Los Angeles Times

Well before Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” was published, Kathleen McGowan, author of “The Expected One,” quit a lucrative job as a marketing rep for Disney, maxed out her credit cards, cashed in her 401(k) and left her children for weeks at a time, all because she believed she had been chosen to tell the “real” story of Mary Magdalene: that the woman known as a reformed prostitute was actually the wife of Jesus and a spiritual leader in her own right.

McGowan is 43, chatty, warm and self-assured — more Little League mom than hippy-dippy spiritualist. She lives with her three precocious sons and gentle, long-haired husband in Palmdale, Calif., a desert town not far from a field of Joshua trees. On a Monday evening just before dinnertime, a pack of boys from the neighborhood played in her back yard while she discussed “The Expected One” at a white-tiled kitchen table.

“We are the Kool-Aid house,” she said after a ball hit the window with a thud. “You know, the one where all the kids hang out.”

McGowan said she was laughed out of book agents’ offices and warned that she would ruin her writing career if she tried to publish a novel about Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene (although there was technically no career to ruin, as “The Expected One” is her first book). Then after “The Da Vinci Code” turned into a phenomenon, she was told she was too late, and would always be seen as the woman who jumped on the “Da Vinci” bandwagon. Because McGowan does not have an academic background (she describes her education as “dabbling in college here and there“) and because she claims to be a descendant of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ, she had trouble being taken seriously in the book world. But there were others — notably Larry Kirshbaum, whom she met at a dinner party when he was chief executive of Warner Books and who later became her agent — who saw the book for what it has become since it was published in August: a national best-seller, just as “The Da Vinci Code” is slipping off the lists.

In January, after McGowan went through a grueling and expensive round of self-publishing and selling the book over the Internet, a friend of a friend sent her novel to Kirshbaum, who had recently left his job at Warner Books and opened his own agency.

“I hung out the shingle and lo and behold, here comes ‘The Expected One,’ a gift from God,” Kirshbaum said in a phone interview. McGowan soon became his second client. One week later he landed her a $1.5 million advance at Touchstone (a division of Simon & Schuster).

“It’s not very often that you sit down and read something that you can just tell is special,” said Trish Todd, who bought and edited the book for Touchstone. “It is a great feeling. It makes your hands shake.”

Reviewers, though, have been more inclined to shake a fist. Rowan Pelling of The Independent in London described it as “a light version of literature that reflects infinite tosh and unbearable tedium in one soul-sapping blend.” Publisher’s Weekly declared the novel “freighted with romance-fiction stylings and unadorned facts numbingly narrated.”

McGowan’s book tells the story of an Irish-American writer named Maureen Paschal who lives on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and has a preference for Manolo Blahniks and Chanel No. 5. Although she has no religious background, it turns out she is the only person who can uncover the hidden gospel of Mary Magdalene. Over the course of the book the heroine makes a series of wacky friends who recite long dissertations on the history of Mary Magdalene, her marriage to Jesus, and the children the couple produced. The book has a little violence, a little romance (“Sinclair took Maureen’s hand and led her deeper into the rose-scented lushness of the gardens. ‘But you must stop calling me Lord Sinclair.’”) and snippets of how McGowan imagines the Gospel of Mary might read.

McGowan originally envisioned the book as nonfiction. She said she researched it for 20 years — combing through art museums in Italy, France, Scotland and Israel, interviewing storytellers in the Languedoc region of France where she believes Mary Magdalene settled after fleeing Jerusalem, and investigating secret societies. And so she is touchy about any insinuation that she is riding Dan Brown’s coattails. When his book came out in 2002 she said she was devastated.

“That has been a very painful event for me for a lot of reasons,” she said. “There are many people who still to this day accuse me of chasing ‘The Da Vinci Code’ or capitalizing on ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ It is so unfair.”

And now McGowan has more stories to tell. She is in Ireland researching the Book of Love — a supposed gospel written in Jesus’ own hand.

In the meantime, rights to “The Expected One” have been sold in 26 countries and it’s being translated into 26 languages. And the neighborhood kids might have to find a newhouse to play at. McGowan and her husband are in the midst of remodeling their Palmdale home and hunting for a place closer to Los Angeles. They can afford it now.

 

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