ith fourteen novels under her belt, including Sea Glass, The Pilot’s Wife, an Oprah’s Book Club selection, and The Weight of Water, both of which were made into movies, writer Anita Shreve returns with A Change in Altitude, which delves into the world of twenty-eight-year-old newlywed Margaret as she seeks answers for questions arising after a life-changing incident in distant Kenya.
Join us for a conversation with the acclaimed author as she takes time out from her busy schedule to share a bit about her new book and her writing life with the readers of WOW!.
WOW: Welcome to WOW!, Anita. We’re thrilled to be chatting with you today. Let’s start at the beginning. I read on your website that you quit teaching high school to start writing because you “had this panicky sensation that it was now or never.” I applaud you for taking the plunge! I know many of our writers/readers would like to do the same thing but don’t know where to start or quite how to do it. Did you start writing fiction immediately? What were the first steps you took?
Anita: I started writing fiction immediately. Probably the next day. I had a stand up desk in a tiny living room, and wrote there on a stool. Short stories mostly that I tried to place in literary magazines.
WOW: You worked as an editor and journalist for several magazines, and as a freelance writer as well. What were some of the lessons learned from your nonfiction work that helped prepare you for a career as a novelist?
Anita: I learned how to shape a story. When you're writing for a magazine, you're given a finite number of words of columns. You need to know your beginning, your ending and how you're going to get there. That helped enormously in fiction. I also learned not to be afraid of research.
WOW: Do you remember your first (novel) sale?
Anita: Actually, the biggest sale of my life was a piece I'd sent into the Boston Phoenix, an alternative newspaper. They told me they were going to publish it and pay me sixty dollars. I jumped right up toward the ceiling.
WOW: Hearing your enthusiasm reminds me that you started where many of us are today. Your novel The Pilot's Wife was the 25th selection of Oprah’s Book Club. That must have been so exciting! What was it like when Oprah called and informed you of the great news?
Anita: It was a complete shock. An aide of hers had been calling my husband all day. When I got home, he said to call the guy because it was driving him crazy. I called, and he immediately forwarded me to a speaker phone. I heard this booming voice say, “Anita, I loved your book!” The rest, as they say, is history.
WOW: That’s amazing! Two of your novels, The Pilot's Wife and The Weight of Water, were made into movies. For many authors, this is a dream come true. Did you have the opportunity to be involved with the process? And were you worried the films wouldn’t reflect your vision?
Anita: I wrote the screenplay for The Pilot's Wife, and I was invited onto the making of the film The Weight of Water. The first time I observed a scene being played out that I had dreamt up in my living room was a thrill.
“It took me almost 30 years to write the book.”
WOW: Your most recent novel, A Change in Altitude, is a gripping adventure and a complex examination of the inner landscape of a couple. What inspired you to write this story?
Anita: I think the real question is what took me so long? I lived in Kenya for 3 years in the late ’70s. It took me almost 30 years to write the book. Though the facts of my time there are quite different from those in the book, I did actually climb Mt. Kenya. In my sneakers (!), a fact I couldn't put in the book because no one would believe it.
WOW: Wow, truth is always harder to believe than fiction! You do such a great job at making situations believable. As I read your book, I felt transported to Africa. Your imagery was stunning, whether your characters ventured into the townships or the savannah. How much of your personal experience with the landscape went into the book?
Anita: I felt the landscape deeply, and it was that I often wanted to return to. Writing the book was a pleasure in that way. I could re-live many of the scenes I saw.
WOW: The journey of discovery Margaret takes is one that’s hard to read, yet compelling. Why did you decide to have her face her challenges as a relative newlywed, as opposed to someone who has been married longer?
Anita: Their marriage hadn't been allowed to form and settle in Boston. It left them more fluid as characters and more vulnerable to challenges.
WOW: How did you come to choose the tragedy that served as the impetus for Margaret’s journey of discovery?
Anita: I once witnessed something similar, but not ultimately tragic.
WOW: I loved how the couple’s climb of Mount Kenya, and their inability to complete it the first time, was in direct correlation with their marital struggles. And like the physical and emotional challenges that come from climbing a mountain, the couple must too learn to acclimatize. Do you intentionally add symbolism and themes to your novels or do they occur organically?
Anita: No, I don't. I guess my unconscious mind does, though. Sometimes, I'm the last to see the symbolism.
“To create fiction, one has to trigger the imagination.”
WOW: I’ve heard that from many authors. So, what was the biggest challenge in writing A Change in Altitude?
Anita: Removing myself from the characters, and removing everyone I knew there. To create fiction, one has to trigger the imagination. I was constantly having to step back and view the action from a distance.
WOW: Let’s talk a bit about the writing process in general. How do you form your ideas for a novel and begin to write? Do you start with a blank page or an outline?
Anita: I might start with a broad-strokes outline. I often know my ending, and about 50 or 100 pages into the book, I might write the last line.
WOW: Your characters are always so fleshed out, so real and multi-layered. Do you have a specific method for developing your characters, such as character sketches, that aspiring novelists can learn from?
Anita: I imagine myself in his or her shoes. I see what they see. I hear what they hear. It's a time-consuming process, but the more you dig, the better the character will be.
“Writing is a selfish act. I write for myself.”
WOW: I watched an interview where you described how tough it was to write your first sex scene, mostly because you thought about your personal life and who would be reading your novel. I think that’s something a lot of writers struggle with. How are you able to put these thoughts aside and focus on the page?
Anita: That was a pivotal moment for me. I learned in that moment that a writer couldn't think about family, about editors, about Hollywood, or even about one's readers, which is often a surprise to most readers. Writing is a selfish act. I write for myself.
WOW: Anita, you have fifteen books under your belt. You’re so prolific! Do you have a set writing schedule? What’s a typical day like for you?
Anita: I write for about four or five hours in the morning, usually quitting at noon. I don't write every single day, but I like to get into a routine.
WOW: What are you working on right now?
Anita: Can't say. I never talk about what I'm writing about. I think I'm afraid of letting a little fizz out of the bottle.
WOW: Okay, we’ll just have to stay in suspense, but I can’t wait to see what you do next! Thank you, Anita, for taking time to chat with us today! It’s been such a pleasure. Do you have any parting words of wisdom for our women writers/aspiring authors?
Anita: Yes. Don't give up.
Find out more about Anita Shreve by visiting her website: www.anitashreve.com. For more on A Change in Altitude watch this video (below) of Anita discussing her latest novel. Enjoy!