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Sea Glassby Anita Shreve
I first saw the house in Biddeford Pool, Maine, about five years ago. We were renting a sad and pathetic cottage there for our summer vacation, and one of my favorite pasttimes was to walk through the village and look at the houses. One day I took a side street I hadn't been down before and at the end of it was one of the most beautiful houses I had ever seen. It was two stories high, of white clapboards, and it had a Mansard roof with dozens of dormer windows poking out of it. It was completely surrounded by a wraparound porch on which sat two wooden rockers looking out to sea. The house had a kind of graciousness and serenity that was exceptional, and I think it is fair to say that I fell in love with the house. I wanted to live there.
Living in it was, however, obviously out of the question then, but that was all right, I thought — it was enough just to be able to look at it and fantasize about it. I've always been charmed by houses, and descriptions of them are prominent in my novels. So prominent, in fact, that my editor once pointed out to me that all of my early novels had houses on the covers.
A novel is a collision of ideas. Three or four threads may be floating around in the writer's consciousness, and at a single moment in time, these ideas collide and produce a novel. Shortly after I had first seen the house, I overheard a conversation between a pilot and a woman at a party. Something he said lodged in my consciousness and wouldn't go away. The thing he said was: When there's a crash, the union always gets there first. He meant that when there was a crash of a commercial airliner, a member of the pilot's union made it a point to get to the pilot's wife's house first. There are a lot of reasons for this, the most important of which is to keep her from talking to the press. And there was my collision of ideas. I decided to set my novel, The Pilot's Wife, in the house I had seen in Biddeford Pool. At the very least, the novel gave me a wonderful excuse to think about the house for a year and get paid for it.
So strong was the house's hold on me, however, that I was loathe to let it go, even when I let go of the novel itself. I knew already I wanted to set my next novel in the 19th century because I had found writing in 19th century language in The Weight of Water so pleasurable. At the same time, I was observing the process of having a daughter and two stepdaughters pass through that delicate age of 14 to 15. Same house, I thought, but a hundred years earlier. Very different story, very different young woman.
A house with any kind of age will have dozens of stories to tell. I suppose if a novelist could live long enough, one could base an entire oeuvre on the lives that weave in and out of an antique house. Until recently, I lived in an old house of my own. It had sloping floors, no closets, no bathroom big enough in which to take an actual bath. Sometimes I felt awash in plastic toys, old newspapers and milk cartons I thought I was recycling. But occasionally, when there was a fire in the large kitchen hearth and I was sitting beside it at the table, I imagined the people who had gone before me: The young woman who gave birth in the room just off the kitchen that was known as the borning room; the middle-aged woman who cried at the inattentions of her husband in the room that was our bedroom; the child who died of diphtheria croup in the room that belonged to my son. Sometimes I would have to force myself to realize that they, too, lived their lives in technicolor, that their experience of life was just as vivid and as immediate as mine. In that house there was a great deal of history — the history of accounts rendered, dresses falling, bitter accusations and words of love. It was a house full of stories.
Last year, when I was on tour for the paperback of Fortune's Rocks, I was giving a reading at a bookstore in Nashville. A woman in the audience raised her hand and asked: Why did you set both novels in the same house? And I answered that I had been thinking about the fact that a house with any kind of age might have dozens of stories to tell. Ten or eleven women, each with her own life, her own story, could be imagined to have lived in the house that featured in The Pilot's Wife and Fortune's Rocks. For example, I said, you could write, say, a story about a women who lived there during World War II, or during The Great Depression.
If I didn't actually pause in my answer, I had a heart-stopping pause in my head. There's an idea, I thought. Same house, absolutely derelict this time, very different kind of woman trying to make a go of it during a difficult era in our nation's history. I have no memory of the rest of the Q and A, or the signing, but I do remember moving immediately to the history section of the bookstore and searching for a book on the Great Depression. My escort found me and said, "You know, they want to give you a book for doing the reading." "Wonderful," I said. "I want this one." She glanced down at the book and narrowed her eyes at what looked to be a very dry history text. "Are you sure?" she asked. "I'm very sure," I said.
The novel that resulted is Sea Glass. I often think that sea glass itself is not unlike old houses in that it, too, suggests stories of previous lives. Sea glass is essentially trash — bits of glass from ships that have gone down or garbage that has been tossed overboard. The glass breaks and then is weathered by the sea and washes up onto shore. The shards take on a lovely patina and come in many subdued colors. Sea glass will not break. I have spent many hours on the beach collecting sea glass, and I almost always wonder, as I bend to pick up chunk of bottle green or a shard of meringue white, what the history of the glass was. Who used it? Was it a medicine bottle? A bit of a ship's lantern? Is that bubbled piece of glass with the charred bits inside it from a fire?
The pull of history has been a strong theme in my life as a novelist. I don't know that I will write any more novels set in that particular house on Fortune's Rocks beach, because I have to wait for that collision of ideas. But I suspect the house has many stories left to tell. I know that dwelling very well now. I feel an odd sort of bond with it, a unique kind of loyalty.
I hope you enjoy Sea Glass.
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