Interview with Anita ShrevePosted by Goodreads on November 5, 2013
Stella Bain tells the story of a severely shell-shocked American woman who loses her memory after being found wounded on a French battlefield in 1916. A British surgeon, August Bridge, tries to help Stella recover her past and find her identity with a mixture of talk therapy and emotional support. How did the idea for this book emerge?
Anita Shreve: I was interested in this period of history and also the idea of shell shock in women. I had read a lot about shell shock in men during World War I, but there wasn't a single diagnosis of shell shock in women. And that seemed incredible because they came under fire and were in the hospital tents, which were bombed, and they saw the worst that there was to see—men whose faces had been blown off, surgeons sawing limbs off and tossing them into buckets. And if they had what we would now recognize as shell shock, because they were women, they were termed hysterical and got no treatment whatsoever. So I was interested in exploring that and making Stella's life coincide with the life of a cranial surgeon who had a strong interest in what they called talk therapy then. Also, my grandfather was in the First World War, and although he didn't talk much about it because we were just his grandchildren, it did have a fascination.
GR: How did you research the World War I battlefield experiences of women?
AS: I read a lot of books about it, but I also went to original sources to see just what equipment they had used. A lot of research also hinges on photographs. Sometimes you see a picture and that's really all you need for that little part of the story.
GR: I felt it was also an interesting time in that women were just starting to express their independence and take on roles traditionally considered male. I wondered if you were trying to reflect that in Stella's character, because she seems quite empowered and determined.
AS: Well, by that time she's been through the mill. She may not consciously know it at the very beginning [of the book], but certainly she comes to remember it, and having been in that kind of a situation, she is no longer like any other American woman she might know at the time. She's driven an ambulance, she's been under fire, she's gone through all the hospital experiences that I talked about, she's found herself in situations that she couldn't even have imagined. And I think once you have survived a hell like that, unless you're crushed altogether, you do come out intrinsically a stronger person even if that wasn't your goal in the first place.
GR: Where did the name Stella Bain come from?
AS: I can't really tell you that because it is an anagram of who she becomes. She's actually a character from another novel.
GR: Is that something that you try to do, interconnect your novels somehow?
AS: No, I don't try to do it. In fact, it's very awkward and a pain in the neck. Because I'd gone on and on about this woman, then I decided to reread the original book, and at the end there were all sorts of facts that didn't really work. So I had to tiptoe and change and do all sorts of things to make it plausible that one could happen. It was satisfying when I finished it, and anyone who's deeply familiar with both books—and I'm not going to name the other one right now—will say, 'Ah, OK, so that's what happened to her.'
GR: That's fascinating. I've heard you also like to slip mentions of things or clues into your books so regular readers will pick up on things that others less familiar with your work won't.
AS: I have four novels that take place in the same house in New Hampshire (The Fortune's Rocks quartet—Fortune's Rocks, The Pilot's Wife, Sea Glass, and Body Surfing), and if I began a novel that doesn't immediately tell you that, there will be a reference to a painting, and then a reader who knows my work will know that, 'Ah, that painting was in such and such.'
GR: Goodreads member Mary asks, "In Body Surfing I thought you might be saying good-bye to the house in New Hampshire. Were you? For me that house has been a recurring character that I love."
AS: I think not. I think that house has many lives I have not explored yet.
GR: In the acknowledgments you say you went through seven drafts of this book. Was that normal or did this book take longer?
AS: Oh no, seven is excessive, I think. And none of it was happy. I'd love to say I just loved writing this book and it was just such a pleasure, and parts of it were. But writing it seven times is not really my cup of tea. It took me a long time to figure out who should tell the story, from what point of view, should it be multiple points of view, should it be in the past tense, should it be in the present tense, what the structure should be. It's a complicated structure because you cannot do it chronologically without giving the end away, so I had to think about how that was going to work. There were a lot of 'Well, if I do this, then that happens, so, OK, no, I can't do that, so how about if I try this?' It wasn't organic.
GR: I read that you try to attempt something new or different with every book. What were the new things you were taking on with this book?
AS: It was a different era, it was bolder, my canvas was bigger, and it wasn't entirely a love story; it had a much broader range.
GR: Many of your protagonists seem as if they're either besieged or maybe wronged in some way and have to embark on a difficult and vital quest—is that something you like to return to?
AS: I'm really interested in the catastrophic moment in life. If you push a woman to the edge, how will she behave? And the idea that there's a catastrophic moment or a moment that sets everything else in motion and you can sometimes see a definite before and after and how do you cope after that moment. But yes, I do, the struggle to return or to overcome or make things happen—and sometimes they don't, sometimes a catastrophe is a catastrophe, [such as] in The Weight of Water—there's no growing stronger after that one.
GR: Is there anything, emotionally speaking, that you wouldn't or couldn't write about?
AS: Well, I don't know. I killed off children; I think that's probably about as hard a thing to do as anything. I wouldn't write gory details or horror or magical realism or fantasy—and I'm highly unlikely to ever write a novel about zombies. I'm very interested in real people and how they behave and real circumstances.
GR: Do you find you draw from real life, or once you've created a character, do you find you follow them and imagine exactly how they would respond to a given situation?
AS: Here's the thing—the characters get created through the process of writing, and sometimes they're not fully alive until quite a while into the book, and there's this moment where you say, 'Oh wow, OK, so that's who that person is.' And you write it and it seems to have absolutely nothing to do with you, and then later after it's published other people say, 'Well, you realize who that was, don't you?' Or, 'You realize what you were trying to do there?' It's hard to believe that a novelist could write a whole novel and not have a clue about what's really going on, but it has happened to me.
GR: Really? And what did you say when you were confronted with that?
AS: I was horrified, absolutely horrified. It was a particular situation where my mother was pointing out to me who all the different characters were, and I was stupefied and she was stupefied because she couldn't believe I didn't know this. She thought I was deliberately writing them out, and I'd been congratulating myself all along that here I'd gone and written one of my early novels and it didn't have anything to do with me, there was no place you could point to a connection. But, you know, a mother sees a different story.
GR: Which book was that?
AS: Eden Close.
GR: Do you feel she was right?
AS: Oh, yes. She was absolutely right.
GR: What's your typical writing day like? Do you write every day?
AS: I write every day that I don't have a hiatus, and there are more than you would think—travel, kids coming home for holiday, a birthday, or just the weekend. But generally speaking, in the dead of winter when there is nothing to do except work, I would get up and be at the desk by 7:30/8 o'clock, and I would leave around 12:30 p.m.
GR: Do you still write in your bathrobe?
AS: I do.
GR: And do you write by hand?
AS: I do, and it takes twice as long doing a book because you then have to transfer it onto the computer, and it's cumbersome. I have tried to write right onto the computer, and the results are terrible.
GR: Was it literally seven different versions written out in longhand?
AS: Yes. Think of any possibility you can imagine as a way to tell that novel, and I tried it.
GR: That's amazing. That must be thousands of pages.
AS: Yes, and it doesn't translate—there's no button you can push that says, 'Put this all in the past tense.' By the way, the person who invents that button will make millions and millions of dollars. I would buy a machine that has that button.
GR: You write without showing anyone anything until you finish. Who is the first person who reads your manuscript?
AS: My husband. And he is very good—he's what I call a big-picture editor. He will say, "You know, I really love it. I'm just wondering, do you need the first 40 pages?" and the minute he says it, they're gone. You know when an editor is really honed in on something because you say to yourself, 'I knew that. I didn't do anything about it, I let it go, but I knew that.'
GR: Mollie asks, "I'd like to know about the Oprah's Book Club recommendation. Did you consider it a blessing or a curse because it traps the author into a genre?"
AS: I thought it was a thrill, an absolute thrill. And we had five kids to put through college and whatnot. It was very exciting, and I had many more readers than I had before. And I already had a backlist that practically no one knew about, so that was helpful. I think later on it became, you know, once you're in Oprah's Book Club, you do kind of get labeled, and it's been hard to break out of that. But I have to say that I'm infinitely more grateful than I am worried.
GR: Which writers have you most enjoyed reading recently?
AS: Colum McCann's TransAtlantic I thought was fantastic.
GR: Do you ever feel pressure from all your fans who are waiting for a new book from you that you can't let them down, or you don't want them to wait too long?
AS: I didn't have any control over it. I would like to have been able to give them a book a year, but that's just not going to happen. I'll probably spend sometime on Facebook someday describing exactly why this didn't appear for three years, but for now it's just enough to have finished it.
GR: So it doesn't get any easier every time you write a book?
AS: No, no, clearly not! This was the hardest one of all. And this is another thing I would just like to say: When you're a writer, you learn nothing. You learn nothing. The book you are working on is the hardest thing you've ever done, there are no shortcuts, there are no tricks. The example I use is that of an architect. I've written 17 novels. An architect who has built 17 buildings, you would expect him to know a lot about structure and walls and all that stuff. But there's nothing that translates when you start a new novel. And part of that is what makes it exciting, but it's like you're on a high wire and there's no safety net.
GR: Do you know what you're going to write about next?
AS: I do, but I don't ever tell.
Interview by Catherine Elsworth for Goodreads. Catherine is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the UK's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph for 13 years and was the Daily Telegraph's Los Angeles correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has also contributed to Tatler, Stella, and Condé Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.
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