LOS ANGELES — The book party for Cheryl Howard Crew’s first novel, “In the Face of Jinn” (St. Martin’s Press), had all the makings of a Hollywood power fete. After all, her husband is director Ron Howard and the bash Monday night, hosted by Brian and Gigi Grazer at their Pacific Palisades home, drew George Lucas, Renée Zellweger, Arianna Huffington and Ellen DeGeneres. But few guests realized that “Jinn,” a thriller about two American sisters in Pakistan, is worlds away from a Hollywood tell-all. In fact, Howard conceived the idea 10 years ago after striking up a friendship with her children’s Pakistani karate instructor, Ali.
“I always wanted to write adventures or murder mysteries. When I heard about Pakistan from my friend, I decided to write about that,” reveals Howard, 51, over coffee at Santa Monica’s Fairmont Miramar Hotel a few days earlier. She tacked Crew on for her pen name, which comes from her paternal grandmother, when she began writing screenplays 25 years ago and signed them C.H. Crew.
Howard, who completed a writing fellowship at the American Film Institute and has been obsessed with the Middle East since childhood, wanted to authenticate her tale by traveling to India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which she did in 1996 and 1997. The first trip, accompanied by her daughter, Bryce, was relatively uneventful. But the second three-and-a-half-week journey was far more harrowing. She was smuggled into gun bazaars and drug dens populated by terrorists and closed to foreigners, had to bribe her way through tribal villages and was nearly attacked by one of her guides. “I lost eight pounds the first week because my adrenaline was going so fast,” Howard says. She also contracted parasites from eating village food in deference to local customs.
“I had all sorts of contingencies for calling the White House in case something went wrong,” says husband Ron, “but I would never tell her not to go. This is her life’s work; she’s not a dilettante.”
The way Howard tells it, the political timing of “In the Face of Jinn” is almost uncanny. “When I was writing, the news was O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater. I barely thought I could get the book published because it was so obscure. Then 9/11 happened and suddenly we were paying attention. It’s so surreal — the realizations my characters go through were now happening in the news.”
Though at the party on Monday, the Indian dancers, spiced buffet and beaded Delman thong party favors clearly hinted at the novel’s theme, most guests were none the wiser. Howard is more concerned with the greater population at large. “I hope that people read it and learn something,” she says. “I’m already planning to educate people about another part of the world in my next book.”