Anita Shreve: Tragic heart of success

Call Anita Shreve's books chick lit at your peril, warns Nicky Pellegrino.

Anita Shreve was propelled into the limelight by Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. Photo / Supplied
Anita Shreve was propelled into the limelight by Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. Photo / Supplied

There tends to be a tragedy at the heart of an Anita Shreve novel, a moment in life that changes everything, a person pushed to the edge. She's known for her sharp insights into relationships, whether they're between lovers, friends, or parents and children.

The US author's 16th novel, Rescue (Little Brown $39.99), bears all those hallmarks. It's a story of both emotional and physical forms of rescue. Lead character Peter Webster is a rookie paramedic who becomes involved in a not-especially-healthy but intense relationship with Sheila Arsenault after he pulls her from a car wreck. Sheila has a troubled past and sees Peter as her own rescue, her place of safety. Not surprisingly, things end badly. But 18 years later, when their teenaged daughter Rowan goes off course, Peter is forced to call on her for help.

"I do tend to write tragic novels," Shreve agrees over the phone from her Massachusetts home.

"I look for an arena to put my characters where they can react to something that has gravitas.

I see the world as a dark place when I'm writing but in real life you wouldn't look at me and think that's a tragic person."

The daughter of an airline pilot and a homemaker, Shreve quit her teaching career in the middle of a school year so she could write short stories. "I hadn't done much writing before that," she admits, "but I had a panicky sense I had to start right away. In those days it was a lot cheaper to live. I think it would be more difficult to do that now."

Although her work was acclaimed, it wasn't until Oprah Winfrey chose her sixth novel, The Pilot's Wife, for her famous book club that Shreve reached mega best-selling status. "That put me on the map," she says. "A lot of people thought The Pilot's Wife was my first novel."

She describes the writing as being like daydreaming. "I go from breakfast straight to my office in my bathrobe and write until I'm done, which usually is about four-and-a-half hours," she explains.

With Rescue, there was also a fair bit of research required - Shreve knew nothing about emergency medicine and needed to accurately describe the procedures in language paramedics would use. "I wanted to write a novel about someone who had a real job and whose process of work would help us understand the character," she explains.

But what she strives for most is emotional veracity. "My way of writing is to take every moment in the book and make it accurate as to how we experience emotions. It doesn't mean a character can't do something shocking, but it has to be real."

Categorising her work is tricky. It's been described as romance but that's a long way wide of the mark. It's not chick lit either. "And the term women's fiction makes me seethe," admits Shreve. "It's dismissive. After all, we wouldn't call something men's fiction. I hate labels but if I had to choose then I'd describe it as mainstream fiction."

* Join Anita Shreve in conversation with book editor Nicky Pellegrino at Paperplus Takapuna on September 19, 6-7.30pm. Tickets are $10 from or call (09) 486 7472.

- Herald on Sunday

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