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It started in her imagination, with a single image of a young woman balled up on a bed beneath a blanket.

Writer Sere Prince Halverson didn't know who the woman was or why she was in such pain. She knew only that "she had had everything" and suddenly lost it all.

Halverson would spend the next five years in search of answers. Her fictional journey would take her to the little Russian River town of Elbow where Ella Beene "did backflips in the deep end of happiness" until the day her husband drowned off Bodega Head, flipping her into "The Underside of Joy."

These days Halverson herself is on the upside. Nearly 20 years after writing her first novel, the 50-year-old advertising and marketing copywriter has finally been published. The "Underside of Joy" was released this month by Dutton Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Books, after heated bidding among some of New York's leading publishers and a flurry of foreign-rights deals.

It's a feat Denise Roy, a senior editor at Dutton, calls extraordinary for a book from an unknown writer with no advanced degree or important literary mentor. Halverson's novel was miraculously lifted from what the publishing industry calls the "slush pile," where unsolicited manuscripts land and then languish.

"The Underside of Joy" is about grief, secrets and family scars and, ultimately, what it means to be a mother. And it's set within Sonoma County, a place so authentically drawn that Halverson says she sees it almost as "another character in the book."

Elbow is a confabulation of Occidental and the tiny Villa Grande on the Russian River, where Halverson hunkered down alone in a friend's century-old cabin to finally finish the book.

"The good thing is, she never quit. She persevered," says her husband, Stan, a professional cook who surprised his wife last year by building her a room of her own. It's a little red writer's cottage in the trees complete with homemade bookcase and bulletin board to plot her stories, and just a few steps from the apartment the empty-nesters now share above a barn on his sister's Sebastopol property.

The book, which unfolds around a custody battle between a widowed stepmother of two and the deeply depressed birth mother who walked away from her family three years earlier, has been reviewed with glowing adjectives like "pitch-perfect," "faultless" and "transforming." In May, Penguin picked the "Underside of Joy" to submit for the crucial Book Expo America Buzz Forum, in which New York's biggest publishing houses bring their prized upcoming titles for discussion before booksellers and the media.

"Ella's story is not my story," Halverson discloses from her sunny studio, still fragrant with the flowers from her recent Copperfield's book-launching picnic. "But I'm a mom and a stepmom and I have a mom and a stepmom. And none of us are evil... All the stepmoms I know, including my own kids' stepmom, really loved their stepkids. But they have no rights in a court of law. It's a complete minefield and to a writer a minefield is another word for a candy store."

The book concludes with no victor in the mommy war, just an understanding that there can be room in a child's life for "two moms."

Halverson herself has two sons, Daniel, 24 and Michael 21. But when she reconnected with her high school prom date, Stan Halverson, two years after both divorced, they "blenderized" their families and she became stepmom to Karli, 20 and Taylor, 18.

While she may be regarded as a new voice in fiction, Halverson, a brown-eyed brunette with a gamine haircut and girlish face, has been preparing for this moment since second grade, when she wrote her first play, "The Elf Who Stole the Girl." The standing ovation encouraged her writing.

Growing up in Seattle, Connecticut and finally Novato, Halverson wound up majoring in journalism at Fresno State, heeding for 25 years her pharmacist father's warning that the only way she could make a living writing was in advertising.

All the while she took writing classes and attended writers' groups in San Diego, where she lived for years. She wrote her first novel while her boys were at preschool. It was praised, but didn't sell.

Her second novel got closer, but didn't sell, either. She credits her dear friend and "writing sister" Elle Newmark with keeping her focused.

When Newmark's "The Book of Unholy Mischief" was picked up by Simon & Schuster, Halverson was thrilled. And when it was Halverson's turn to call with the news that she too would finally be published, Newmark, by then a best-selling author, screamed into the phone.

Newmark died in June, throwing Halverson, on the brink of her own success, into what she calls "the underside of joy," a dark place, without which happiness could never be truly savored.

"Elle's motto was &‘never, never, never give up.' She was always quoting Churchill. She was a woman who just went for it and I wasn't, and she made a big difference in my life," says Halverson, who already has a new book ready for submission. "Getting published is not a mystery. It's hard and there are no guarantees. But if you work hard and you write well, anything can happen. It happened to me."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@ pressdemnocrat.com or 521-5204