A therapist scores with cookie comfort.
Time for an unlisted number? That's what friends are asking Ann Pearlman. The question throws the therapist, author, and longtime Ann Arborite for a loop. Yes, she's living out every writer's fantasy: Simon & Schuster just printed a whopping 350,000 copies of her first published novel, The Christmas Cookie Club, and the rumor in the industry is that she was paid a cool $1 million for it (she smilingly declines comment). The movie rights have already been sold, and there's even a product tie-in: Zingerman's is selling a special "cookie collection" using some of the recipes in the book.
But Pearlman winces at the suggestion that she'll have to unlist herself. "I love my life as it is!" she says. Although she's cut back her therapy practice to one day a week to write a sequel--she has a three-book contract--she's savvy about the fickle book world. She wrote four un-published novels before Cookie Club clicked, and strange things happened with her three published non-fiction books.
Her first book, Keep the Home Fires Burning: How to Have an Affair with Your Spouse, drew on her work as a marriage counselor. But it didn't stop her own husband from straying--a story she related in Infidelity: A Memoir. Then there was Inside the Crips: Life Inside L.A.'s Most Notorious Gang, which she co-authored with supposedly reformed gang member Colton Simpson. Not long after its publication, Simpson went on trial--charged with driving a getaway car during a jewelry store robbery. No longer a story of redemption, the book foundered.
Pearlman, who is Jewish, was looking for a happier subject when she decided to write a novel based very loosely on her annual Christmas/Hanukkah cookie exchange group. The book is set in Ann Arbor, and the main character, Marnie--she calls herself "the head cookie bitch"--visits or talks about Gallup Park, Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, Top of the Park, and, of course, Zingerman's.
The women love the gathering and find comfort in one another's company, but the
book also relates the stresses and upheavals of their lives--marriage woes, financial meltdowns, problems with kids and grandkids, deaths. Despite the reach-for-the-Kleenex moments, its message is essentially upbeat: good cookies and good friends can help a woman make it.
Pearlman warmly welcomes me to her house on a woodsy street in Scio Township. Sixty-seven, with expressive brown eyes and wearing a silky, open-sleeve blouse of contrasting colors, she's an earth mother in black nail polish.
Raised partly in Hyde Park--an academic enclave on Chicago's rough South Side--she developed street smarts early. As a social worker, she went on to work with prisoners and delinquent kids. Her own three children, all grown, worried when she interviewed Colton Simpson on his turf in central L.A. But her only complaint about her host, who is now serving eighty years in prison under California's "three strikes" law, was that he kept nothing but Cheerios to eat.
A highly disciplined writer, Pearlman writes every day from 8 a.m. to at least noon. She also paints and sculpts, and several of her welded, animal-like figures are displayed in her large, airy house. She sees patients in a side room with a spacious view of the outdoors.
"We built this house," Pearlman says of herself and her ex-husband, Al Hinton, a now-retired U-M art professor. The couple separated in 1995, about a year after they moved in, and divorced in 2000, the same year Infidelity appeared in print.
Pearlman is frequently asked if the women in the fictional Christmas Cookie Club are based on the women in her actual group. Mainly not, the author insists. She did base Marnie's physical description on her friend Marybeth Bayer, who brought her into the group nine years ago. With one member's permission, she reprinted an actual email that included a recipe. And, as in the book, seven of the twelve women in her "real" group have had cancer--including Pearlman, whose melanoma was caught early. But the most dramatic details are fictional. "As far as I know, none of the women have had a secret love affair for twenty years," Pearlman says. "None had a friend who slept with their father!"
Although some readers assume she herself is Marnie, Pearlman says that she feels closer to her fictional Allie, a therapist involved with a much younger man (she smilingly declines comment on a romantic parallel). "My kids think I'm all of the characters," she says.
As a therapist, writer, and, most recently, cancer patient (she had surgery in early 2007), Pearlman is interested in survival. "What makes people heal? How can we overcome tragedy?" she asks. "Nobody escapes unscathed. We have all struggled."
When her husband left her, she recalls, her women friends--often bringing food--helped her get through. The publication of and acclaim for Infidelity (her publishing house nominated it for a Pulitzer) was also healing.
Simon & Schuster is doing a massive publicity blitz for The Christmas Cookie Club this month. Pearlman has already met with movie producer Wendy Finerman (Forest Gump, The Devil Wears Prada) and lobbied to film the movie in Ann Arbor (there's no word yet on that). Early reviews have been mixed--Entertainment Weekly graded it C+--but online reader comments have been more enthusiastic.
Whatever the book's fate--a best-seller or a might-have-been--Pearlman believes that she's offering an outlet for escape for readers in difficult times. "Maybe I'd like to stop world hunger or violence," she says. "But if people start enjoying each other by baking cookies, that's pretty special."
[Originally published in December, 2009.]