Rising from the ashes

Anita Shreve on her new novel, “The Stars are Fire”

Best-selling author Anita Shreve (“The Pilot’s Wife,” “The Weight of Water,” “All He Ever Wanted” and 14 other novels) didn’t have to look beyond her southern Maine home for inspiration for her latest book, “The Stars Are Fire.” Set in 1947, “the year Maine burned,” it’s the story of a young wife and mother during that catastrophic summer in the state’s history, when fires raged from Bar Harbor down the coast wiping out nine towns and consuming a quarter-million acres of forest.

“I live in a town that has quite a long beach. During the fire of ’47, 151 of 156 houses on that beach burned,” Shreve told Maine Women Magazine. “Occasionally, I would hear a snippet about the fire, and about seven or eight years ago I read a book about it. The detail that stuck in my mind was that of women (in another town) having to go into the sea to save themselves. Years later, that detail snagged my imagination, and the novel was born.”

Shreve’s main character, Grace, five months pregnant at the time and with two small children, saves herself and her children by lying in the surf while the deadly flames rage. But a metaphoric fire also was kindled a few years back and crackles and burns until it engulfs her. A product of her time, Grace’s marriage to a damaged war veteran and the conditions of her life are suffocating. In true Shreve heroine fashion, Grace finds strength she didn’t know she had and is awakened to a new reality and inspiration after the fire.

The vibrant period details of the story, from Grace’s tedious day-to-day existence before the fire to her challenges after as a working woman who discovers her sexuality and independence, give the novel an added oomph.

We spoke to Shreve about the novel.

Q: How did you go about getting into the head of a young wife and mother of that time period?
A: My mother was the model for Grace, the young housewife. I have vivid memories of her daily life—the wringer washer, the baby carriage, not being able to drive a car, having to rely on neighbors, the Thursday night shopping trip. Her life was circumscribed by the neighborhood, the need to take care of three children, not having a car and not being able to work. (I should add, however, that my parents had a very happy lifelong marriage.)

Q: Was there anything that surprised you by your novel, either in the research or in the writing?
A: Everything surprised me about the fire. The way it would crown from treetop to treetop, the ability of the fire to go underground and pop up at the roots of a tree a day or even a year later, the way it would go toward an absolute lack of fuel, which was the sea. (We tend to forget that the fire is not menacing. It just is.) There were small details that piqued my interest. A man went up in a plane and dropped dry ice out the side to make rain. It didn’t work. A family took all of their furniture out of the house and put it into the barn for safekeeping. The barn burned, but the house was saved.

Q: Music plays a part in Grace’s emotional awakening. Does music play a role in your life?
A: Though I’m very drawn to classical piano music, I’m certainly not an expert. But Brahms’ “Second Piano Concerto” is, for me, a transporting piece.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: When I wrote my first novel in the late ’80s, “Eden Close,” I didn’t tell anyone I was writing it until I was completely finished. Secrecy worked well for that book, so I’ve kept up the tradition ever since.

Q: What novel have you read recently that you would recommend?
A: I recommend Elinor Lipman’s recent novel, “On Turpentine Lane.” It’s a delightful romantic comedy and a welcome antidote to the difficult times we find ourselves in.

Amy Canfield is an editor at Maine Women Magazine and other publications. She lives in South Portland.

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