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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.
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.
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
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
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.