Anita Shreve had a confession. Over dinner, prepared by the school’s dining staff at the Head of School’s house, Shreve confessed that she almost couldn’t eat. She always felt nervous before a talk, she said, and was about walk to the Reed Campus Center to lecture on her first novel, Eden Close, and her most recent one, the tentatively titled After All.
Shreve has written 17 novels—including The Weight of Water, The Pilot’s Wife, and The Last Time They Met—and has received the PEN/L. L. Winship Award and the New England Book Award for fiction. But, as she confided to small group of faculty at dinner, presenting a public lecture still made her anxious.
By the time Shreve stepped before the wood-paneled podium in the Dodge Room an hour later, though, for the second in the 2012 Writers’ Lecture Series, any pre-talk jitters had melted away, replaced instead with an insightful, often amusing, look at the life of a writer.
“The thing to me that’s so important is the actual pleasure of writing,” she said. “You are creating a universe that takes you out of your normal universe. It’s a fabulous place to be.”
Shreve, a parent of two Williston graduates, spoke about her passion for writing, about the capricious moving-making industry in Hollywood, and about the ups and downs of getting a book published.
“You have control over a lot,” she said, “But you don’t have control over everything.”
Since those around her—her agent and husband at the time—discouraged her initial turn to fiction, Shreve wrote her first novel in secret, crafting a male protagonist who was dissimilar enough that writing his story sparked her creative imagination.
“Because it couldn’t be about me. It had to trigger my imagination,” she said. “If you don’t trigger the imagination, the story will be muddied.”
Each time Shreve turned in a manuscript—After All, a story of a WWI nurse suffering shell shock, had gone to the publisher just a week before—she also had to turn over control. That included decisions such as what the title would be, she said.
The Pilot’s Wife? Shreve had initially called that book “Perpetual Betrayals”; The Weight of Water had been “Silence at Smuttynose”; The Last Time They Met was supposed to be “Magdalene Poems.”
Of the latter, Shreve said it “would have been filed under religion or poetry—either way, it’s dead in the water.”
As to what central theme bound her books together, Shreve said the only way she could describe it was “life intensely felt.”
“How do you know when a book is complete?” asked one of the audience members during the post-lecture Q&A session.
“You just know,” Shreve said. “A book ends—there is no more. There is no more universe after that book ends. That’s it.”