IN 1991, RUTHIE BOLTON CAME UPON A fading photograph of her beloved grandmother, who had died from one of her husband's savage beatings. "I thought it was the most beautiful picture I'd ever seen of a black woman, and I starting crying and wishing she was here," says Bolton, 33. "Then I went into my den and just started writing." The result was a sketchy blueprint of Bolton's sweet, sorrowful best-seller.
Gal might never have been published, though, had it not been for Charleston neighbor and novelist Josephine Humphreys, 49, whose office maintenance man heard that Bolton was looking for a publisher and asked Jo to meet Ruthie. "Her story was extraordinary," says Humphreys. "It just wanted to zoom, so I suggested she talk it out." The two women began meeting twice a week last summer; Humphreys taped and then transcribed Bolton's anguished recollections. "I had headaches every Wednesday and Sunday," says Bolton, "it was so painful remembering myself as that kid. When we were done, I felt somebody had snatched the heaviness right out of my heart."
Last September, Humphreys sent the finished manuscript to her agent, Harriet Wasserman, who placed it with Harcourt Brace. Screen rights have since been sold and an upcoming auction for paperback rights will begin at $350,000. "I wasn't looking for my story to go sky-high," says Bolton, who was laid off from her job at a local plant store last winter. "I don't know the feeling you're supposed to feel when you have this kind of news." She has started a college fund for her five children and invested in a retirement account for herself and her husband, a grounds-keeper. "I haven't been spending like crazy," says Bolton. "I did buy a couple pairs of shoes, but they were two for $14. I'm still the cheap me. I haven't changed."