A Demanding Imagination

For best-selling author Anita Shreve, J68, each new book is like starting all over again
Anita Shreve
“When you start writing a novel, nothing that you’ve done before helps in any way,” says Anita Shreve. Photo: John Soares
May 16, 2011

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That novelist Anita Shreve, J68, has averaged almost one book a year over the past 20 years is impressive enough. That she’s written each by hand, well, now that’s just showing off.

“Something happens, I can’t explain it, but the process goes from the head to the arm to the hand to the pen to the paper,” Shreve says, as she settles into an oversized leather chair on the second floor of her spacious, and spotless, Back Bay apartment. “It’s a physical thing. I think it harkens back to those wonderful days when you were making those first great big letters in kindergarten, the pleasure of writing on paper. I know if I were to write by computer it wouldn’t be as good.”

Shreve’s most recent novel Rescue (Little, Brown, 2010) took about 15 months, she says, but that’s because she practically rewrote the manuscript after realizing she’d given away the ending too early. The family drama takes place in fictitious Hartstone, Vt., and is told through the eyes of an EMT named Peter Webster, who frets about the daughter he’s been raising alone since she was a toddler. Now a high school senior, she begins blowing off school and knocking back drinks, and Webster worries that she’s treading her troubled mother’s path.

“The prolific Shreve brings her customary care to this thoroughly absorbing, perfectly paced domestic drama,” wrote one reviewer in Booklist. That kind of accolade is familiar territory for Shreve. Since 2001, her novels have spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller lists. In 1999, Oprah Winfrey tapped The Pilot’s Wife, about a recent widow unraveling her dead husband’s double life, for her book club, raising Shreve’s literary profile to dizzying heights.

But all that attention comes at a price: she’s often labeled a writer of women’s fiction, a characterization that grates on her. “I write for both men and women,” Shreve says. “Several of my narrators have been male. I think it’s sexist and therefore dismissive to refer to my work as writing for women only.”

Jim Concannon, the books editor at the Boston Globe from 2001 to 2009, agrees. “She writes mostly about women, the crises that explode in their faces over time and how they react. Because of that, I think her work is sometimes marginalized, and it shouldn’t be,” he says. “She writes clearly and sparely. You can sense her New England taciturn roots between the lines. And she’s not afraid to challenge herself.”

The one-time journalist is known for her research prowess, whether painting a Depression-era mill town, World War II resistance fighters or the carnage on the roadways of rural Vermont.

Anita Shreve's latest novel, due out in paperback in late June.“For Rescue, I read everything I could find,” she says. That included so many volumes of EMT and paramedic handbooks that, she jokes, “At the time, I probably could have passed the course.” EMTs have their own jargon, “so I had to find an EMT who could say, ‘Well, actually they do this first, and this is what your heart’s feeling at that moment.’ ”

Shreve uncrosses and recrosses her boot-clad feet on the large ottoman. The mirror above the marble fireplace reflects the rain spitting at the tall windows on the other side of the low-lit room. With her light blond hair and thin beige sweater, the 60-something-year-old appears almost ethereal, her chunky necklace the only thing seemingly keeping her from floating toward the ornately carved ceiling.

For a time, Shreve called Longmeadow, Mass., home but now splits her days between Boston and a house in Maine, north of Kennebunkport, which her husband, John Osborn, a retired insurance man, helped renovate. Together the couple, who first met as teenagers, have a blended brood—four girls and a boy, all of them grown.

The Painful Craft

A cramped hand isn’t the only hurt that the craft of writing inflicts on Shreve, who majored in English at Tufts.

“This book that I’m writing now, number 17, is just as hard to write as the first one,” she says. “Now, if an architect had built 17 buildings, you can be sure that he would know certain shortcuts, exactly what weight the walls could bear, what goes where. When you start writing a novel, nothing that you’ve done before helps in any way.”

Crossing back from imagination to reality throws her for a loop as well. “Let’s say I write from 8 to 12; then I have to re-enter real life,” she says. “It takes about two hours, and they’re not a happy two hours. Once I’m in real life, I’m fine. I think about the novel, but not in the way I was thinking about it sitting at the desk. Leaving that part is very hard.”

Her scenes are mined from familiar landscapes—rural Vermont, where she used to winter, suburban Massachusetts, where the scourge of underage drinking helped to shape her 2009 novel Testimony. The same house in coastal Maine has appeared in four different novels.

“I pay a lot of attention to place, and sometimes the place tells me the story,” she says. “I visited the Isles of Shoals [off Maine’s coast] and was struck by how bleak and stark and yet beautiful they were. And that’s what drew me to find out about this axe murderer and then to follow it along to become a novel, The Weight Of Water.

A buzzer sounds in the next room, and Shreve excuses herself to tend to the dishwasher. Standing up, she seems even taller, striding with purpose and out of sight within seconds. Walking, she later says, is one of her favorite activities.

Growing into a Writer

“I learned by reading and by writing, and it worked,” says Anita Shreve. Photo: John SoaresShreve’s father was a commercial airline pilot and her mother a housewife. Shreve and her two older sisters attended the public high school in Dedham, Mass.

“I wrote poems in my closet. Writing for a living wasn’t on the radar screen, wasn’t discussed at the dinner table,” she says. “It wasn’t a practical thing to even consider doing. But when I look back now, I can see it was there all along. I think it wouldn’t have mattered what I ended up doing for a career, I would have still have written novels.”

At Tufts, Shreve fondly recalls studying with the Pulitzer prize-winning poet and author Maxine Kumin. “I did not distinguish myself, I must say,” she says, with a smile. “But I loved Tufts. I really thought it was the perfect education.”

Shreve took her English degree to work as a teacher in high schools in Reading and Hingham. But after five years, a panicky sensation started to settle in her chest, a feeling that only grew sharper. If she didn’t drop everything and throw herself into her writing, it might never happen.

“I quit teaching in the middle of the year. Not at Christmas, when it would’ve been at least a little bit logical, but in April. I couldn’t even wait two months. I felt like it was now or never. It was a statement. To myself, really.”

Living off savings, Shreve devoted herself to pen and paper, slipping story after story into the mailbox to small literary magazines such as The Cimarron Review, The Phoenix and The Ball State Forum. Even though she could have wallpapered her bathroom with rejection letters, she calls that period as one of the happiest in her life. “It was my graduate school,” she says, with a smile. “I learned by reading and by writing, and it worked. I wasn’t getting paid anything for these short stories, but on the other hand, I wasn’t paying for graduate school.”

One of her earliest published stories, “Past the Island, Drifting,” was picked as an O. Henry Prize winner in 1976. But it wasn’t enough to put her over the literary hump. She made her way to Nairobi, Kenya, and picked up a reporter’s notebook after walking into the newsroom of an African magazine looking for work. Three years later, she headed home, started a family, and freelanced when she could. “There was no time for a novel, but all the time I was trying to find my way back to fiction writing.”

Over time, she built up her clips, publishing in US Magazine, Newsweek and eventually the New York Times. Shreve later parlayed two Times magazine articles into nonfiction books about working mothers and the women’s movement, and used her advance to quietly work on her first novel, Eden Close, about an adolescent relationship interrupted by tragedy and then rekindled years later, a scenario inspired by her own reunion with an old junior high school friend, now her husband. She landed an agent and sold the manuscript to Harcourt Brace in 1989.

In her early forties, Shreve had finally arrived, as they say. She knocked out a string of well-received works, including Fortune’s Rocks, Sea Glass, Body Surfing and Testimony. A handful since have been adapted for the silver screen, including Resistance and The Weight of Water, starring big-name actors like Sean Penn, Julia Ormond and Campbell Scott.

Boston-based novelist and close pal Mameve Medwed says Shreve’s discipline is staggering, and that she’s always resetting the bar for her projects.

“I’m just happy to write a book, but Anita will set herself challenges: let me write this from this point of view, or try multiple points of view, or write the last chapter first and then work backwards,” says Medwed. “She is really a master of varieties. And she’s got a wonderful eye for the telling detail.”

One landscape where Shreve has been casting her gaze these days is bookselling. It’s a bygone era in the making, she says, from the loss of the tactile experience of holding a novel to the death of browsing in the local bookstore.

“The bookstores are closing left and right,” she says. “It’s all e-books. I predict someday it’s going to be 90 percent e-books to 10 percent hardcover. There will always be an amount of hardcovers printed for collectors and the libraries, but for those of us wanting to follow this long, romantic, wonderful tradition of having a book in your hands that you created—looking at the end papers, the cover, the acknowledgements, the print and typeface and all of that—that’s gone.”

And Shreve keeps writing. Don’t ask her what novel number 17 is about. She works in isolation, keeping the fizz firmly in the bottle. No one sees a page until she’s screwed down that last period. Even supplying her editor with a few sentences for Little, Brown’s catalog is “very, very painful,” Shreve says.

 

Caleb Daniloff is a Boston-based freelance writer; his memoir, Ransom Road: Running Through My Sinning Grounds, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012.