Anita Shreve writes gripping and literate romances that sell in the millions.

It comes as something of a relief to meet Anita Shreve in person. Around the world, on planes, trains, and beaches, you can’t avoid someone reading one of her bestselling novels: The Pilot’s Wife, Fortune’s Rocks, The Weight Of Water, The Last Time They Met. There she is again, the author’s photograph on the inside cover, looking unbelievably perfect. Expensive black jacket, classic white blouse, (a discreet gold bracelet under a designer cuff), subtle blond highlights, flawless makeup, and an enigmatic gaze giving nothing away. “All airbrush and good lighting,” Shreve says, seeing to son, Christopher, a chatty 12-year-old who has just come home from school. We are sitting in the kitchen of her large, newly renovated turn-of-the-century house in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. “The photographer who took it usually works with models.”

Away from the airbrush and lighting, Shreve doesn’t look anything like her photograph. But even in jeans and not much makeup, she is quite lovely. She has a natural, lived-in beauty, entirely appropriate for a happily second-time-married, 55-year-old mother of two. Her husband John is in insurance. She looks exactly like a wife and mother whose books – written in longhand while in her bathrobe in a corner of the living room – have been so successful she probably never needs to work again. “But I’m very driven and I can’t imagine not writing. It’s my work. You don’t stop just because you’ve finished a book. No one would think of saying to an architect, ‘Will you ever create another building?’, but it’s something writers are asked all the time.”

Shreve has written nine novels in 11 years. She writes love stories, told in eloquent, painterly prose and compelling dialogue. They are filled with shocking emotional tidal waves that take place in exquisitely drawn locations. Her latest is Sea Glass, set in New Hampshire in 1929. Honora Beecher and her husband Sexton are settling into marriage when they suddenly find themselves rocked by the stock market crash of 1929. Penniless, they are forced to adapt to new circumstances. Shreve, exploring how lives are interconnected, tells their story by returning readers to the house central to both The Pilot’s Wife and Fortune’s Rocks. It’s loosely based, she says, on a real house, she once saw from the outside which, for some reason, she couldn’t get out of her head. “But the details are all made up. The house is straight out of my imagination; it’s just another character, like Honora and Sexton.

In Sea Glass, I make a reference to a painting by Claude Lugny, an artist I mentioned in The Pilot’s Wife. It was just me having fun, but some readers are convinced he’s real and want to know where they can go to see more of his paintings.” Shreve constantly returns to the New England coastline, using innovative devices to invent recurring characters and places, compelling flash-forwards, flashbacks, and deeply unsettling endings. Two novels have been adapted into screenplays. The Pilot’s Wife is a film for American TV. The Weight Of Water, starring Liz Hurley and Sean Penn, was shown at the London Film Festival. “It’s quite similar to the book except in the film the child doesn’t die. Hollywood would never make a movie with that ending.”

Oprah Winfrey catapulted Shreve to huge commercial success, selecting The Pilot’s Wife for her TV book club. Oprah’s titles automatically sell more than a million, propelling authors to national and, frequently, international fame. “Oprah has encouraged a whole new audience of readers so publishers love her. The odds against being chosen are huge. I was very lucky.” The Pilot’s Wife gave Oprah the idea to do a programme about women who’ve discovered their husbands have other families somewhere else. I was invited on to the show, where she had five women come and tell their stories. Each story was much worse than anything I’d written. Real life is invariably worse than novels.”

“I work all morning, as soon as Chris has gone to school and finish around lunchtime. At certain stages, when I’m totally preoccupied by what’s happening, I spend a lot of time living in my head. It’s hard sometimes to come back into the real world especially in the beginning when there are so many unanswered questions. Which character is going to tell this story? Which tense will I use?” In her new house, Shreve no longer sits in her bathrobe. She has a room of her own: an office above the bedroom in the adjoining guest house. She also has a swimming pool with a device that, at the touch of a button, creates currents so you feel you are swimming in the sea. The pool is her one luxury. “The room where I write is like an empty schoolroom. Just a desk and blank walls. I don’t listen to music and I don’t have photos because I don’t want life to invade. My writing has to be created out of deprivation, not excess.” Asking questions used to be Shreve’s stock in trade. As a journalist for 15 years, she didn’t much care for that part of the job. “I always felt anxiety around asking questions, but I loved library research and finding creative ways to put all the material together.”

Journalism was good training for me as a novelist.

“I could never write an article until I knew what my last line was going to be. It’s the same with my books. I have to know the ending, although I don’t necessarily have any idea how I’m going to get there. That’s part of the pleasure – the sense of a story developing.” Although she doesn’t have time now, for the past few years Shreve taught creative writing classes at Amherst College, using journalism techniques to encourage her students to make up their own stories.

Growing up in Dedham, a middle-class Boston suburb, she dreamed of being a writer. “I majored in English at college, but my father was a child of the Depression and very practical. He insisted that after graduation, I could do anything as long as I qualified as a teacher first and had a profession. So I taught high school for five years before quitting to write short stories.” Marriage and a daughter (20 now and away at college), journalism, and time in Kenya make up Shreve’s personal story, but she is reticent about giving away her private life. “I enjoy meeting people at book clubs, discussing the text, or doing readings, but that’s all. Part of me wishes I could write anonymously. Of course, that’s impossible if you want anyone to buy your books. My stories are invented. The characters are imaginary. They’re not about me or my life. Early on I learned to put everyone I knew, parents, friends, even readers out of my mind so I wouldn’t feel intimidated, and there was no one to interfere with my daydreams.”

Shreve describes writing novels as daydreaming “A delicious way to have imaginary conversations.” She started writing fiction in secret. “It was a bit like trying to give up smoking. You don’t want people to know you’re doing it in case you don’t make it. It takes such a leap of faith to write something nobody has asked for and may not want.”

Despite her success, she is still very secretive. “The universe I’m trying to create is so fragile, it’s easier not to reveal anything, even the title. I don’t want my editor or anyone to know what I’m writing about until I’m ready.” As a journalist, Shreve was an editor for US magazine, freelanced for Newsweek and the New York Times magazine. She spent a couple of years based in Nairobi, where she edited an African magazine, “doing everything from writing recipes to interviewing the president”. Two of her articles became nonfiction books.

An aspect of journalism that never lit up Shreve’s life was the golden rule that a journalist has to be concerned with facts. “You just can’t go into someone’s head and make assumptions about people. Oddly enough, I think it’s much easier to tell the truth when you write fiction.”

-Sue Fox. Reproduced for educational purposes.