Best-selling author Anita Shreve died in early April. She was 71, had penned 18 books, and bravely battled breast cancer for the past few years. Her death was sad news for her legions of fans but especially for those of us who live in coastal Maine where Shreve summered at Biddeford Pool.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Shreve for an article in the TOURIST NEWS, a bi-weekly paper that focuses on the happenings of York County, Maine. The first words she said to me were, “Please call me Anita.” My first words to her were, “I loved THE PILOT’S WIFE!”
We had a dandy conversation and this week’s blog recaptures most of it.
On a sunny Saturday morning in early August, 2014, Anita Shreve stretched out on a chaise in the second floor bedroom of her spacious home overlooking the rocky coast of Maine. “Just lying here watching Wood Island lighthouse bathed in sunlight is such a contrast to today’s headlines in The New York Times,” she said. “Later this morning I’ll walk through the village. I love exploring the interior of a town and ambling by the interesting warren of old homes.”
In a heartbeat you get a sense of this best-selling author who’s penned 17 (now 18) novels in more than two decades. She cherishes the New England lifestyle, and many of her novels are set in the picturesque villages and seashore towns of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. She enjoys her own company and prefers the simple serenity of her writing studio to the fuss and fanfare of a celebrated author’s life. “I’m actually quite a private person,” she said.
“As a writer, I’ve always been intrigued by the catastrophic moment in life,” Shreve says. “I like to write about ordinary women who are ‘pushed to the edge’ by a situation.” This motif runs through many of her novels, notably in THE PILOT'S WIFE, when heroine Kathryn Lyons discovers and confronts her husband’s multifaceted secret life after he died in a plane crash off the coast of Ireland.
THE PILOT’S WIFE also catapulted Shreve to fame beyond any dreams she had as a young girl growing up in Dedham, Massachusetts, with a father who was, coincidentally, an airplane pilot. In 1999 THE PILOT'S WIFE was selected by Oprah Winfrey for the Oprah Book Club. Shreve says, “That phone call from Oprah changed my life. My audience grew exponentially from that moment.”
Three of Shreve’s books have been made into films, including THE PILOT'S WIFE (with Christine Lahti), RESISTANCE (with Julia Ormond), and THE WEIGHT OF WATER (starring Elizabeth Hurley and Sean Penn).
Shreve is also the 1998 recipient of the Laurence L. and Thomas Winship/PEN Award, which honors New England authors, and the New England Book Award for fiction. She admits that one of her proudest moments came when THE WEIGHT OF WATER was shortlisted in 1997 for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize.)
“Writing each novel is a little bit like reinventing the wheel,” Shreve says. “There are new locales, new voices, new plots. It’s probably a little tougher each time I write a novel because I have to dig so much deeper to find characters and plots.”
“But I always write for myself. Getting on Oprah’s list was wonderful, but a writer can’t think of an editor or Oprah or whomever when she’s writing — she should write what satisfies her. I want to write about what I want to read.”
Asked to name favorite characters from her novels, Shreve said, “I’m so absorbed in my new book that I really can’t remember or think of prior books!” She does admit, however, that the title character Stella Bain of her 2014 novel STELLA BAIN “came from an earlier book. I’m letting Stella finally have her say but I’ll let my readers figure out which book she was in originally.”
STELLA BAIN related the story of a young American woman found on a French battlefield near the end of World War I. Suffering from shell shock and amnesia, Stella is taken in by a British surgeon and his wife who try to help her recover her past and find her identity.
Shreve is a voracious reader. “I fall asleep with a book in my hand every night,” she says. (Inside scoop: Shreve strongly supports local book stores and was often spotted roaming the aisles of Kennebunkport bookstores.)
Currently on Shreve’s bedside table is Irish writer Colm Toibin’s THE MASTER which imagines the private life and last few years of famed American novelist Henry James. “It’s perfectly shaped and gorgeously written,” she says. Her advice to budding writers: “Read anything and read all the time! That’s how you’ll find your voice and learn how to write.”
When not in her writing studio from 7:30 AM to 12:30 PM daily, including weekends, Shreve might pop down to her pied-à-terre in Boston with husband John Osborn whom she first knew when she was 13. But during the summer she happily shuts the door on her studio and takes time for family which includes five children and three grandchildren.
“A good part of my summer is dedicated to my family,” she says. “They love to come and stay here at our house in Maine and that is just the best.”
Shreve’s last book, THE STARS ARE FIRE, recounts the story of the horrendous fires that swept through Maine, from Bar Harbor to Kittery, in the fall of 1947 after a summer-long drought. Heroine Grace Holland, five months pregnant, learns to rebuild her life in the aftermath of tragedy.
Everyone I know who has read it, loves it. I’ve just ordered it from Amazon.