IT'S NOT AS IF SHE NEEDED A JOB. FOUR years ago, when Josephine Hart decided to try her hand at novel writing, she had already established herself as a successful London theater producer with Frederico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernardo. Alba. She was mother to two young sons. And she was four years into her second marriage, to Maurice Saatchi, chairman of the advertising conglomerate Saatchi & Saatchi.

Yet Hart felt driven. "I'd always wanted to write," she says. "For years I paced around composing novels in my head. Everything was there; I just couldn't crash through the brick wall in front of me."

Crash through she finally did—with spectacular results. Her debut novel, Damage, became a hit in England, was snapped up for the movies by director Louis Malle (Jeremy Irons will star) and recently landed on the New York Times best-seller list. It is a strange, dark tale of an upstanding physician and Member of Parliament whose world topples when he becomes erotically obsessed with his son's fiancée, a woman scarred by the suicide of her brother. In just 198 pages, the book touches on incest, suicide, sadomasochistic sex and violent death, subjects Hart says have "deeply shocked" many who know her.

A stylish woman with a ready laugh, a circle of well-placed friends and a flourishing marriage, Hart, 49, seems an unlikely purveyor of such gloom. But she explains, "Though nothing in Damage ever happened to me, I know the emotions. The book was driven by a knowledge of great grief and its aftermath."

Her grief began long ago. Born in Mullingar, a small Irish town, Hart was the eldest of five children. Her father, a garage manager, made only an adequate living but exposed his offspring to a wealth of culture, taking them to the local theater and reading to them from Yeats and Joyce. Still, her childhood was filled with sadness. When she was 6, her infant brother, Charles, died after a short illness. Ten years later her invalid sister, Sheila, 9, died, and eight months after that her brother Owen, 16, was killed in an accident. "It's a mystery why one family would have so much tragedy," says Hart (whose brother Dermot, 46, is now the only other surviving family member). "It's a tribute to us all that none of us destroyed ourselves."

To help her parents cope, Hart put off plans to study acting in London, remaining at home until she was 21. It was those secluded years, she believes, that saved her from becoming like Damage's femme fatale fiancée. "Grief takes you away from society," says Hart. "You realize life is not going to compensate you, and that can make you cruel. If I had come to London in my teens, I'm convinced I would have done harm."

When she did come, Hart vowed to live "an unemotional life." She studied acting at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama but quit because "where the great parts go psychologically is dangerous." She gravitated eventually to a sales job at Haymarket Press, a magazine publisher, where she rose through the ranks to publishing director.

Her retreat from emotion did not, it seems, rule out romance. Hart married a Haymarket coworker, Paul Buckley, in 1972; they had a son, Adam, before the marriage ended amicably in 1983. Maurice Saatchi was promotions manager at Haymarket when lie and Hart met in 1969. "His elegant, funny personality dazzled me," says Hart of their early friendship. "Years later, as my marriage broke up, it was a delayed coup de foudre."

By the time they married, Hart had begun producing poetry readings, and she soon graduated to West End hits. She was able to write, Hart believes, because marriage to Saatchi, 44, enabled her to feel emotionally centered at last. Damage helped make her more so. "Writing it was a fantastic-release of pressure, like untwisting something that was very taut in me," she says. "Now I can deal with deeply emotional things."

The book's success has changed little else in Hart's life. She still spends most evenings at home—a sumptuous house in London's Mayfair section—reading with Saatchi and their son, Edward, 6. (Adam, now 14, is at boarding school.) The family spends weekends at Saatchi's Sussex estate and summers in Cap Ferrat in the South of France. Hart is already at work on her second novel, and its subject suggests there is psychic damage still to be undone. "It's about envy," she says, her eyes sparkling. "Recently I got up in the night and felt like the main character was behind me on the stairs. She's not very nice—no, she's very, very dark indeed."

KIM HUBBARD
LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Sanderson Healy.