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The Interview with Anita Shreve

Salvation — without the happy endings

ANITA SHREVE ANITA SHREVE (Deborah Feingold)
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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Anita Shreve’s latest novel, “Rescue,’’ is set in rural working-class Vermont where Peter Webster, an experienced emergency medical technician, and his restless teenage daughter, Rowan, are about to be visited first by terrifying misfortune and later by a disruptive figure from their past. In this, the most gracefully economical of Shreve’s novels, salvation takes the form of hard-earned wisdom, not easy redemption. Shreve is the author of 15 previous novels, among them “The Pilot’s Wife,’’ “Testimony,’’ and “A Change in Altitude.’’

She spoke from her home in Western Massachusetts.

Q. I’m always struck by the image that your novels project — with those pretty, pastel covers — and the contrasting realities they contain.

A. Somebody walking into a bookstore might certainly recognize my books. But the novels are often grittier than the covers would suggest. I would say that I have never written a pastel book.

Q. Your work is often classified as women’s fiction.

A. I hate the term. I’ve hated the term for years. Many of my books have been narrated by men, and with “Rescue,’’ I have heard people say that if they hadn’t seen my name on the cover, they would never have guessed that the book was written by a woman. It should simply be called fiction.

Q. You often begin a novel with a catastrophe. Why?

A. I’m fascinated by how ordinary people behave in extraordinary circumstances and a catastrophe, or the promise of one, puts characters to the test. The reader knows pretty early on that something fairly awful is going to happen but may not find out for some time. “The Weight of Water,’’ for example, was almost an elegiac commentary on the terrible reality that the narrator will later encounter.

Q. There are sequential catastrophes in “Rescue.’’ Was it difficult to manage those while keeping our attention fixed on the main characters?

A. That’s an interesting point. I started the novel knowing that I wanted a character that had a real job. Not a poet, not a writer, not a journalist. In order to make him real I had to show him on the job. When I’m creating a character, I imagine myself in that person’s shoes minute-by-minute and some of the scenes in “Rescue’’ have a terrifying immediacy. But it wasn’t enough to depict one or two. You had to see what Webster confronts, day by day. And yet he remains baffled by his own 17-year-old daughter.

Q. Why did you choose an EMT and how deeply did you immerse yourself in that world?

A. Originally I thought I would try my hand at a literary thriller and I knew that I needed a character with access to the entire community and also to the police. When I started writing the book, however, I realized that the EMT scenes had a fascination all their own. I did quite a bit of research and found a real EMT who fed me information and corrected my mistakes. I eventually went up to Vermont to meet her and went through the rescue squad and learned a great deal.

Q. “Rescue’’ also contains a remarkable portrait of an alcoholic.

A. I know more now about alcoholics than I knew 15 years ago. Part of it is the culture, part is having known people struggling with this disease. How, for instance, an alcoholic can be rough on a marriage. I’ve certainly heard enough personal stories and witnessed some scenes. That’s really where I picked up on that.

Q. You take us close to disliking Sheila. Is that a delicate balance?

A. It is. I think in the beginning we wonder what Webster’s doing with her. She’s sassy and clearly out of his league. I had fun with that because slightly dangerous or malicious characters are always the most enjoyable to create. With Sheila, though, it became painful because you have this good guy who’s madly in love with this woman and you sense that she loves him too even though she makes that sarcastic comment about Webster being her best shot at safety. Then you gradually see how the alcoholism eats away at what they have.

Q. Was the idea of a literary thriller a desire to change direction after 16 novels?

A. With each novel I’ve changed something fairly fundamental and this idea was really in the same vein. What can I do to challenge myself this time? Usually I change the structure or create a different voice. I might write the novel backwards or have multiple points of view with the story unfolding as you hear it from different voices. That’s the fun part for me. The idea of a literary thriller was very appealing although I’m not sure now that I could do it. The literary part I could manage, but the thriller part I would have to think about a little more.

Q. Have you maintained the same writing routine over the years?

A. Yes. I write by hand, transfer to a computer, print it out, and then edit by hand. None of the important work is done on a computer.

Q. After this many novels, do you perceive your writing as having changed?

A. It changes with each novel. Readers would often say that towards the end of my novels they were terrified. They knew that I was going to do something awful. I think now that they wouldn’t necessarily have that doomed sense. There are no happy endings in an Anita Shreve novel because even if it is what could be called a happy ending, so much has been lost. And what has been lost cuts to the core of the novel.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at ama1668@hotmail.com.