Interview with Anita Shreve

Posted by Goodreads on April 1, 2017
Anita Shreve is the bestselling author of 18 previous novels—including The Weight of Water, Fortune's Rocks, and The Pilot's Wife (an Oprah's Book Club selection). Known for her lyrical prose and plots that grab hold of the reader, her books focus on women who are pushed to the edge and what they do in response.

Shreve's new novel, The Stars Are Fire, is set in motion by a wildfire that ravaged coastal Maine in 1947, "the year Maine burned." Grace Holland, a young pregnant mother of two, survives by spending the night lying on the beach with her children, covered in wet blankets, with the surf covering their legs. In the morning her husband, who had gone to help fight the fire, is nowhere to be found. Anita Shreve spoke with Goodreads about her writing superstitions, knowing your characters' secrets, and the New Hampshire cottage that shows up in so many of her books.

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Goodreads: The Stars Are Fire centers on a historical event—the great Maine fire of 1947 that destroyed a quarter of a million acres and nine towns. How long have you known about this fire, and when did you decide to write about it?

Anita Shreve: I first heard about the fire about a decade ago, when I picked up a pamphlet about the town of Cape Porpoise in Maine. I remember these harrowing descriptions of the fire, and the pictures were just terrifying. And then later I read a book called The Week That Maine Burned, but it wasn't until eight or nine years later that I thought about writing a novel about it.

There was this image that stuck in my mind, the fact that women and children had to flee into the sea. Nobody could believe that the fire would go directly toward the sea, toward a total lack of fuel, but of course fires don't have intelligence, they just do what they do. Once I had that idea about a woman and two young children staying in the sea during the night to try to save themselves, that's all I needed.

GR: The main character, Grace Holland, loses her home and her possessions in the fire, her husband goes missing, and she has to rebuild a life from scratch. In your research was this a common tale among fire survivors?

AS: I would say that's the average. It was unusual in that her husband didn't make it back to her, but the survivors virtually lost everything. A lot of them were insured, but they didn't have the paperwork to prove it. They had no money, they had no place to go, they had no clothes. They had nowhere to live. There was the land, but it was just devastatingly burned. A lot of them fled, they were displaced. There were towns that were so badly burned that no one went back, and the town was wiped off the map.

GR: Many of your novels are based on historical events, such as the Maine fire, although some take place in the present and only refer to those past events. How do you decide whether to place a novel in the past or the present?

AS: I enjoy going back and forth. For me it's all about creating something new, either changing the form of the novel or using different voices. If it's in the past, I like to use the present tense. I like to make it a "you are there" kind of voice. Generally speaking, the present tense is frowned upon, but I think in this case because it's so immediate, and you're with her minute by minute by minute, it seemed essential.

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GR: In this book Grace and the reader don't know the inner life of her husband, Gene, very well. How well did you have to know Gene in order to write him?

AS: Insofar as Grace knows him, I know him. And I feel like I know a little bit more about him because I know his secrets. He has secrets that consume him, that wall him off from Grace. It would be a great challenge for a writer to write the novel from his point of view, just as an exercise in how well you know the character. Would you have to change anything? What would be different? Gene's a complicated character with a lot of pathos. It would be a good exercise.

GR: A lot of your novels are about the secrets hidden within a marriage and how neither party ever really knows the full story of the marriage. Why is that idea so interesting to you?

AS: The essential question of my novels is: If you push a woman to the edge, how will she behave? If I have a theme, that would be it. That's not true of every novel—I had a novel about a World War II pilot, and a whole novel from the point of view of a pompous man—but generally speaking that question will arise.

GR: Goodreads user Nkanarek asks: Every book that I've read of Anita Shreve's has a connection to water. What is the importance of water to her?

AS: Well, I'm drawn to the sea. I lived by it for a long time, and I keep going back, it's a touchstone. There's something about sitting in a chair and looking at the sea that is endlessly fascinating, and I can't really describe it. I also love that it's the edge of the continent, so women who are fleeing reach the edge of the continent and then can't go any farther. In this case it was the fire and that to save yourself you had to go into the water.

GR: Goodreads user Karen asks: The New Hampshire cottage that is prominent in Fortune's Rocks has also appeared in Body Surfing and The Pilot's Wife. Does this house have some significance, since it seems to appear in various books that take place in different time frames?

AS: The first book to use it was The Pilot's Wife. I had been walking, and I saw a house that I thought was just beautiful. It was on the water, and it had a mansard roof and many windows, which suggested many rooms. I thought of it possibly being a nunnery. I used it, and it was fun to go in and describe, but I didn't have a connection to it as such.

Then I wrote it into Fortune's Rocks because it was exactly 100 years earlier, and that pleased me, to show the same house. And then I started to have fun with it. I named a painting in The Pilot's Wife that shows up in all the books. The copy editor for Fortune's Rocks left a note in the margin that said, "I have searched everywhere and I cannot find this painter." Of course I'd made him up, which I should have told her earlier. And then I would leave these clues for readers who had read the other books, but I was just having fun.

GR: That leads me to a question from another Karen. She says: I really love reading the continued story of a character from one of your earlier works. How do you decide when to revisit a person or a location in order to delve more deeply into that particular story?

AS: Well, I've only done it twice, I believe. The first one I did was The Weight of Water. I used a poet, a very important character in the book. And then I put him back into another book with a history (The Last Time They Met). And then as far as Etna is concerned, she appears in All He Ever Wanted as the subject of the pompous professor's longing, and then I take off from the point at which the book ends and then tell her story (Stella Bain). He spoke, but she never got to tell her story.

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GR: What was your favorite book growing up?

AS: I'd say the most formative book when I was about six or seven years old would have been those massive Frank L. Baum books, The Wizard of Oz series. They were treasures to me because those were the books that just cracked me open to the understanding that this was going to be one of the more intense things in my life.

And then in high school I had an obsession with Eugene O'Neill. I read every play he wrote. I can't tell which came first, the chicken or the egg. You know, are my writings on the bleaker side because of Eugene O'Neill, or was I drawn to him because I am by nature?

GR: What are you reading now?

AS: After Disasters by Viet Dinh, Transit by Rachel Cusk, The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

GR: You hinted at this earlier, but can you tell us anything about what you're working on now?

AS: I can't. I'm superstitious about it. It's been true for every novel I've written. I wrote Eden Close in complete secrecy, mainly because I was a nonfiction writer, and every time I said I wanted to write a novel, everyone would groan. So I just decided, To heck with them, I'm just going to do it anyway, and that became my first novel, Eden Close. So since it worked for Eden Close, that has been my theory.

Read more of our exclusive author interviews on our Voice page.

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Dave (new)

Dave Hoff Hey, that was my territory in 1954-55. Biddeford Pool Coast Guard. Got to read it.

message 2: by May (new)

May Nice interview!! Thank you! I cannot wait to read THE STARS ARE FIRE!!

message 3: by Barb (new)

Barb Mcdowell I've read Testimony and Light on Snow. Enjoyed both and plan to read more of your books.

message 4: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Bryant I've read every one of Anita Shreve's books and couldn't tell you which is my favorite because they all are! So glad to know she has written another, so worried she will stop writing....can't wait to read The Stars Are Fire. Thanks, AS, so much for many wonderful reading experiences!

message 5: by Judy (new)

Judy I read Fortune's Rock twice. Loved it so much that i loaned to my daughter and friends. They loved the book as well.

message 6: by Indrani (new)

Indrani Hewagama I loved 'the Pilot's wife. That was my first. I have also read 'A wedding in December' I enjoyed reading this too

Sadly I have not found her books in Sri Lankan Book shops It is my twin who lives in Florida,USA who sends me the books

message 7: by Linda (new)

Linda Gutru Born and raised in Biddeford, Me. , about 10 miles from Fortunes Rocks. Loved reading that book as well as many more of Ms.Shreves' novels. I remember my parents and older sister talk of the Fire and witnessed some still ravaged areas when I was a child. Can't wait to read The Stars Are Fire ! Thank you.

message 8: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Hansel Looking forward to reading The Stars are Fire!

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