Before ‘I Go’ arrives, it appears Smyrna first-time novelist has a hit

As a first-time published novelist who wrote in “stolen moments” between caring for her two young children, Colleen Oakley isn’t one for putting on snooty authorial airs. She describes her next book, which she’s currently writing, as “another love story, albeit another unorthodox one”; she’s even OK if someone takes the easy way out and hurls the dreaded “C-word” her way:

Chick lit.

“People can call my book whatever they want, as long as they read it,” Oakley, 34, laughed during an interview at her Smyrna home, before admitting she finds it “fascinating” the way that some people insist on stamping the chick lit tag on virtually any fiction written by women. “I just don’t like it when people call it that when they mean it in a disrespectful way.”

She can totally call off the diss watch. The 2002 University of Georgia graduate has pulled off an impressive feat with “Before I Go” (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, $24.99), which officially hits bookstores Tuesday. Somehow she’s turned a potentially depressing-meets-eyerolling plotline — when Daisy Richmond, 27, a hyper-organized grad student, is diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, she decides to find her lovable but somewhat scatterbrained hubby, Jack, a new wife — into an immensely entertaining, moving and believable read.

Don’t just take our word for it, though. “Before I Go” has racked up plenty of advance buzz and impressive reviews from the likes of industry bible Publishers Weekly (“Oakley expertly tugs at the heartstrings with well-rounded characters and a liberal dose of gallows humor”) and real folks’ bible People magazine, which named it a “Best New Book.” There have already been some “feelers” regarding a possible film version and — proving that a well-written story set in Athens, Ga., translates into pretty much any language — foreign publishing rights have been sold from England and Australia to Brazil and Turkey.

Yes, even a story where death is never far from becoming the main character. No matter how hard Daisy tries to ignore it, in her own fashion.

“Finding Jack a wife was just a way for her to control one thing, when she couldn’t control anything else that was happening to her,” Oakley said about Daisy, who scours coffee shops and online dating sites for her potential replacement and even sneaks a self-help book, “Preparing for the Death of a Loved One,” onto Jack’s nightstand. “She’s projecting ‘Jack’s in denial, Jack’s not dealing with this, Jack, Jack, Jack.’

“When really, that’s her. She’s projecting everything onto Jack and trying to ‘fix Jack,’ instead of focusing on herself.”

Non-spoiler alert: You’ll have to read “Before I Go” to find out for yourself what ultimately happens. Try not to skip ahead to the last page, though. It’s not giving anything away to reveal that the book turns out to be more about living than dying. Or that Oakley wants us to come to that frustrating, funny, but ultimately most fulfilling realization right along with Daisy.

Virtually everything in the novel stems from the fertile imagination of the author, whose husband, Fred Tull, is a Georgia Tech grad working as a senior project estimator for a commercial contractor; they have a 4-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter and are expecting twins in March. Oakley, the onetime editor of Women’s Health and Fitness and Boating World magazines, has also written extensively for magazines like Marie Claire and Parade, mostly about relationships and health.

It was while working on a freelance assignment some six years ago that she interviewed a young woman, a fellow newlywed, who had stage 4 breast cancer. Oakley remains extremely admiring of that woman’s “refreshing” spirit (she’s since died) and respectful of her privacy, stressing that their short phone conversation gave her only the initial “kernel” of an idea that much later would lead to “Before I Go.”

“All I could think about was what my husband would do if I died,” Oakley said. “And then my mind went, of course, to what anyone thinks about at any point in their relationship, what their spouse would do afterwards … I thought, what if you could pick the person your spouse would be with. Who would you pick? Would you want her to be like you? Would you not want her to be like you?”

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