Life intensely felt: Anita Shreve

Master writer Anita Shreve will read at benefit for YWCA Daybreak
By  Pamela  H.  Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2007

The novelist Anita Shreve settled into an armchair in the living room of her light and airy home in Longmeadow.

Shreve’s 13th novel, “Body Surfing,” was published late last month. Millions of copies of her books have sold worldwide. Shreve became a household name in 1999, after her novel “The Pilot’s Wife” was tapped for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club.

As she reflected on the trajectory of her highly successful career, Shreve related that before she found her way into writing fiction, she spent more than 15 years as a journalist, writing primarily for magazines.

“I’ve always known I was a better writer as a fiction writer,” she said. “It was a matter of getting to a place where I could pull it off.”

Shreve used an advance for a book she was putting together on women’s consciousness raising, “Women Together, Women Alone,” to steal the time to write her first novel, “Eden Close.”

“I’d write one in the morning and the other in the afternoon,” she said. She sold the novel for what she called “a very sad price.”

Still, she said, “It got me going, and I’ve never looked back.”

At 60 years of age, Shreve is a stunning blonde. Dressed in jeans and a fitted black jacket, she greeted a visitor warmly and quickly called to her 13-year-old cockapoo, Sandy, after the dog took the opportunity to slip out the door.

Shreve’s home is set back from a wide boulevard lined with stately antique houses dating back to the Revolution. It is a carriage house that she and her husband, John Osborn, a retired businessman, redesigned, creating an open space with views of rolling hills in the distance. They decorated in gray, beige and cream colors that are accented by blond hardwood floors and deep gray granite kitchen counters.

Shreve has raised two children and three stepchildren in Longmeadow.

“It’s a wonderful place to raise kids,” she said. “It’s a wonderful town for a writer. There aren’t a lot of distractions.”

Shreve has been described as a master storyteller who combines aspects of the romance novel with plot lines involving multi-layered characters entangled in complex relationships. The lives of women – their fears and failures, successes and triumphs – inform her work. The tales are often set by the sea; reviewers note that the inexorable tides are a metaphor for the lives of her characters as they are tested again and again.

Asked why she thinks so many readers are captivated by her fiction, Shreve replied, “Someone once had a phrase: `Life intensely felt.’ I think that’s why readers gravitate to my books.”

Shreve has a bit of a thing for old houses and the stories they have to tell. During their first seven years in Longmeadow, Shreve and her family lived in a house built in 1776. Little had been changed – there were no closets, for instance – and she found it easy to imagine what life must have been like for generations past.

Using different time periods, Shreve has set four of her novels – including “Body Surfing” – in the same house on the New Hampshire shore. An old house she walked past in Biddeford Pool, Maine, was her inspiration.

Shreve, who grew up in Dedham and graduated from Tufts University, was in her fifth year of teaching in Boston-area public schools when she suddenly realized she should be writing. One of her first published short stories, “Past the Island, Drifting,” won an O. Henry Award.

“It came as a complete shock,” Shreve said with a laugh, adding: “But that and a couple of dollars will get you a cup of coffee.”

She turned to journalism to support herself and worked as an editor at US magazine in New York City. In need of a diversion, she said, she moved to Kenya in 1975 and worked on a magazine as a jack of all trades.

It was on her return to New York four years later that she began focusing on women’s issues for national publications and developed the two major articles for The New York Times Magazine that formed the basis of her nonfiction books.

Shreve briefly returned to teaching when she became an adjunct visiting professor at Amherst College during the 1998-99 school year. She loved teaching, she said, but the year was intensely busy. She was planning her wedding to Osborn in the fall, and Oprah called in the spring.

“I would wake up early and cross things off lists,” she said.

The plots of Shreve’s novels evolve from snatches of ideas. “They collide and you sort of run with it,” she said. “It seems a lot like daydreaming.” She pointed to the murders of two women in 1873 on Smuttynose Island off the coast of Maine. Using the historical record, she created “The Weight of Water,” with dual themes, one in the past and the other in the present.

“I almost always have some idea,” Shreve said. “The question would be, `Is it a viable one?’ You don’t know that until you fool around with it. It’s a case of channeling that onto paper. That’s where the craft comes in.”

Shreve finds it easier to write period pieces. She stressed, though, that she does not write historical novels. “The story comes first, then the setting,” she said. Critics laud her ability to write pitch-perfect 19th-century dialogue.

“Nineteenth-century prose is more fluid and fun,” Shreve explained. “You can get away with a lot. In contemporary prose you can get away with nothing. It has to be very edited.”

Shreve generally writes six days a week, from 7 a.m. until noon. She produces an entire novel and then turns it over to her editor, who might request greater development of a relationship or simply a change of a particular word. Each novel is very hard work, she said.

“I don’t know how many professions there are when No. 13 is just as hard as No. 1,” Shreve said. “Nothing about it gets easier. That has been a surprise to me.”

Unlike many authors, Shreve enjoys working with copy editors, whose “white hot focus,” as she put it, is on every word. She noted that she developed research skills while working as a journalist and spends considerable time checking the details surrounding the circumstances and time periods about which she writes. She recalled with obvious pleasure the time a copy editor questioned whether Miracle Whip could be referred to in a novel set in 1933. It turned out the product went on the market in 1933, so the precise time of year in which it was mentioned made all the difference.

Shreve said she enjoys meeting her fans, but publicity tours are not among her favorite activities. She and her publicist agreed to an abbreviated tour for “Body Surfing,” a contemporary novel about a 29-year-old woman, Sydney, who is already once divorced and once widowed. Sydney spends the summer tutoring the teenage daughter of a wealthy family. She becomes embroiled in relationships with the two sons, both in their 30s, and is ensnared in family crises.

This is one spring that Shreve wants to be home. Her son, who is her youngest child, is graduating from high school and is on the varsity baseball team. The other children, all in their 20s, are out on their own, including her daughter, who is working on her doctorate in developmental psychology at the University of Florida. Shreve prefers not to give their names. “You never know,” she said.

It’s understandable. But are any of them likely to follow in her footsteps?

“My son’s a very, very good writer,” Shreve said, beaming. “He has an interesting mix of the witty and the profound.”