Halfway through her fifth year of teaching high-school English, Anita Shreve paused.
"I had this panicky feeling that I had to start writing," she said. "I don't remember the exact circumstances -- I just knew that it was now or never."
She picked "now," boldly quit her job, and began to write short stories. Her rash decision eventually turned out pretty well -- for herself, as well as for her millions of loyal readers -- but at the time her future was not at all sure. She published a few stories, but many more were rejected. "Past the Island, Drifting" eventually won a prestigious O. Henry Award, but by then Shreve had moved on to journalism, figuring, she said, "you couldn't actually make a living writing short stories."
Over time, Shreve has, however, made a comfortable living writing intense, thoughtful novels -- one every 18 months or so -- about relationships and grief and the peculiarities of chance. Her 16th novel, "Rescue," came out last week, and previous books have been bestsellers.
"The Weight of Water" was shortlisted for the Orange Prize; "The Pilot's Wife" was an Oprah pick in 1999. Both books, as well as her novel "Resistance," were made into movies.
Shreve will be in the Twin Cities on Wednesday as a guest of Talking Volumes.
"I'm really looking forward to coming back to Minneapolis," she said recently during a lengthy telephone interview. "I've been there a couple of times and really liked it." She paused, considered the weather, and added, "I've never been there in freezing rain, though, so that might have something to do with it."
A happy childhood
Shreve did not always think of herself as a writer. She grew up in Dedham, Mass., outside of Boston, and attended Tufts University -- a normal oldest child in a normal family that suffered, she said, "no trauma or incidents of that sort." Her father was a pilot, her mother was a homemaker, and Shreve had two little sisters. She spent a lot of time outdoors, playing made-up games, or inside, reading books from the library.
"I had a happy childhood, very inventive," she said. "The biggest difference between childhood then and childhood today is that then you had to rely on your ability to invent, and your imagination."
But writing? "You wouldn't have mentioned it in our household. It was absolutely not an idea. We were so far removed from that universe."
Somehow, though, the desire crept up on her. After leaving her teaching job to write, Shreve and a friend planned a trip to Kenya. "I thought, well, I can write short stories in Africa." She noticed a magazine for African women called Viva and wrote to the editor, inquiring about work. "Little did I know that this magazine, which looked like it had a staff of 35, if not more, was being run by one guy and an advertising person. He was desperate for help." Shreve signed on, and her three-month vacation turned into three years.
Upon her return to the United States she worked briefly at American magazines and then began freelancing for the New York Times magazine and elsewhere. "I turned two of those [freelance] stories into books, nonfiction books," she said. "And while I was writing one of the nonfiction books, I started to write, in secret, my first novel."
Circling back to fiction
Shreve's second run at fiction was done privately because she had been warned against it. "I had said to my agent, 'I think I could write a novel,' and she said, immediately, 'Don't. If you can make a living -- and you're making a decent living writing nonfiction -- don't, don't, don't.'"
Her then-husband's words were harsher. "He said, 'You can't write a novel. It takes a massive intelligence to write a novel.'"
But Shreve believed she could. She read Alice McDermott's "That Night" as her daughter played on the floor, and then she sat down and wrote a 10-page outline for "Eden Close," which was not only published, but is still in print more than 20 years later.
She no longer outlines her books in quite so detailed a manner, beginning, instead, with "a really great idea" and then writing every morning on a legal pad, "in my bathrobe, in longhand, in a tiny little corner of my office," an upstairs room that looks out over the Atlantic Ocean. Four hours is usually enough for one day. "You can tell. This is one thing I have learned over the years -- you really know, to the sentence, when you're done."
Her novels are set in places that Shreve herself knows well -- upstate New York, and small towns in the Northeast. "Rescue" is about Peter Webster, a lonely and hardworking paramedic in Vermont. The small-town setting, she says, allows her to show Webster's entire life -- his parents, friends, neighbors and values -- in a way that a book set in a big city cannot. "The place," she said, "is always as much a character as the other characters."
"Rescue," in which an unlikely romance first blossoms and then withers, is studded with scenes in which Webster and his colleagues take blood pressure, restart hearts, load patients into ambulances, extricate victims from crumpled vehicles wrapped around trees. "I'm drawn to reality in fiction," Shreve said. "There's just a wonderful kind of pleasure that I get from reading a really well-written reality scene. You're rendering it as reality, but not one word is accurate. It's a funny paradox."
To prepare for "Rescue," she spent many hours with an EMT who coached her through the details of the job and then read scenes as Shreve wrote them. "We would brainstorm, and then she would tell me the correct language -- he wouldn't say this, he would say that, or, you wouldn't do that first, you'd do this first."
A life-changing phone call
One day back in 1999 Shreve was running late. "I was supposed to be home at six o'clock, and there was a fellow who had been calling all day, and my husband was fit to be tied. I didn't arrive home until eight, and he said, 'You have got to call this man. He's been driving me crazy.'
"So I went right to the phone, and called, and the fellow said, 'My boss wants to talk to you,' and then, bang, he put me on hold. I had no time to ask any questions, or anything, and I've still got my coat on, I'm slightly annoyed, I'm really hungry, and the next thing I know I hear this booming voice over a speaker phone. The voice said, 'Anita!' And I said, 'Hi.' And the voice said, 'Loved your book!' and I said, 'Thank you,' and she said, 'It's Oprah!'
"It was a thrill. A completely unexpected, out-of-the-blue thrill."
"The Pilot's Wife" became Oprah's 25th book-club book, and went on to sell in the millions and was made into a movie starring Christine Lahti. Shreve had been "moderately successful" before then, she said, but after Oprah her future was secure.
Shreve does not rest on those laurels. Now in her early 60s, her kids grown and gone, she continues to write every day, climbing the stairs at 8 a.m. to her sunny office, in her bathrobe, with her legal pad and pen and a fountain of ideas, all based in reality.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor.