BY SHERRYL CONNELLY
Sunday, October 14, 2007, 4:00 AM
You can tell from the outset how different Alice Sebold's second novel, "The Almost Moon," is from her first, "The Lovely Bones," which almost everyone was reading in 2002.
"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973," begins "The Lovely Bones."
"When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily," starts "The Almost Moon."
In "The Lovely Bones," of which there are 5 million copies in print in the U.S. alone, the narrator is a child victim. The voice of "The Almost Moon" is a middle-aged perpetrator, 49-year-old Helen.
"A lot of my writing has a huge, I think we can call it, learning curve," Sebold says. "If you can hold on in the beginning, then you're fine."
She certainly front-loads the new novel with nasty, provocative incidents. Helen, who has long tended to her aged mother - now in the throes of dementia - first attempts to wash her clean of feces after an accident. When that proves impossible, she smothers her with towels and puts the corpse in the freezer.
Helen escapes the scene of the crime, only to sleep with her best friend's 30-year-old son.
Though the first printing for "The Almost Moon" is a healthy 75,000, Sebold says she sensed "a little nervousness" from her editors at Little, Brown when she first submitted the manuscript.
"Then it was almost like a sea change," she recalls, "when they heard from some early readers out there who they trust. I feel they just decided they were going to go with it."
Sophie Cottrell, associate publisher, says, "I wouldn't say that is completely true.
"I knew from my first reading. And I know colleagues shared real enthusiasm, that yet again Alice was working in territory that I think other authors would possibly shy away from."
It is the case that her work has always been harrowing. Although "The Lovely Bones" is ultimately affirming, the story deals with the brutal murder of a child and the child's lethal revenge from heaven.
True as well is the fact that Sebold broke away from completing that novel to write her memoir "Lucky," a searingly candid account of her rape when she was an 18-year-old virgin attending Syracuse University.
Of "The Almost Moon," Sebold says simply, "I just wrote the book that I had in me."
"I never thought of writing the next book as Alice Sebold. 'Here I am, Alice Sebold, and I am loved and here is my book.'
"When you think about it, 'The Lovely Bones' was a freakish success and I am a freak and I wrote the next book as the freak that I am."
There was definitely method to her characters' madness, though. "I wanted to talk about this idea of the hidden family, particularly a family hiding the devastating effects of mental illness. A family that has something that isn't easily diagnosed tends to hide what the real cost of that is.
"We have this great obsession, particularly in the U.S., with being a normal, happy family. Hey, there aren't that many families who are that normal or that happy. But they would be a lot happier if they didn't have to pretend to be so normal.
"This is very much a post-1950s novel."
Some critics have objected to her "heroine," Helen, as being unlikable. "I think Helen is prickly and I think she is flawed. I think she is broken and in her brokenness I think she is a lot more like us than many fictional characters.
"She has isolated herself over time trying to protect this family secret."
Sebold herself could be accused of a degree of isolation. She and her husband, Glen David Gold ("Carter Beats the Devil"), live quietly out of the way in a community south of Los Angeles. She rises before dawn to work.
"I always like to start before it's light out," says the 45-year-old author. "What I think is that the judges are asleep, particularly my own internal judge."
Now she is to embark on an extended publicity tour and undoubtedly will be asked to defend herself for having written a powerful and gripping, if grim, novel instead of "The Lovely Bones" again.
You can almost hear her shrug as she says: "I have to keep my brain alive, and you do that by doing your work.
"What was I supposed to do, sit around and hope they come, sit around and hope they come out with a line of Susie Salmon figurines?"