Discovering 'Dwayne'

"The morning I died it rained."

That's the opening line of Lilburn novelist J.L. Miles' 2001 debut, "Roseflower Creek." The line that landed her a book deal.

"I happened to be at the right place at the right time," the author said.

The right place was a reading of "Roseflower Creek." It was the right time because a publisher was in the audience, and as soon as he heard that chilling introduction, imparted from the afterlife by the novel's newly deceased young female protagonist, he was hooked.

But despite critical acclaim, initial sales for "Roseflower Creek" were soft. Blame the timing.

"The book debuted three days before 9/11," Miles said.

Unspeakable tragedies tend to divert a nation's attention, and eventually, Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" - another novel with a similar opening, narrated by a similar dead girl - premiered to heaps of hype.

"Time Magazine wrote a review on ('Bones'), saying, 'How refreshing and unique, written from the grave in the voice of the protagonist,'" Miles said. "And of course, we had done it nine months sooner, but nobody noticed."

Alas, "Creek" nevertheless marked a stellar debut, sparking a surprise career for a suburban housewife. Miles didn't know she had it in her to make it in the literary world. She'd been, as she puts it, "a homemaker and a momma" until she decided to stave off empty nest syndrome by nurturing her creative side.

"I didn't really start writing until the last of my babies left the house," she said, "and I happened to hit a home run."

Now, she's celebrating the release of her third book. And while the increasingly experienced storyteller has always had a gift for mixing laughs in with the cries, "Divorcing Dwayne," released April 1, marks Miles' first foray into flat-out comedy.

"I don't normally write this kind of book," she said. "... It was a respite. ... I needed something light and something silly. Something fun."

The concept for "Dwayne" arose almost as a act of defiance, a response to a collegue's assertion that an author should never try to be funny in a query letter, which is what writers use to pitch stories to literary agents.

"I figured that I could write something funny from a character that would grab somebody's attention," she said, "and it wouldn't be bad."

The result, which was picked up immediately, is the tumultuous tale of Francine Harper and her comically troubled marriage to a no-good husband named Dwayne.

"Dwayne is a philanderer," Miles said, "a proberbial skirt-chaser. He's good-lookin', he's country, he's a very talented fiddler in a bluegrass band ... he can't stay away from a good-lookin' woman if she's within 10 feet of him."

As for Francine, she's "a country girl who adores Dwayne; always wanted to grow up, maybe have a couple kids, settle down. And she's true-blue, so of course it's a big slap in the face when she finds out in the book that Dwayne is far from being true."

It's the first in a planned trilogy, to be followed by "Dear Dwayne" and "Dating Dwayne."

"I know that sounds backwards," Miles said, "but actually, she divorces the guy first, writes him a bunch of letters and then starts dating him again. Doesn't that sound like a woman who's really got a problem?"

Since finishing the first entry in the "Dwayne" series, Miles is "back to my regular genre," she said.

In her upcoming work, called "The Heavenly Heart," a girl who's passed on follows the lives of five people who've received her organs, including her own father, allowed to survive through the use of her heart.

"It's kind of like 'It's a Wonderful Life' in reverse," Miles said. "She gets a chance to look at her life as though she had lived instead of died."

SideBar: Did You Know?

"Divorcing Dwayne" launched locally Friday night at The Avenue Webb Ginn's Barnes and Noble, and Miles was on hand to sign copies. But if you missed that engagement, don't fret. Miles said signed copies should still be available at that location for some time. (But hurry.)