Tuesday 26 March 2019

'I can't say I'm sorry about the Oprah call, but I paid a price for it'

Novelist Anita Shreve tells Edel Coffey that the Winfrey endorsement changed her life, but there was a cost to bear

Edel Coffey with author Anita Shreve
Edel Coffey with author Anita Shreve
The Merrion Hotel
Oprah Winfrey
Anita Shreve at The Merrion Hotel for the Irish release of her book 'Testimony' in 2008. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Testimony by Anita Shreve
The Lives of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve
The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve
Liz Hurley in the 2000 film ‘The Weight of Water’, which was written by Anita Shreve

Edel Coffey

IT'S been 15 years since Anita Shreve received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey that would change her life but it could have been last year judging by how much the topic is still mentioned in reviews and brought up in interviews like our one.

Shreve's second book, The Pilot's Wife, became a bestseller after it was selected by the Oprah book club and changed the course of Shreve's career, taking her from a small, literary author to a commercially successful novelist.

Shreve is elegant and glamorous, tall, blonde and perfectly groomed. We meet for lunch in the bar of the Merrion Hotel and have a suitably elegant selection of soup, sandwiches and dessert, all on the one plate, kind of like a mini-afternoon tea (without the champagne I am sorry to add).

She's aware that the endorsement took her career in a different direction than it might have gone otherwise.

The book before The Pilot's Wife [Eden Close] was shortlisted for the Orange prize. "I don't think I could ever say aloud that I'm sorry that the Oprah call happened, because I'm not, but I paid for it, I paid for it."

She's referring to the shift in attitudes towards her writing, the recategorisation from 'literary' to 'commercial'. But she doesn't regret it.

"I'd be still living in the same house and my kids wouldn't have gone to college without full scholarships, my life would have been very different."

She does wonder how many more books she will have to write (she has written 17) before that 'disturbing old-school dismissiveness' is gone.

Her latest book is set during the First World War, marking the centenary of that war, as so many novels will do this year. The Lives Of Stella Bain revisits an old character of Shreve's who has lost her memory as a result of shell-shock.

She wakes up in northern France and the novel is the story of Stella's journey to find out who she is, with the help of a surgeon turned psychologist. Shreve took three years to write this novel and the centenary of the war just happened to coincide.

"The time period dictated the story had to happen between 1915 and 1918. I love World War I, not the war itself of course, but thinking about it and reading about it.

''It's the ultimate romantic war, the ultimate journey from innocence to experience.

''When the boys went off to war they were boys and they thought they would be home by Christmas. A lot of the hard work was in the structure of this book. "It took me a long time to figure out the structure.

"I wrote it nine times. I've abandoned novels before and then, five years later, gone back to them and almost immediately it clicks. In this case I sensed there was a really great story if I could figure out how to tell it."

Despite her success, Shreve doesn't seem confident in her ability and says each book is as difficult to write as the last.

"I've written 17 novels. You learn nothing. It's as if you've never done it before. I would like to think you've learned something but it's not apparent to me. The reason I wrote that book nine times is I never had confidence to let it go."

The Lives of Stella Bain is a mystery at heart. So too is what Shreve is working on next. It's almost a superstition that she never talks about what she is working on. "When I wrote Eden Close I wrote it in absolute secrecy because I was told by a number of people not to do it. I had a good life as a non-fiction writer, they said you're making a living, don't mess that up. That's why I wrote it in secret and I showed it to my agent and she sold it and I never looked back. There was something about doing it in secret that was really productive. If I talk about bits of the novel the fizz comes out of the bottle and I need every bit of that fizz."

Even though her books are full of dark subject matter, there is always a love story at the heart it. Perhaps it has something to do with Shreve's own real-life love story. Her second husband, John, was someone she first met when she was 13-years-old and then didn't see again for 31 years. When they met again, Shreve was divorced with two children. John was also divorced with three children.

"We're not living as intensely as we did at the beginning," she says with a smile, "but it was kind of extraordinary. I used to think it was completely unique except I got so much mail from men who said 'I've always wanted to do this' or that they had done it. We met when we were 13 and then, 31 years later, we met again and we knew within a week that there was no not doing it. That was very powerful. We never had conversations about maybe we should back, maybe I need my own space, we never did that. We have been together for a long time now. When we hit 31 years together we'll be together for as long as we were apart. But I don't know if I can do that without dying," she laughs wryly.

But death has been on Shreve's mind a little of late and she's not sure why. "I never thought about it until recently. Everybody thinks about ageing once in a while. Sometimes I willfully ignore it. I had terrible knees in my 30s and 40s because of the torque of the frogkick and, by my mid-50s or late-50s – you don't have to put that part in," she says with a droll eyeroll, referring to her age – "I was in New York City and I was five short blocks from home and it took me an hour and 45 minutes to get there. I made it back and my doctor did a partial knee replacement. I felt like I had been renewed so I lived a whole decade thinking that I was younger than I am."

At the same time as that happened she was also dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, from which she is now recovered. She doesn't have regrets.

"I could have done without the cancer, although I remember a radiologist said to me 'you don't believe me but 25 years from now you'll look back and be glad this happened because each day will be more richer and you'll be aware of your life in a way that you wouldn't have been'.

''I'll say we have to go out to the park now because the sun is out, which is what we did today. I can't ever say I regret some matrimonial decisions I may have made because you can never ever regret something that leads to children, you just can't.

''It's philosophically impossible to do."

She does worry however. "I was very good at denial up until about two or three months ago. I never thought about death, not seriously, it's a subject in my novels but now it's weighing on me.

''I had cancer and I came out of that okay. You live every day in a way it feels different but I also feel, well that happened and I'm still here, so okay."

Does it not make her feel stronger that, after all of that, she is still healthy? She gives a little shrug. "There's all kinds of other things waiting."


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