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Author Talk: April 20, 2017

Anita Shreve, the author of such bestsellers as THE WEIGHT OF WATER and THE PILOT’S WIFE (an Oprah's Book Club selection), has written her first novel since 2013’s STELLA BAIN. THE STARS ARE FIRE tells the remarkable story of a young mother who survives a catastrophic fire that burns down her town and must begin life anew without her husband, who has gone missing. In this interview, Shreve talks about the real-life Maine fires of 1947 that inspired the book, the effects of climate change and natural disasters on the individual, the constraints that the strict gender roles of the 1940s placed on women, and the significance of the novel’s title.

Question: What inspired you to use the Maine fires of 1947 as the backdrop for your story? As a native New Englander, do you have a personal connection to this event or its aftermath?

Anita Shreve: As it happens, I live in a town on the Maine coast that was hard hit by the Fires of ’47. During that week-long catastrophe, 151 of 156 houses along the beach in town were burned to the ground. Over the years, I'd heard talk about the Great Fire and had, once or twice in the past, read about it.

A couple of years ago, I developed an intense interest and began to go to the archives to research the disaster. The detail that captured my imagination was that of the women who had to go into the sea to save themselves and their children. I began to envision a young housewife who had to do just that, and the novel was born.

Q: The natural disaster described in the book, a severe drought followed by uncontrollable wildfires, actually happened in 1947. As our climate changes, it seems that tragedies like this one --- where people lose communities, homes and loved ones --- are becoming more common. What did you learn about disasters, natural or otherwise?

AS: Writing about the fire was an eye-opener for me, because it was not just the fear of surviving the moment (fire, hurricane, earthquake, sea levels rising) I had to address, but also the harrowing aftermath. The fire takes place on page 50 of a 250-page book. It ends on page 59. When Grace comes to, she looks at devastation that is nearly unbearable in its thoroughness. Everything before her is black. There are no houses standing. She sees no people. The sand is black. The air is filthy with soot. Her town appears to have vanished.

Grace is taken to the hospital; her children are under the care of strangers. There’s no trace of her neighbor next door, of her mother, of her husband. A doctor mentions the idea of diaspora, and Grace realizes that most of the people who lived in the small town will never see each other again. (In the real fire of ’47, one town vanished from the map. It was destroyed and never built up again.)

The people of Hunts Beach (the fictional town) start leaving, either to live with relatives in other states or, having nothing, to start a new life. Grace can’t get insurance money because the contracts were burned and her husband, who knew the name of the insurance company, is missing. All family photos, all their furniture, the wringer washer that Grace loved --- all are gone. Grace must live with a series of strangers who clothe and feed her and the children until she is able to look for work. All of her life is focused on the practical. Surviving is everything. When Grace receives a letter from her best friend, Rosie, who has left Hunts Beach to settle in Nova Scotia, she breaks down and weeps.

Because the fire is caused by prolonged drought, I couldn’t help but think of more natural disasters ahead of us, and of the climate change that will cause them.

People on the Maine coast still worry about fire, but they worry more about tidal surges and sea levels rising. Drought causes fires, excessive rain causes flooding, disturbances in the air cause tornadoes where they’ve seldom been, earthquakes rip apart cities, the tsunamis that follow wash away villages, and a glacier falling into the sea can cause sea levels to rise with disastrous consequences.

It's tough to hold in the head the idea of the earth destined to destroy itself, so I prefer to look at a tiny piece of that destiny. Hence Grace and THE STARS ARE FIRE.

Q: Can you explain the significance of the book’s title?

AS: The title is taken from a line in Shakespeare (in HAMLET), but isolating the line changed its meaning for me (apologies to Mr. Shakespeare). I read it as fire determining the fate (stars) of the victims. The cover of the book shows this best. The sparks from the fire at the bottom of the page begin to be seen as stars as they rise against a darker background.

Q: As a woman living in the 1940s, Grace is constrained by the gender roles of her time period and society’s rigid expectations for her. Can you talk about what’s changed for women between then and now? What women (literary or real) inspired your portrayal of Grace?

AS: In that era, a woman’s life was defined by the neighborhood in which she lived and by the chores she had to perform. My mother had three children, no car and a wringer washer. The simple tasks of family life took up most of her day (except for her soap operas). We could buy food from the “little” store but shop only once a week, on Thursday nights, when my father came home with his paycheck. I used my mother as a role model for Grace, though my parents had a very happy marriage. It was immensely pleasurable for me to go back to my early childhood and remember details I hadn't thought of in decades.

Q: Gene also seems to be constrained by gender roles --- in his case, society’s expectations of manhood. Do you also see him as a victim of his culture, or is he more of a foil to Grace?

AS: I don’t see Gene as particularly constrained by gender roles. His role was exalted, particularly since he had fought in WWII. He was free to marry, have a home and children, and leave that home to go out into the world to earn money. If anything, he was constrained by his responsibility to provide for his family --- but aren’t we all?

Q: By the end of the book, it seems that there are a few possible endings to Grace’s story. Why did you choose to leave her narrative open-ended?

AS: I’m not sure I see the novel as open-ended. The meaningful gesture, in my view, is the moment when Aiden grasps Grace’s wrist and won’t let go, meaning that nothing will separate them now. Yes, he will go off to his concerts, but he will always come home to Grace. What I like most about the ending is her ability to envision an unconventional union, and having imagined it, take such joy in it.

Q: Some of the themes of your previous books --- loss and grief, resilience, how one moment in life can change everything --- resonate powerfully here. Can you talk about how this book is a continuation of themes that have long interested you? In what ways is it also a departure?
AS: Many of my novels ask the question: If you take an ordinary woman and push her to the edge, how will she behave? Grace is tested in the extreme: by the Fire, by a troubled marriage, and by the reappearance of a damaged and angry husband who threatens her very existence. We see how Grace behaves: she’s resilient, she’s practical, and she finds a means of escape, even knowing how hard that escape will be. When she married, she never imagined the emotional trials she would face, but she stood up to the challenges, even though, at times, she was terrified by them. She had pluck and backbone and, above all, a desire to protect her children. I liked Grace. I liked her throughout the writing of the novel.