Inspiration sneaks up on novelist Shreve
Having written 11 novels in some 15 years – and being able to call such output “natural,” if not easy – Anita Shreve should have some idea of where the seed of a story germinates. Shreve does, indeed, have an answer for where those novels come from – though it’s not the kind of information an aspiring novelist is apt to find particularly useful.”Anywhere,” said Shreve, who will give a talk and reading at this week’s Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival. “Every novel is different, every single one. Sometimes it’s an overheard snippet of conversation, sometimes it’s a true story.”And sometimes it’s none of the above. The 2001 romance “The Last Time They Met” was launched off of a short passage from Shreve’s mid-’90s novel “The Weight of Water.” For her most recent novel, last year’s “All He Ever Wanted,” she started with the naked image of a white chandelier in a bleached room.From those various starting points, Shreve’s novels can take off in unexpected directions. She calls novel-writing “a combination of daydreaming and controlling the words,” and that dreamy aspect comes into play with the first sparks of each novel.With “All He Ever Wanted,” for instance, the chandelier-in-a-room image was quickly followed by the picture of a woman. And in Shreve’s mind, the combination of a chandelier, a white room and a woman – drawing on her affection for 19th-century novels – had a dated feel. Hence, the setting of the novel, from the last days of the 19th century into the early decades of the 20th. Shreve imagined the novel would tell the story of that woman, who became the character Etna Bliss.But in the writing process – the “controlling the words” part – Shreve lost control of her novel. Instead of being told from Etna’s point of view, “All He Ever Wanted” came through the eyes of Nicholas Van Tassel, a mediocre but ambitious literature professor who forces his way into a lukewarm marriage with Etna.”I really thought it was going to be Etna’s story. It was a room in secret, her room, and the plot of the novel spooled out from that image,” said Shreve, who originally planned to title the book “The White Chandelier.” “But once I had the husband in mind, his voice took over – that slightly pompous, 19th-century voice, a man about whom we seem to know more than he knows himself.” Shreve seems to know herself well enough. She was successful in an earlier career as a magazine journalist. “But I had a hankering to write fiction,” she said. “It just took awhile to get it all in place.”She wrote two books of nonfiction, both about the feminist movement: “Women Together, Women Alone” and “Remaking Motherhood.” Using the advance from the nonfiction work, Shreve subsidized her novel-writing and had her first novel, “Eden Close,” published in 1989. Her move to fiction has been validated many times over: Shreve earned the PEN/L.L. Winship Award and the New England Book Award for fiction in 1998. “The Pilot’s Wife,” published that year, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, an event Shreve credits with expanding her readership, and “The Weight of Water” was a finalist for England’s Orange Prize.Shreve has occasionally drawn loosely on her own experiences for her books. Part of “The Last Time They Met” takes place in Kenya; “All He Ever Wanted” was set in a small New England college town, an atmosphere Shreve knows from her days teaching at Amherst College. And the former book opens with a less-than-favorable take on literary festivals – but Shreve says not to read too much into that depiction; the fictional festival is loosely based on Toronto’s Harbor Fest, and she says she expects to enjoy her time in Aspen.As for getting a clearer idea of how her novels originate, Shreve seems to be taking a step backward. Her next novel, “Light on Snow,” due in October, involves a young girl and her father who, on a walk through the woods, come across an infant left to die. And where did this plot come from?”I absolutely don’t know,” she said.Anita Shreve gives a reading and talk Monday, June 28, at 6 p.m. at The Given Institute.The 2004 Aspen Summer Words, including the Literary Festival and Writing Retreat, runs Saturday through Wednesday, June 26-30. Also appearing at the Literary Festival are Erica Jong, Madeleine Blais, Ron Carlson, Fenton Johnson and more.For further information, go to http://www.aspenwriters.org.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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