Alice Sebold knows all about arresting first lines. "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie", begins her first novel, The Lovely Bones. "I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." Her other book, Lucky, also goes straight for the jugular: "In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheatre, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered." These are textbook fiction openings, their unadorned prose designed to maximise the visceral punch. Another American creative writing graduate takes the well-travelled, hard-boiled route to literary success.
But Lucky is not a novel. When she was 18, the woman sitting in front of me, a woman with translucent skin, pink lipstick and extraordinary quadrangular, diamanté-trimmed glasses, was stopped on her way home from a college party. She was beaten, cut and dragged into a tunnel, where she was sodomised and raped. Her assailant thrust his penis into her mouth and urinated on her face, before raping her again and grabbing the loose change from her pockets. " 'You're the worst bitch I ever done this to,' " he told her. Alice Sebold was a virgin. She didn't know how to follow the rapist's instructions: where to put her legs or how to "suck dick". At the trial, months later, the white pants she had worn on the night, now wrapped in plastic and passed around as evidence, were almost entirely red.
"I'm in the dead zone," she announces with a bewitching pink smile, meaning nothing more sinister than that she is extremely tired. She has come straight from the Hay Festival and has just done four interviews, including Breakfast News and Woman's Hour. Twenty-two years on, Alice Sebold spends a great deal of time sitting in hotel rooms, being quizzed about the hour of brutality that turned her life upside down. If she has had enough of discussing the terror, the pleading and, most of all, the shame, she is polite enough not to show it.
It is not Lucky, however, that has shot her into the literary stratosphere, the one that secures the packed publicity schedule of a Hollywood star and suites in the Savoy, such as the one we're sitting in now. Sebold's fame in America is not as a celebrity rape victim. Lucky was published in the States in 1999. It got some good reviews and then "sank into oblivion". She is famous because her first novel, The Lovely Bones, was last year's publishing phenomenon. It sold two-and-a-half million copies in hardback, a record for a first novel. The paperback shot to the number one slot on Amazon six weeks before it came out. It hasn't left the top 10 since.
As the opening lines reveal, the novel is told in the voice of Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who has been raped and murdered. Speaking from heaven, a heaven with many of the more comforting accoutrements of an American high school - room-mates, counsellors and swings, but glossy magazines instead of textbooks and no teachers - Susie tells the tale of her vicious abduction and murder in the cornfield near her home and observes the sequence of events that follow. Her elbow is found near a large patch of blood, but there is no other trace of a body. This fosters an agonising false hope in her parents, which is gradually replaced by the raw grief reserved only for relatives of the murdered or disappeared. "Before sleep wore off, he was who he used to be," she says of her father. "Then, as consciousness woke, it was as if poison seeped in."
Sebold's portrayal of a family reeling under the weight of unimaginable loss is extremely moving. Less convincing, perhaps, are the forays between heaven and earth. Susie pops down to the family duplex at frequent intervals and is glimpsed, fleetingly, in the corners of rooms. She even, at one point, enters the body of a school-friend who is making love with her own childhood sweetheart. The message, of course, is that "the line between the living and the dead could be ... murky and blurred".
Post September 11, this went down a storm: not just with the reading public, but with the critics, too. Even The New York Times's fearsome Michiko Kakutani described it as "a deeply affecting meditation on the ways in which terrible pain and loss can be redeemed". In this country, the response was a little more muted. While many continued to hail the book's pacing, elegance and luminous prose, others had unlovely bones to pick. Joan Smith attacked the novel's "apple-pie sentimentality", claiming that it made her queasy. Philip Hensher described the book as "a slick, overpoweringly saccharine and unfeeling exercise in sentiment". On this side of the Atlantic, was the implication, we are less susceptible to such redemptive whimsy.
Lucky is a much better book. It has all the pared-down strength and precision of the best pickings of The Lovely Bones, without the lyrical flights or excesses. Beginning with the graphic description of the rape in the tunnel, it is an account of a life painfully transformed: from oddball student, draping her awkward curves in flowing dresses and dreaming of being a poet, to rape victim and pariah. It is one of the most shocking books I have ever read. It is also a book that Sebold had no intention of writing.
"I never thought about writing a memoir," she declares matter-of-factly, "because I wanted to be a novelist or a poet." It was only after two years of writing The Lovely Bones that she became aware that another story was fighting to come out: "When I felt a sense of polemic entering the novel, I realised that I had to get myself out of there ... It almost felt like Serena or Venus Williams; they lift a lot of weights, they build a lot of muscle, in order that they can play the game they're meant to play... It wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do, but if I wanted to write the novel I had to do it."
The result is profoundly moving, in so many more ways than the obvious. In addition to the central trauma - the rape, the encounter with the rapist in the street six months later, the trial and the long, slow and at times drug-addled years of recovery - there is another, equally complicated, story. This is the story of a lonely child in a middle-class household, where the father, a professor of Spanish literature, retreats to his study and the mother, an alcoholic who suffers from panic attacks, will only show her daughter affection if she is tricked into it.
"I knew, now that I had been raped, I should try to look good for my parents," the narrator confides, after changing into the green-and-red kilt she knows her mother likes. And yet, for much of the book, her parents seem strangely absent. It was only when Sebold was researching it, looking at court files and speaking to her family, that she discovered that neither of them had wanted to come to the trial. "I remember my blood just running cold when I was on the phone with my mother," she recalls. "I think that was probably the most painful thing for me to realise."
Her mother is effusively thanked in the acknowledgments; her father, more coolly, for "being part of the show". How did they respond to an exposure that many would regard as a humiliation? "My father did what he does," Sebold replies with a wry smile. "He sent me a list of grammatical errors." For her mother "it was devastating", but there was no anger. "The good thing with my mom is that she has tried to the extent that she can ... to own up to her inabilities as a parent. There was a typo that I left in which means that my mother was drinking for many fewer years than she actually was," Sebold confides. "And because she was very supportive of me I left that in as a kind of secret gift to her."
There were plenty more shocks in store. Sebold discovered that the police inspector who took her report wrote that he believed, "after interview of the victim, that this case, as presented by the victim, is not completely factual". She learnt that the rapist had made allegations that she had venereal disease, and that she had asked for rough sex. She also saw the police photos of herself for the first time. "It was intense," she says, with a degree of understatement, "to see the palpable absence of myself in the photos straight afterwards and that I had already taken on an intense level of shame."
One of the most shocking moments in the book, one that made me gasp out loud, is the identity parade that follows his arrest. Alice picks the wrong man. She later finds out that the rapist has insisted on being accompanied by a friend who's almost a double and who stares out at her from behind the mirror while the rapist himself looks down. It is one of a range of tactics designed to weaken her. When, after the traumas of the trial and the defence's excruciating cross-examination, Alice is told by the bailiff: "you are the best rape witness I've ever seen on the stand", you just want to break down and cry.
The woman sitting opposite me, whose laugh is hearty and whose smile is broad and warm, is a woman palpably at peace with herself. It has been a long road. After years living in New York's East Village, failing to make it as a writer, snorting heroin and trying to convince herself that she was OK, she finally acknowledged that she wasn't. She had therapy, left New York and, on a creative writing course in California, met her husband, the novelist Glen David Gold. For both of them, finding each other coincided with spectacular literary success. It is, she says, with peals of laughter and a twinkle in those deep, blue eyes, "awesome".
Away from the whirlwind tours, the readings and the dinners, she longs for nothing more than days at home in California, "walking the dog very early, working till around noon or one o'clock and then going out for coffee someplace with Glen".
"You didn't ask me about sex," says Sebold with relief, when I switch off the tape recorder and start gathering up my things. I didn't need to. Alice Sebold has the rare glow of one who has found true love, and whose demons are firmly in the past. The author of Lucky deserves it.
'Lucky' is published today by Picador, £7.99