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Author Gail Sheehy; Chronicler of those who found their way

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The first time Gail Sheehy hit the best-seller list -- with ''Passages'' -- she flinched. She's still flinching.

Her new book, ''Pathfinders,'' has been inching its way up the list of the top 10, and she groans a bit as she thinks what this second smash success will bring: ''The success of 'Passages' was a monster -- it was a candy-coated monster. . . . I never was interested in writing a best seller. . . .'' Since we are doing a luncheon interview, the food analogy pops up again as she thinks about the sheer awfulness of unmitigated success:

''I thought of it at one point like having swallowed a whole cherry pie that got stuck in my throat. I was embarrassed by it. I felt some kind of old, unrevised liberal guilt about having made money from something I really hadn't intended to. Eight or nine months after the book was on the best-seller list there came a boomerang which is just natural for anything that has an outsize success, and people began to mistake the effect for the cause. (They thought) 'Well, if it's a big best seller, then she must have set out to write a big best seller, therefore she must be selling snake oil, hence she must be a tough, hard-boiled cookie who's just trying to exploit' . . . . I mean, that's putting the worst possible face on it. But it's hard for people to remember or even to know that you didn't have any idea that it was going to be a big success. In fact I thought it would probably sink without a trace, which is why I got out of the country for six weeks after I wrote it. . . .''

She doesn't look like a tough cookie. The day of this interview she looks more like a marmalade Persian cat in a soft, downy angora sweater the exact shade of her copper-colored hair. Earlier that morning she had been jogging and working out in a Georgetown gym, an antidote to the all-night talk shows and bruising schedule of a cross-country promotion tour. After the gym she had slipped into interview clothes: that copper-colored sweater with puffed sleeves, a copper leather belt cinching in a pleated apricot silk skirt, beige leather sling-backs, gold earrings. The colors create an impression of warmth, an original sort of chic. She has blue-green eyes that don't miss a trick - reporter's eyes and a reporter's way of leaving spaces between the sentences so that you say more than you ever intended when she asks you a question.

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