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Betsy’s Corner: Remembering Anita Shreve

Anita Shreve

What is it about starting over? It is refreshing and it is scary. It was the end of a phase and the beginning of a new era.

At the age of 37, I started my new life in Longmeadow. It would become my second hometown and the place where we would raise a family. The children quickly made new friends at school, in dance class and in playgroups. I joined the Longmeadow Historical Society and the Newcomers Club. It was easy to find my place in the new neighborhood because there was a book club where I could fit in and discuss reading choices with others. These women became my friends who helped mold my life here.

Someone suggested we read a book called “Resistance,” by a local author. It was before Anita Shreve became famous. We claimed her as our own, before Oprah did! Soon it was March 1999 when her book “The Pilot’s Wife” was picked by Oprah’s Book Club; selling over 4 million copies! Her life would never be the same. She felt that experience made her a bit commercial rather than literary in the eyes of the writing world. Obviously, she took her work seriously.

Soon I was devouring her books…”Weight of Water” was expertly crafted with two time lines and “Fortune’s Rocks” blended complex relationships, historical events and emotional drama. “Sea Glass” was set during the Depression by the New England coast. Her words spoke to me.

Her genre was called Historical Fiction or Creative Fiction, but her work also included touches of memoir. She was able to express deep feelings with ease from heartbreaking crisis to passionate pleasure. As a history buff, I learned that she owned historic homes in the center of town. I used to see her walking around the town green with her husband. Then I learned more about her… she went to the same college as I did. (Tufts University) Then I read her earlier books titled “Eden Close” and “Where or When.”

Feeling inspired, I saw parallels in our lives. She had disappointments in the past, she was a mother, she loved New England, and she noticed architectural details like I did. She was quoted in a 2002 article by saying “I’m unusually inspired by buildings.”

Her characters came to life with her intimate and often haunting descriptions. Her words seem to flow as I quickly turned each page of her novels. Then I started writing for the local paper. She became a role model and I explored the meanings of my recollections and memories. This soon sparked my article writing. My research into local history usually included colorful characters and I tried to use her techniques for describing personalities. Next, I participated in Book Fairs, Writer’s Conferences and a weekly writing workshop in Northampton. The rest is history. I became a writer as a second career.

It was so shocking to hear of her passing, just last month at the age of 71. Long ago, I thought anyone over 70 had lived a full life, but my perspective has changed. A 50 year old seems young to me. As I march forward towards 60, I realize there is time to travel and write but there are limited hours to accomplish everything I need or want to do in the years remaining. Responsibilities call. I feel my energy wax and wane.

Anita Shreve had cancer. She had published her last novel, “The Stars are Fire,” only a year ago. The novel had just come out in paperback – so I decided to order it.

In reading her obituaries in the Boston Globe, The Washington Post and the New York Times, I soon realized that there were some of her novels that I had missed. There were 20 in all.

Her writing days started young, and at Tufts she had been an English Major, but did not expect to pursue a career as a writer. She taught high school and wrote non-fiction. Ultimately, the time came to write fiction after she turned 40. Her style was unique and creative, often weaving historic drama together with modern romance. She wrote fluidly and vividly, giving the reader so much to think about. I often wondered how she crafted her books and how her life was crafted. How did she settle in Longmeadow? Was it a twist of fate? I landed here unexpectedly. Did she plan on making this place her home? Writers observe people and absorb the details of characters by noticing how they move and speak. A writer is always writing in their minds. They may seem aloof or daydreaming, but a writer’s mind is always filled with words.

“My whole journey as a person and a writer has been to unclutter my personal space and my head,” she recalls.

I was in her carriage house once, behind the Brewer-Young Mansion, and it was sparely filled and certainly uncluttered! I am thankful that our paths crossed briefly.

I studied her process, learning that she wrote in longhand before typing and editing. Her husband acted as her first editor. She participated in Grub Street, a Boston based writer’s resource that I recently became involved in. Their written tribute, found on Facebook, illuminated her talent for nourishing and encouraging other writers. She found her voice, and helped others discover theirs.

After we met here in Longmeadow, I heard she moved to New Hampshire. She was starting over. And now, she is still a vital memory and inspiration for many readers and writers across the globe. Truly, this is a success story for our town to appreciate.

She is possibly the most famous writer to live here since the prolific Minister Stephen Williams (1694-1782) wrote his sermons and lengthy diaries in the 1700s. She was a modern woman who flourished here for many years, and this was the place she called home. I believe she wrote her best work when she was a resident of Longmeadow. Sadly, I will miss the novels she hoped to write … and will never be written. It is our collective loss. She ran out of time. Carpe Diem!

– Article by Betsy Huber Port