, Don, who owns a trucking firm. When she was 19, she became a single mother.
In her 20s, she worked at odd jobs, from waitressing to editing an arts magazine, and took courses at the University of Winnipeg and Red River Community College. And she wrote fiction, usually after Josh was asleep. Her work had more than a touch of the macabre: her first novel was a horror story about wolves - and was returned unopened by the New York City publishing houses she mailed it to. A vampire novella was next, but Moloney says she never submitted it; in retrospect, she realizes that Anne Rice had done blood lust better. Asked about her penchant for the supernatural, Moloney replies: "I just have that turn of mind. I like the delicious thrill of being frightened, the quick hit of adrenaline." She remembers being fascinated with Tales from the Crypt comic books and the Loch Ness monster as a child; now, she never misses an episode of The X-Files. At the same time, Moloney admits to being a complete coward. "If Mick's away, I have to sleep with the lights on, if I sleep at all. And I always imagine the worst: if the baby sleeps 10 minutes longer than usual, I'm afraid to go in the room and check. In my mind, I'm already reading the ransom note."
Once on Manitoulin, she began Bastion Falls, a horror novel set in a northern Canadian town of the same name. She didn't like being dependent on Mick for money, and tried harder to get published. A few sample chapters convinced Toronto agent Helen Heller to take on Moloney as a client, and Key Porter Books released the novel in 1995. Bastion Falls achieved modest sales, and helped pave the way for A Dry Spell. "I think all writers learn a great deal about their craft with their first published book," says Heller. "And Susie applied all those lessons with great success in A Dry Spell. We sold it on the basis of only a prologue, three chapters and an outline."
A Dry Spell is part romance and part horror thriller. The prologue introduces Tom Keatley, a taciturn loner who wanders the United States offering his services as a rainmaker to various drought-stricken towns. Meanwhile, Karen Grange, a bank manager recently posted in Goodlands, N.D., is witnessing the decay of her small agricultural town after four years without rain. Just as she is becoming accepted into the community, she finds herself forced to foreclose on more and more family farms. Desperate, she contacts Keatley, whom she once saw featured in a TV news item. Keatley's supernatural abilities are sorely tested when he comes up against a malignant presence in Goodlands that threatens to destroy him, Grange and, possibly, the whole town.
With its primal struggle between good and evil, its psychic elements mingling with the mundane, and its detailed exploration of small-town life, A Dry Spell echoes many Stephen King novels. The comparison thrills Moloney. "He brought horror writing to the mainstream," she says, "particularly with his early books, where the writing was tight, the characters were strong, and the stories were so original. With The Shining, my favorite, he turned the haunted-house story into something brand new."
Why did she set her own book in the United States? One reason might be that novels with Canadian settings are usually a hard sell in the U.S. market. But Moloney cites more writerly concerns. "I blame Margaret Laurence," she declares. "She said that you can't write about a place until after you've left it. Winnipeg is still too close for me to write about - it's still home in many ways - even though I'm settled here." Meanwhile, Moloney says she chose North Dakota because of its familiarity: when she was growing up in Winnipeg, Grand Forks, N.D., was a cheap holiday spot. "It's close to Winnipeg and the terrain is so similar that I could write about it without being inhibited."
Another element in the book is taken from Moloney's experience. Through friends, she once met a women who was a bona fide shopaholic and ended up in jail after she had embezzled to finance her extravagant purchases. "Her house was literally full of stuff she'd bought - clothes, housewares, everything - with the price tags still on months later," the author recalls. "I thought it was really ironic that she ended up in prison, where you only get to wear one outfit all the time." Funny Girl strikes again. But in fact, Moloney writes sensitively about that addiction in A Dry Spell, connecting heroine Karen Grange's spending to a deep psychological anxiety. "I know the difference between a want and a need," says Moloney.
That down-to-earth attitude will stand her in good stead as she prepares for the hyperactivity of a U.S. and Canadian book tour, part of a $480,000 marketing campaign to promote A Dry Spell. Moloney is taking her family along for some of the stops, but she is worried about leaving son Michael for a whole week at one point, even though he will be with his nanny, step-brother and father.
With Moloney's entry into the pop-fiction fast lane, husband Mick has become her manager, keeping track of the money and helping to juggle the family schedule. He now has more time to devote to his rock band, The Love Handles - "the name's caused some controversy among our newer, younger members," he says drolly - which plays around Manitoulin. And he now roams the island on the powerful new Honda Valkyrie motorcycle that his wife bought him. Meanwhile, he says the family has no plans to leave the island: "We're not the grass-is-greener kind of people."
Susie agrees - and balks at the "ragpicker-to-the-set-of-Dallas" scenario that inevitably surfaces whenever the media focuses on her. A typical day, she insists, is much the same as it was before. Now at work on her next novel, she keeps a regular schedule for writing, setting herself a target of 2,500 words a day, and arrives home when Michael awakes from his afternoon nap. "Yes, my life is so much better in so many ways," she says. But the things that sustained her before her success - family and writing - are still paramount. "The good things don't change."
Maclean's September 1, 1997