It took Margaret Mitchell nearly 10 years to write Gone With the Wind. Karleen Koen didn't exactly dash off her blockbuster either. In 1985, seven years after she began, the 38-year-old writer finally completed Through a Glass Darkly (Random House, $19.95).

Until now an unknown quantity in the publishing world, Koen has established a short but dazzling track record. Random House paid $350,000 for Glass, at the time a record for a first novel. Avon Books shelled out more than twice that amount for paperback rights. A Book-of-the-Month Club selection, Glass has spent five comfortable months on the New York Times best-seller list. Plans to turn the book into a big-budget miniseries are also underway. For Koen, who lives in Houston with her husband and family, all this major-league success is hard to comprehend. "I am still creeping around," she says. "We haven't blown up balloons or anything, although maybe we should."

Through a Glass Darkly (the title is from Corinthians I) is no run-of-the-mill bodice buster, trade slang for bosom-heaving historical romances. Koen paints a lavish, carefully researched portrait of a young woman's turbulent coming of age in 18th-century England and France. (The heroine, a coltish 15-year-old redhead, marries an older man who turns out to be bisexual.)

Koen's own coming of age was considerably less dramatic. The daughter of a ship captain, Karleen Smith grew up in Houston and graduated from North Texas State in 1970 with a degree in English. She was the first managing editor of a magazine called Houston Home & Garden. After five years she quit to devote herself to her family. She and second husband Edward, a self-employed businessman of 44, live with Samantha Barlow, 15, Koen's daughter by her first marriage, and their son, Blake, 9.

A diet of uninterrupted domesticity was no solution for the restless Koen. "After I resigned from the magazine," she says, "my pride suffered because I didn't have anything to put next to my name. It troubled me greatly." Edward suggested that she use her newfound time to write a novel, and even though she had never published a scrap of fiction, Karleen decided to give it a try.

With a mixture of anxiety and elation, Koen immersed herself in her favorite period, the 18th century. For two years she read voraciously, borrowing dusty books from the library at nearby Rice University. Writing on an ancient manual typewriter, she worked in a cramped utility room at home. "Problems would come up when the kids got sick," Koen says. "Then the plumber wouldn't show up when he said he was going to, and I had to listen for the doorbell with half my mind. Sometimes taking care of everything around the house was a nightmare."

Gracious and unpretentious, with a quick sense of humor, Koen is also passionately driven. She completed the book only after three revisions and one background-gathering trip to Europe. The actual writing took five years. "It was a very intense thing," says Karleen, who occasionally found herself crying as she worked on the 743-page novel. "The characters became real to me," says Koen. "I cared for them, even the villains. Finishing the novel took forever. I felt I was reliving that old myth about pushing the rock up the hill and that every time I would get it almost to the top, it would roll back."

The next struggle was to get the book published. The first two people who read the manuscript turned it down. On her third try Koen approached Jean Naggar, a New York agent who receives some 4,000 queries a year from would-be authors. Naggar spotted a winner. "It was very exciting," she says. "This wasn't a piece of wonderful trash; this was the launching of a major author."

Koen and her husband put some of Glass's advance money toward the purchase of a house in the fashionable River Oaks section of Houston. The house has three bedrooms, four bathrooms and a pool but most important, it has servants' quarters in the backyard that are being converted into a studio. Unlike Margaret Mitchell, who never published a sequel, Koen is already launched on a follow-up novel. A new word processor and a favorable muse willing, the sequel may make it into the bookstores before 1994.

  • Contributors:
  • Kent Demaret.