LOTS OF PEOPLE GET FLUSTERED picking out a personal computer, but buying a $2,500 Packard Bell reduced Sheneska Jackson to tears. "I had never spent $2,500 on anything before," says Jackson, 26. "I cried and cried, wondering why I'd spent that money. That's when I figured it was time to do it or die."
Now Jackson has definitely done it. Her lively debut novel, Caught Up in the Rapture, was quickly bought last year by Simon & Schuster, which signed her to a $200,000, two-book deal. The story, set in rough-and-tumble South Central L.A., chronicles a bumpy romance between a young R&B beauty and a streetwise rapper. Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton is negotiating for the movie rights and wants to hire her to write the screenplay.
Heady stuff for Jackson, whose parents divorced when she was 6 and who was raised in South Central with her brother Marcell by their mother, Etna, a phone company supervisor. Jackson majored in journalism at Cal State Northridge but could only find work as a secretary after graduating in 1992. Inspired by a lecture given by author Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale), Jackson bought the Packard on credit. "I'd get up at 3 a.m., drag myself to the computer and get cranking until 7," she recalls. "Then I'd be out the door for work at 7:30." She finished a first draft in six weeks and sent it to an agent, who called her with good news only two days after submitting it to Simon & Schuster. "She told me to sit down," says Jackson. "Then she said, 'How does $200,000 sound?' "
Surprisingly, Jackson's six-figure haul didn't make her jump for joy (though she quit her day job). "I don't know. Maybe I just dream big," she says. "But from day one I knew this was going to happen. I always thought I was a princess, even when I was driving around in my beat-up old Honda."
She has since traded up to a Lexus, but little else has changed for the single Jackson, who just finished a new novel in her unassuming one-bedroom Sherman Oaks apartment. "I still do my hair and my nails by myself," she says. "And there are no chenille slippers in my closet." Even though, these days, she could surely buy piles of them without weeping.
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