Book World Live: Novelist Anita Shreve, author of 'Testimony'

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Anita Shreve
Novelist
Friday, November 14, 2008; 11:00 AM

In recent years, stories of sex scandals at elite prep schools and colleges have made headlines across the country. Bestselling novelist Anita Shreve drew on such reports to develop the plot of her latest book, Testimony. The novel is set at a New England boarding school rocked by a sex-tape scandal.

Shreve is the author of 14 novels, including the Oprah's Book Club pick The Pilot's Wife and the Orange Prize finalist The Weight of Water. She was online Friday, November 14 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her novels.

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Anita Shreve: Hi everyone. Really looking forward to your questions -- either about the new book, Testimony, or about any of the other works. Thanks.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I look forward to reading your book. I do not know what aspect of scandal your book portrays, yet it certainly is on the cutting edge of a growing problem. We have lots of teenagers without the maturity to make full judgments and accessible technology to display on video every aspect of one's everyday life. Did you think you may be awakening people to a potential growing issue and providing warnings to an emerging kind of scandal?

Anita Shreve: I never write a novel with an agenda, but in this one I think I did have a message. I'm very concerned about underage drinking. By this, I mean thirteen and fourteen-year olds and up. As a novelist, I remain interested in the notion of a single reckless act and its consequences.

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Manassas, Va.: A number of your books center around marriages troubled by anger, betrayal, and adultery. Have you deliberately chosen this as a prominent theme to your work, and if so, why?

Anita Shreve: Love and marriage are wonderful arenas in which to place a character. We are most likely to risk our morals and beliefs while in love. Betrayal gives tremendous insights into a character as well.

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Boston, Mass.: Anita, What are you currently reading? And can you tell us about your next project?

Anita Shreve: I never talk about what I am working on. This has been true since my first novel, Eden Close. (I've now published 13 others.) It has something to do with superstition, but also with the notion of letting some of the fizz out of the bottle. As for what I am reading now, it's Dennis Lehane's newest one about Boston. I'm really bad at remembering titles unless the book is in my hand.

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India: Do you know the psyche of the people who have been indulged in sex scandals? Why you choose this as a theme?

Anita Shreve: I really don't know the psyche of a sex offender. My novel is about something entirely different. Three very ordinary senior boys in private school find themselves in an extraordinary situation. Though all three engage in sex with a 14-year-old girl, they do so for reasons that are not pathological.

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Vienna, Va.: Where do you get your ideas for your novels -- not just the house that has figured so prominently in some of your books, but subjects ranging from World War II (Resistance) to a prep school scandal (Testimony)?

Anita Shreve: To answer this question properly, I would have to answer it for each of the fourteen novels I have written. In the case of Resistance or The Weight of Water, those were based on true stories. As for Testimony, I've for quite a while been concerned about underage drinking and its tremendous risks.

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Hamilton, Va.: Ms. Shreve, how nice of you to take questions! I love all your books and am sure Testimony will not be an exception. However, I have to say, I prefered the TV ending to The Pilot's Wife to that in the book (I'm sorry). Which leads to my question: when you sign over the rights, do you retain any control over content, or does this vary from book to book? I'm curious as to what you thought of the TV version. I thought Christine Lahti was excellent.

Anita Shreve: I, too, thought Ms. Lahti excellent in The Pilot's Wife. I wrote the screenplay, but it ended quite differently from the book, as you know. Ms. Lahti had another idea for the ending, and since she was the major talent, people listened to her. When you sign over the rights to a book -- and especially when you cash the check from Hollywood -- you need to understand that the movie is going to be another animal entirely.

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Chicago, Ill.: I watched you once on the Today show recommend a Shirley Hazzard novel because you said she greatly influenced your writing. Are there any other authors who you feel were inspirations to your writing?

Anita Shreve: Yes. Eugene O'Neill at an early age. Others include Ian McEwan (never get the spelling right on that name), Alice McDermott, Alexandra Fuller, and many more. I read books much as you probably do -- mostly contemporary fiction on my part -- and when I encounter an excellent writer, I'm reinvgorated by the writing process.

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Janesville, Wisc.: I think your current book would make a great movie! Do you ever think about which actors you would cast for roles in your books?

Anita Shreve: Actually, I never do. I know that readers often picture characters as different actors. I agree that this would make an excellent film. I also think it would make a good off-Broadway play, much like The Laramie Project.

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St. Louis, Mo.: I absolutely love your books, and The Last Time They Met is one of my favorites. How did you come up with the concept of playing with time like that, and do you have any plans to write any further books that play with reality and perception in that way?

Anita Shreve: I love playing with time, and many of my novels do that. I'm so glad you liked The Last Time They Met. In that case, I knew in advance that I would write it backwards and that the last line would change the way in which the reader understood the book. It was great fun. Got a lot of mail on that one. My favorite was this: "When I finished the book, I screamed and fell off the couch."

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Washington, D.C.: I'm a big fan and have read most of your books, always with an appreciation of your ability to intertwine themes such as redemption, loss, desire, longing, paying the price for what you want, etc., in your books. Eden Close, which was the first of your books that I read, remains my favorite and still haunts me with its imagery. Which of your books is your favorite and why?

Anita Shreve: I don't have a favorite, much in the same way I don't have a favorite among my children (I'm aware that children are in a different league than novels.) In general, I tend to be most excited about the one just published -- which in this case would be Testimony.

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Washington, D.C.: Does your interest in underage drinking stem from a personal experience?

Anita Shreve: No. Though I had ample opportunity to worry about it when my children went through high school. I think it is the most important issue with kids, and it feels to me as though no one is minding the store.

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Centreville, Va.: Other than Silas, who do you think was hurt most by the scandal?

Anita Shreve: Certainly Silas's parents were devastated. It's hard to say what effect this will have on Noelle. I think most of the characters' lives were changed significantly, but as Rob says, only a few were utterly ruined.

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Wheaton, Md.: Just a comment. I find that your stories engage me emotionally, but the best part is your use of language. There are lots of interesting stories in modern literature but few with your beautiful style. Also love New England (esp. Western Massachusetts), where many of your books are set.

Anita Shreve: Thank you very much. One always hopes a reader is engaged with the language and the writing. It's certainly the most challenging and exciting part for me.

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Hartford, Conn..: What are your thoughts on different eras of private schools and whether that makes a difference on how young people behave. In the rigid days of students being silent, paddled, and forced to learn, were they any different from today when campuses are open, opinions freely expressed, and discipline is looser? Do you see a preference for how these schools should be?

Anita Shreve: I think private schools (and high schools, for that matter) are very different from the old days. For one thing, the drinking is ubiquitous and is starting at a much earlier age. For another, the computer has changed completely the way students interact with the outside world and with each other. Also, heavy use of the computer makes it hard to find hours for contemplation.

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New York, N.Y.: Anita, Have you ever considered entering the blogosphere and starting your own blog?

Anita Shreve: I have a facebook page and a website. Beyond that, I'm actually a very private person. I'd rather see the focus on the books than on me.

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Waterford, Va.: Very good writing indeed, not an ounce of fat. Does it come out of you that way or do you have to cut it out later? pk

Anita Shreve: I try to write without fat, but I revise endlessly to make sure.

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Fairfax, Va.: Is Testimony a sort of "ripped from the headlines" type novel?

Anita Shreve: I hope not. "Ripped from the headlines" suggests to me a novelist without an imagination. And probably not a very good novelist at that. Though the subject was much in the air -- and still is -- I wanted to create an entire universe in which many people would be altered by a single moment of drunken risk. I seldom write with an agenda. It was the characters I was most interested in. Thanks for the question.

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Lancaster, Pa.: Are you a writer who edits while as she writes or one who edits after the story is (at least mostly) writen? Or does it vary from book to book?

Anita Shreve: I edit as I write. I revise endlessly. I don't go forward until I know that what I've written is as good as I can make it.

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Washington, D.C.: How long does it take for you to write one of your books?

Anita Shreve: That's a tough question to answer. Testimony took about 18 months. But many of the books stem from work that I might have begun years ago and then put into a drawer. I like to think that these early beginnings "ferment" in the interim.

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Arlington, Va.: What was it like to have your book chosen for the Oprah book club? Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?

Anita Shreve: It was a tremendous surprise. One night, not expecting it at all, I got a phone call, and it was Oprah. I met with her once before the show, and then again at the show. She was incredibly welcoming. The format of The Pilot's Wife show was a little different than the other books she chose. Instead of a dinner round table, she had invited onto the show four women to whom the nightmare that happened to Kathryn happened to them. I came out later. The women's stories were utterly amazing -- more incredible than the novel was. Since then, the sales of my books have increased, for which I am grateful to her.

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Anita Shreve: This was enlightening and great fun. Thanks for all your questions! Best wishes, Anita

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