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Anita Shreve, J68, is the successful author of nine novels and two non-fiction works. Her novel The Pilot’s Wife won a spot as an Oprah book selection in 1999 and her novels are routinely on the NewYork Times Best Seller List. Her novel, The Weight of Water, was awarded the PEN/LL Winship prize, the New England Book Award and was a finalist for Britain’s Orange Prize. She has also received an O Henry Award. Her latest novel, Sea Glass, is a tale of trust and betrayal set in New Hampshire during the Depression. A former teacher and journalist, Shreve makes her home in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Editor Michele Gouveia spoke with Shreve about the craft of writing and her appreciation for times past. (Photo by Doug Brega)
A Writer’s Craft
Anita Shreve J68

You began writing fiction while you were a high school teacher. Had you wanted to be a writer before that?
I had written poems as a child, and I took a writing course at Tufts with the poet, Maxine Kumin. But I don’t think I ever considered writing a practical endeavor.

You have been a high school English teacher and a journalist. What did you learn from these jobs that has helped you as a novelist?
I don’t know about the teaching, but the journalism was helpful. It taught me how to shape a story, and I learned not to be afraid of research.

Would you like to do journalism again?
No, I’m very content where I am.

Describe your writing process. Do you have a strict routine that you follow? For example, do you plot out your stories beforehand?
Every book is very different. It’s a bit like reinventing the wheel. I’ll occasionally have a broad-strokes outline and may even know my ending, but the book develops as it is written. I write all of my books by hand.

Many of your books, like The Weight of Water and Resistance, are set in earlier time periods. Is it more difficult to write about a time period not your own?
It’s both more difficult and easier. More difficult, because you have to do a fair amount of research to make sure your details are authentic. It’s easier because it gives you a sense of remove that enables you to tackle issues that might seem banal in your own age but are etched in sharp relief when they’re seen from a distance.

Have you ever set a story in a particular time period that, in the end, gave you a new appreciation or understanding?
Sure. I would say that was true about Sea Glass. I was very drawn to the period—the Depression and the history of mills—but I also came away from it with a greater understanding of both the domestic deprivation and at the other end of the spectrum, the circumstances of the wealthy, who at the end of the twenties lived a pretty vapid life.

In some of your novels characters are based on real people. Does this pose a particular challenge to you as a writer?
Sometimes. For example, in The Weight of Water [based in part on a true murder that occurred in Maine at the end of the 1800s], the info that I had to go on was court transcripts and accounts from other people, In that case I, like many people before me, speculated as to what happened during that particular crime. I’m not the first person to have done this—it’s a common technique that requires an extra leap of the imagination.

For Sea Glass, how much time did you spend on the research?
Quite a bit. I had to read a great deal about the Depression generally and the Depression in New England in particular—as well as about the labor conflict in the mills during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

For a novelist, the trick is not to let the research overwhelm the story. A novelist works in a way very different from that of a scholar. A scholar will amass a body of information and then form a thesis. A writer has an idea, a story, a character and then researches the time period or the place to give the novel authenticity.

Do you find yourself favoring one character over another when you’re writing?
In Sea Glass, I’m probably fondest of Alphonse, because he is a boy who has a quality we don’t see too often these days: pluck. Even in the face of terrible circumstances, he manages to remain both hopeful and optimistic.

I was also fond of Vivian, who was a colorful and vivacious character. At times, she threatened to run away with the novel.

Many of your books have been on the New York Times Best Seller List and you’ve been an Oprah Book Club author. Does this add pressure when you go to start a new book?
No, not at all. I don’t think about my readers. I learned early on that one has to put aside all thoughts of family, editors, Hollywood, best-seller lists and even readers. Ultimately, writing is a very selfish endeavor.

In many of your works, Sea Glass, The Weight of Water, Fortune’s Rocks, the ocean plays a very important part. What is the particular allure of the imagery of water, the ocean?
The coast of New England is evocative. Metaphors of the sea are inexhaustible — ever-changing and appealing.

You lived in Africa, in Kenya. What was that experience like and how did it influence your writing?
It was a terrific and vivid experience. I set part of The Last Time They Met in Nairobi.

Do you prefer to write about a place that you already know or one that you have to learn through research?
That’s hard to say. I’m drawn to certain locales. And I believe the place tells me the story.

Did you have a favorite teacher when you were on the Hill?
Yes, Jesper Rosenmeier, my American studies professor. He brought literature and writing alive in a way that had never happened for me before. I feel I owe him a great deal.

What are you reading right now?
Right now, I’m reading 60 novels because I’m helping to judge the Barnes and Noble Discover Contest.

Do you have a favorite writer?
It changes all the time. Like many of my contemporaries, I hope to be transported to another universe when I pick up a book. I also need the writing to be arresting.

What is the book that you’re working on now?
I have a new book coming out in April called All He Ever Wanted, and it’s about a man journeying by train to Florida who reflects back on an unforgivable act he committed years before. It’s set in the early 1900s.

What advice would you give to a young person who has thoughts of becoming a writer?
Don’t give up. The road is hard; there is a lot of rejection. The temptation to give up is tremendous. But I do believe that the difference between the writers who have made it and the writers who have not made it is that the writers who have made it did not give up.