- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

LAFAYETTE, La. — Just as John Grisham parlayed his experience as a lawyer into best-selling courtroom dramas, Deborah LeBlanc drew from her funeral home consulting business to produce two Gothic tales from her native Louisiana that have set spines a-tingling across the country.

Herself a Cajun, with training as a traiteur, or healer, Mrs. LeBlanc credits her success as a fledgling novelist in part to “the fascination with Cajun culture.”

She insists she drew no inspiration from fellow Louisianian Anne Rice for her bizarre bayou tales.

“I hate vampires and werewolves,” she says. “I am to literature what Wal-Mart is to department stores. My style is more for the common man — ‘guess what happened today?’ It’s in my DNA to be that way.”

Her homespun style seems to be working. Her first novel, “Family Inheritance,” an eerie yarn of inherited insanity, clairvoyance and healing powers, has gone through two printings of 50,000 each, she says, and her second, “Grave Intent,” had an initial printing of 90,000. She now frenetically flits about the country like a hummingbird, signing books and promoting her third opus, “A House Divided,” to be released at the end of this month. All three are published by New York-based Dorchester Publishing Co.

Mrs. LeBlanc will sign copies of her book at 1 p.m. today at Book Expo America at the Washington Convention Center.

Until “Family Inheritance” was committed to computer in 2002, this mother of three daughters had no writing background, but was busy running two successful businesses in Lafayette. One is a national fuel-monitoring service for service stations; the other is the funeral home consulting firm.

The only harbinger of literary talent in Mrs. LeBlanc’s background came when she was admonished for writing a short story during a second-grade arithmetic class. The teacher confiscated the story, then read it and encouraged her to continue writing.

At that point, however, she wrote only for herself.

“That’s how I lived my life as a child, writing stories to myself on paper,” she recalls.

She and her two siblings endured what she called a “difficult” childhood at the hands of their divorced mother. She married at 16, raised her daughters, earned a marketing degree, then spent three years in oilfield supply sales and 10 years as executive vice president of a freight company before entering her current businesses.

The funeral connection proved the catalyst that brought out the latent writer.

“The story of ‘Family Inheritance’ had been playing around in my mind for a long time,” she says. “I knew someone who had a family member diagnosed with schizophrenia. We can put a man on the moon, but we still don’t understand mental illness.

“I had talked about wanting to write this story, and the friend who got me involved in the funeral business told me, ‘Quit talking about it … and do it.’”

She worked on her businesses during the day, then frequently stayed up all night writing. In four months, the manuscript was finished. She collected the names of 52 agents who deal in the genre she calls “psychological suspense” and sent out a mass mailing with a query letter and some excerpts. Ten asked to see the complete manuscript; after that, it was her choice.

After “Family Inheritance” went into its second printing, she cranked out “Grave Intent” in another four months. Her reputation thus established, she sold “A House Divided” before she even began writing; it took her only two months. She has a deadline of Aug. 1 for the fourth novel, “Morbid Curiosity,” scheduled for release in June 2007.

Besides her familiarity with the funeral business, Mrs. LeBlanc has drawn literary inspiration from her standing as a licensed crime-scene investigator, her training as a traiteur and her membership in two national paranormal investigations organizations.

“I enjoy ghost hunting,” she admits. “I haven’t seen a full-bodied apparition, but I have been shoved off some stairs, and I have seen objects move.”

While traveling the country promoting her books, she suddenly found herself involved in a crusade to get people to read more.

In appearing in more than 250 bookstores, she explains, “They had lots of customers, but they were in the coffee shop. You ask someone, ‘What do you read?’ they say, ‘Oh, I don’t like to read.’ They’re there hanging out with their friends! If this continues,we’re going to have an illiterate society. It was such an awakening, I decided, ‘I have to do something.’”

The “something” was the LeBlancChallenge on one of her Web sites, a contest aimed at “ages 13 to 113.”

“The way it works,” she explains, “is a participant must read “Grave Intent,” then go to the challenge Web site (www.theleblancchallenge.com) and work through each scene. The scenes have ‘clickables,’ which drop down multiple-choice questions. Once they are through with the questions, they will find one final question, which they must answer in essay format, 200 words or less. When that’s completed, they move on to ‘A House Divided’ and go through the same process.

“The person who scores the highest points wins $5,000, plus an additional $1,000 that will go to the public school of his or her choice. Second-prize winner gets a desktop computer, and third-through-10th place winners get gift certificates to the bookstore of their choice. The values of the certificates start at $175 for third place down to $25.”

This year, she saiys, she included an additional grand prize of $5,000 for the high school with the highest percentage of participating students.

“We had over 4,000 participants in 2004,” she says. “This year, we’ve already exceeded that.”

Why do so many readers enjoy being scared?

“I don’t think it’s so much being scared as it is being sucked into a world that allows them to escape the stress of this world,” she reflects. “Sometimes things frighten us because we don’t understand them. What happens to us when we die? We allhavethat underlying question. Some of these stories of the supernatural allowusto wander in that directionwithout guilt.”

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