EUGENE — Author Laurie Notaro suspects that one of her neighbors has been tipped off to the thinly veiled portrayal of her as a recycling Nazi in Notaro's new novel, "There's a Slight Chance I Might Be Going to Hell."

EUGENE — Author Laurie Notaro suspects that one of her neighbors has been tipped off to the thinly veiled portrayal of her as a recycling Nazi in Notaro's new novel, "There's a Slight Chance I Might Be Going to Hell."

After all, the neighbor hasn't spoken to her for months.

So much for making new friends, which is the broad theme of Notaro's new book. "Slight Chance" is Notaro's first stab at fiction after five collections of humorous essays under the "Idiot Girls" banner that landed her on The New York Times list of best sellers and won her a tribe of Internet loyalists.

Fortunately for Notaro, her neighbor seems to be just about the only person in her newly adopted hometown of Eugene who is onto her.

That's just as well, since the entire city, home to the University of Oregon and haven for aging refugees from the Summer of Love, is gently lampooned in the book, the story of a young newspaper writer who moves to a college town in the Pacific Northwest from Arizona and tries everything to fit in.

There's the vegan collective who bicker among themselves over whether beets or sweet potatoes should rule as the tuber-of-the-month and the Wiccan book club that's partial to face glitter. There's also the "Styrofoam Day," when everyone in town waits patiently in line for hours to drop off their packing popcorn for recycling, and the snooty faculty wives who won't give poor Maye Roberts, Notaro's protagonist, the time of day.

Eventually, Maye decides that the only way she'll ever really be accepted is to enter — and win — the town's Sewer Pipe Queen pageant, once a stylized beauty competition, now a rip-roaring free-for-all open to cross-dressers and Jon-Benet Ramsey wannabes alike. Along the way, she winds up uncovering some of the town's deepest secrets, and finally making a friend, in the person of an eccentric former beauty queen, who sponsors her entry into the pageant.

(The pageant, by the way, is loosely based on Eugene's infamous "Slug Queen" contest, which, according to Notaro, once featured, "a mentally deranged lady dressed like a scarecrow screaming about how the government took away her kids," during the talent portion of the competition.)

The entire book was a major departure for Notaro, a former columnist for the Arizona Republic whose editors practically forced her to try her hand at fiction.

"I resisted through four books," she said. "I've never even taken a creative writing class. But when it came time to renew my contract, they said I didn't have a choice."

Bruce Tracy, executive editor at Villard, a division of Random House, said he felt that writing fiction could introduce Notaro to a new readership.

"There are a lot of readers who don't necessarily buy essay collections," he said. "And then, Laurie is one of the most engaging storytellers I have ever worked with. We thought about how much fun it would be to take a ride with that voice that didn't end after 10 or 15 pages, but lasted the full length of a novel."

Notaro said Tracy told her to think of the book as "one big column," drawing from her own experiences as a freelance writer living in a new city without the automatic entree into society that comes with a workplace or school.

At first, Notaro said, the characters were straight out of her own life. She is Maye, at least through the first four chapters, but after that, she said, "the characters started doing things on their own."

The book was a distinct risk for Notaro, whose fans are used to her self-deprecating columns charting life's daily humiliations.

"People get attached to what you've been doing," she said. "It's like if Led Zeppelin did an acoustic album. Who ... wants to hear that?"

And she had an especially dedicated group to please, the chatty members of her Internet circle, mainly women ranging in age from the early 20s to late 50s, who see themselves as lifetime members of the Idiot Girls club. Club members adhere to a Notaro-penned code of honor: "Occasionally getting tanked in public, forgetting to wear deodorant, spending at least 60 percent of waking hours with lipstick on (your) teeth, and abiding at all times to the fundamental Idiot Girls' Mission Statement: 'It's not a girdle, it's a BODY SHAPER.'"

Reviews for "(Slight) Chance" have been mixed, with Publishers' Weekly observing that, "some of the plot falls flat." The Houston Chronicle called Notaro, "a natural comic, a graduate of the Jennifer Weiner school of self-deprecation, but she's best when she's being nasty, assessing townies with her merciless, caffeinated delivery."

More than half-a-million of Notaro's essay collections are in print, starting with the first in the series, "The Idiot Girls' Action Adventure Club," which was published in July 2003. Other titles include "Autobiography of a Fat Bride," published in 2003, and "We Thought You Would Be Prettier," from 2005.

According to Random House, there are more than 50,000 copies of "There's a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell," in print so far. The book came out this spring.

Notaro's next project is another essay collection, "The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death: Reflections on Revenge, Germaphobia and Laser-Hair Removal." But she's already planning her next work of fiction, a book that she'll only say is "not autobiographical at all," and perhaps her biggest departure to date.

When her career first took off, Villard's Tracy recalled, Notaro was often billed as the anti-Bridget Jones. The reference is dated now, he said, but the sentiment is still true.

"I think of her as the strip mall Sedaris," he said, referring to humorist David Sedaris. "She doesn't speak about makeup, dates, cosmos, waiting for Mr. Right. She is very much a warts and all view of the world."

Notaro, who has tough-to-tame curly brown hair and a quick smile, was born in New York, but raised in Phoenix. She got into journalism in college, when she started working as arts writer at the student newspaper at Arizona State. She rose through the ranks to become the editor of the paper's entertainment magazine, where she worked with a humor columnist who was always missing his deadlines.

"So one week, I just took over," she said. "I figured I would just write it and be done with it, and if it sucked, at least it wouldn't be an empty spot."

She kept on writing and got some complimentary feedback, and eventually realized that she liked the work she was the boss. That led to a job at the Arizona Republic and to the column that became the basis for her first essay collection. She left journalism after her first book became a best seller and later moved to Eugene with her husband.

She has now accepted Eugene as her home and deadpans that she has "four friends" in Oregon.

"It's really easy to leave a place that you hate, but even thinking about leaving Oregon gets me upset," Notaro said, over a platter of butter tarts that she urges on visitors but heroically resists, in the book-lined bungalow she shares with her husband, a graduate student at the University of Oregon. The books run the gamut of women writers, from Lynda Barry's classic graphic novel "Cruddy" to a biography of Dorothy Parker to Amy Sedaris' off-kilter guide to hostessing, "I Like You."

And she says there are no plans to start a family.

"I am not going to have kids for the sake of material," she said. "I would just get a monkey. A monkey — you don't to have pay for their education. And there's no cop calling you to say that your monkey is high in the middle of the night. With other monkeys. In the desert."