Anita Shreve: Soldier on

Anita Shreve wrote nine drafts of her latest novel, Stella Bain, before it was published. With persistence and passion, she saw the book through to its end, an approach that has paid off throughout her 24 years as a novelist. Time and again, her novels demonstrate how dynamic characters and complex plots can bridge the gap between mainstream and literary.
By Hillary Casavant | Published: March 21, 2014


Photo by Jacob Belcher

Photo by Jacob Belcher

The light through Anita Shreve’s window is pale and wintry. Boston’s skyline rises behind a church with Romanesque arches and a Tiffany glass window. The setting is emblematic of Shreve’s work: stark yet striking, with just a touch of the Gothic.

A still life of a glass case of birds – placed beside the case itself – was painted by her father. Shreve also displays a small image by an unknown artist of a grand piano in an art gallery.

“I love paintings within paintings,” she says. “Stories within stories.”

The bookshelves of her apartment – a home away from her residence in Maine – represent an equal mix of inspiration and sentiment, filled with books she loves, books she has yet to read, books by friends, books she has reviewed, books on art and books she wrote. It is “absolutely essential” for writers to read widely and often, she says. Her copy of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is at home beside a book of poems by Seamus Heaney and Experience, a memoir by Martin Amis.

But the focal point of the room is the large dark oak table where Shreve writes each draft of her books by hand. Although she has tried to write on the computer, she finds the meticulous process of handwriting invaluable for slowing down, constructing better sentences and minimizing sloppy writing.

“The creative impulse, the thing that gets deep inside me, goes from the brain to the fingertips,” she says. “When you’re writing by hand, even when you’re not consciously thinking about it, you’re constructing sentences in the best way possible. And I still get the thrill of the clean pad of notepaper and the pencil all sharpened.”

Despite her meticulous drafting routine, Shreve is anything but slow when it comes to publishing. Her sixth novel, The Pilot’s Wife, propelled her to stardom when it was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club in 1999. Three of the author’s books – The Pilot’s Wife, Resistance and The Weight of Water – were made into films, and many of her other books have become international bestsellers. In all, Shreve has written 17 novels in 24 years.

Aside from her ability to captivate a mainstream audience, Shreve remains a revered writer in the world of literary fiction, garnering praise from both contemporaries and critics, including Ron Charles, fiction editor for The Washington Post.

“She is one of the most literary authors who can reach out to a popular audience,” he says.

Despite an impressive résumé, Shreve is “extremely modest,” a novelist who avoids the limelight, according to Charles. A look at Shreve’s writing process demonstrates the power behind her success.

Find the story

Stella BainShreve’s latest novel, Stella Bain, is set against the turbulent backdrop of World War I, the centennial of which begins in July.

“It’s the most romantic of wars in the sense that it’s the archetypical journey from innocence to experience,” Shreve says.

The war sets the stage for the title character Stella Bain, an American nurse’s aide, who suffers from amnesia while serving on France’s frontline in 1916. While a London doctor and his wife nurse Stella back to health, she prods lost memories through a series of drawings. A tragic story of love and loss unfolds as Stella recovers her past.

The complicated topic of war is a subject Shreve has tackled in past books.

“War is an absolutely juicy topic,” she says. “It’s a great arena in which to thrust characters.”

The setting required extensive research that included a visit to London’s museums and archival libraries. But a search for one particular detail came up dry: Despite the presence of women on the frontlines during World War I, not a single record of a woman with shell shock exists. This absence from history became the hook to Shreve’s new novel.

The author never shies from research, a skill learned during her time as a journalist before her fiction career took wing. Prior to becoming a novelist, Shreve won an O. Henry Prize for her short story “Past the Island, Drifting” and worked as a journalist in Nairobi, Kenya, for three years. Her experience as a journalist still helps her “see the shape” of a story before it begins. It also taught her to write through creative blocks.

“I learned that writing is not precious,” she says. “There’s no waiting for the muse to come.”

Despite the vast amount of research that goes into her novels, Shreve is sparing with her words, including only the most essential details that add nuance to the story.

Play with words

Stella Bain took three years to complete and evolved through a grueling nine drafts that included changes in point of view, tense and location. Shreve wrote the initial draft in first person from the perspective of the title character, but soon realized she could not withhold key pieces of information from Stella’s past using this form.

“You have to make the reader an equal partner,” Shreve says, quoting advice from novelist John Gardner.

Shreve then experimented with a new narrator, and the novel became a case history told from the perspective of a doctor. In one of the drafts, Shreve also relocated the story to a modern-day setting. The move resulted from “a lapse” in which she worried a contemporary reader would be uninterested in a World War I novel.

“Even though I knew better, I was making all those mistakes,” she says. “You really can’t think about your audience; you can’t think about your parents; you can’t think about your kids; you can’t think about your editor; you can’t think about Hollywood. Because the minute you do that, you start to second guess yourself.”

As she soldiered through rewrites, Shreve was compelled by her title character.

“The more I worked on it, the more alive [Stella] became to me,” Shreve says. “I couldn’t abandon her.”

In the end, Shreve returned the novel to its original roots, with the final draft published in present tense, third person limited narration with a brief section of first person letters. Present tense pairs well with historical fiction, Shreve says, adding a greater sense of immediacy to the narrative.

“It’s important to go with your initial impulses, the thing that made you want to tell the story,” she says, “because that’s where the imagination really came alive.”

Shreve strives to “play with form” in each of her novels, testing new voices and experimenting with different styles. Her books feature a spectrum of settings, time periods, perspectives and unique approaches. Many of her books employ multiple points of view, which gives “dynamic construct” to a narrative and adds “roundness” and complexity, she says.

Experimenting with construction is simply part of the fun in writing.

“Most of writing is problem solving,” Shreve says, a challenge to tell the individual pieces of a story in an authentic way and allow the reader to instinctively know what’s happening through a gradual unveiling of detail. She describes Stella Bain as a mosaic, a collection of hazy moments that clarify for the reader as the story progresses.

Shreve’s skill with pacing is recognized by her contemporaries, including Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo, who has known Shreve for several years.

“Not every writer knows where to enter a scene and when to exit,” he says. “It’s a skill that comes, I suspect, from paying enough attention to your audiences to anticipate what they want and need… You don’t figure out timing in your head; you feel it in your fingertips. When to surrender the plot detail that’s been puzzling the reader? Right… hold on… wait… now! Anita Shreve is just so deft in making those split-second decisions.”

Hook the reader

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Photo by Jacob Belcher

Shreve begins a novel with an “overreaching story,” a sense of what’s at stake and an inkling for the resolution. But endings are not always set in stone. An element of tragedy often marks her book’s conclusions, but this penchant for the tragic is not a part of her nature, she says; it is simply her impulse to write.

“It came from somewhere in there,” she says. “A deep, deep well of stories.”

Although Shreve’s novels often tackle complicated social and moral issues, she never writes with an agenda, which, she says, is the kiss of death.

Rather than present a definitive moral message, Shreve delves into the gray by putting herself in the character’s shoes and imagining her own reactions to these “dilemmas and catastrophes.”

Charles, who has read several of Shreve’s novels, believes that these complex plots keep readers hooked.

“The plots are gripping,” the fiction editor says. “Stories that you kind of sink into, plots that you remember. [Characters] work themselves into situations, [and] you’re just dying to know how they’re going to get out of them.”

Shreve begins the majority of her work with an idea for this complex situation or incident, then discovers the character as she writes.

“The character is made known to you almost as it is made known to the reader,” she says. “It’s like watching someone come out of the fog.”

These characters are key components to Shreve’s work and offer a depth of emotion and response. The novelist says she often writes about ordinary women who are “pushed to the edge” by a situation.

“It doesn’t interest me to write about women who aren’t real,” Shreve says. “My mother once said, ‘The minute I read that a character is beautiful, I flip the book over my shoulder.’ It lacks authenticity.”

These simple yet extraordinary characters bring Shreve back to the page day after day. For aspiring writers hoping to achieve such success, it’s simply a matter of persistence.

“Don’t give up,” she says. “If you really are meant to be a writer, you won’t be able to get to the desk fast enough.”

Hillary Casavant is a writer in the Boston area and editorial assistant for this magazine and other publications.

Excerpt from Stella Bain

Sometimes, the doctors’ screams are louder than the patients’. The surgeon’s job is beyond belief, a hell on earth worse than any hell imagined. Stella wants to know how many of them go mad, all sensibility and religion violently stripped away during the endless succession of amputations.

Always look a man in the eye, no matter how terrible the wound. This, the English sister teaches, orders, her to do. The wounded’s journey is long: from the trenches of no-man’s-land to the aid post to the field dressing station to the casualty-clearing station, only to die on the train on the way to the base hospital.

*

In her off-hours, Stella mends tears in her skirt, brushes mud off her hem, and searches for lice in the seams of her clothing. She washes collars and cuffs and the cloth of her cap, and if there is water left over, she tries to clean her body.

One day, she asks the sister on duty if she might have a piece of paper and a pencil. In her tent, Stella begins to sketch what she can see around her: a lantern, a canvas table, a cot in the corner. Her roommate, Jeanne, catches her at this activity and marvels at Stella’s ability. In broken English and using a kind of sign language, she asks if Stella will draw her portrait so that she might send it back to her family. Jeanne has hollow eyes and a vocation. As she draws the young woman, Stella wants to ask her how her religion has survived the sights they have both witnessed, but Stella’s grasp of French is not good enough for any sort of meaningful conversation.

When Jeanne brings a fellow aide to the tent and asks Stella if she will draw her friend’s portrait, Stella agrees on the condition that Jeanne find her more paper and pencils and a knife for sharpening the pencils. This Jeanne happily does. Jeanne’s friend insists on paying Stella for her sketch. Gradually, a number of nurses and their aides line up to have their portraits done as well.

But between the portraits, when Stella is alone, the private drawings she makes disturb her. She sketches the exteriors of unknown houses, surrounded by grotesque trees and bushes. When she tries again, the drawings are nearly the same, but the atmosphere of claustrophobia grows even more pronounced. The sketches produce a keen sense of distress, but she cannot stop herself from continuing to make them.

Stella does not know how she came by her skill at drawing. It seems to have appeared simply out of a desire to do so.

Stella Bain reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2013 Anita Shreve.

Commentary

Anita Shreve reflects on writing this excerpt.

“During a later revision of the novel, I added the passages having to do with [Stella’s] drawing. I didn’t have the insight about the drawings until I realized that the drawings would be a significant part of her recovery, and how, though she is growing closer to the truth, she doesn’t know it and thinks she is going mad.

To write the original passage, which was intended to show what Stella’s life was like in her off-hours, I first had to get my facts right – from something as small as lice in the seams of her clothing to the sequence in the journey of wounded men from the battlefield to the medical tents and the hospital ships.

Gender and religion are important touch points in the novel. Gender, because it was essential that the reader understand that shell shock was as likely for a woman as a man (though not recognized) and religion because it was very difficult to sustain a belief in God after being a first-hand witness to the savagery and carnage of the war.”

  • Shellie Blum

    Beautiful writing… totally drew me into the story!