Such is the life of an author: No learning curve apparently, at least not according to Anita Shreve. Her seventeen novels range in settings from the world of pilots (The Pilot's Wife) to Nazi resistance fighters in Belgium (Resistance), to New York advertising executives (Eden Close), and many other locales in between. Her most recent, Stella Bain, takes place in France and England during the First World War when the narrator finds herself shell-shocked, without a memory, trying to reclaim, and set right, a troubled life back in New Hampshire. Authors start new work from scratch each time, Shreve suggested, even an award-winning one (O'Henry award 1976; England's Orange Prize, 1998; the John P. Marquand Prize in American Literature, 2010) like herself.
“It took me a number of drafts trying to find a way into the Stella Bain story," Shreve told a spellbound audience at the South End library in April. The details were based on a case study from the 1920s but Shreve realized that only Stella Bain herself could describe the feelings she had, and find the memories she was looking to rediscover. When a British editor read her eighth draft, which Shreve had thought was the last, he suggested another sixty pages about the scene of a custody trial that took place in New Hampshire where the narrator hoped to reconcile with her children. “And that became draft number nine,” Shreve said wryly.
In response to various questions from the audience, Shreve said she always knew she would write. As a child, she'd send poems written by flashlight in her closet with the door closed to Jack and Jill magazine. Her father insisted she learn how to type and to become a certified teacher on the off chance she wouldn't find a husband. After saving some money teaching, she left that job one year in April, "a terrible time to quit," she acknowledged guiltily, but has made a life as a writer ever since.
Shreve said she does an enormous amount of research, regardless of whether the work takes place now or in history. Her writing day starts at 7:30 in the morning when, in her bathrobe, she writes till midday or later. "All that's missing is the cigarette hanging from my lips," she joked. Her favorite books are ("Oh, I hate that question," she told the audience) The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazard and nearly everything written by Anatole Broyard, whom she considers "almost perfect."