Grace Holland's life is spent in service to her children, her husband and her home, and any disatisfaction she feels is quickly pushed aside in the constant menial work that fills a housewife's time in 1947 Maine. But when wildfires sweep down the coast, Grace's home is completely destroyed and her husband is lost, most likely dead.
Anita Shreve's The Stars Are Fire is the story of Grace's life after the fire, of her quest to secure housing and then financial security for herself and her children, and her discovery of the struggles and joys of independence. It is a book of small moments, a collection of seemingly simple themes that build to surprising and moving crescendoes. Shreve's spare, economic prose suits her character’s practicality and initial hesitance to determine the course of her own life. While Grace’s upbringing has not prepared her for any of the challenges she faces, she slowly begins to unfurl in the new space and freedom allotted to her, as naturally as a plant grows to fill unoccupied space. Shreve's crisp writing becomes more expansive in the moments when her protagonist consciously stretches beyond the boundaries of her previously narrow life.
A former journalist and creative writing teacher, Shreve became a literary sensation with the publication of her first novel, The Weight of Water, in 1997 and rose to further prominence when her next book, The Pilot's Wife, was selected for Oprah's book club. Shreve's books have fascinated audiences ever since and sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. We contacted the author at her home in Maine to ask about the historical inspiration for The Stars Are Fire and the ways in which the novel charts the evolving freedoms of American women.
When did you first learn about the Maine fires of 1947? Did the idea for Grace’s story come along at the same time?
I first heard about the fire about a decade ago when I picked up a pamphlet about the town of Cape Porpoise, Maine. I remember that there were harrowing descriptions of the Fire of ’47, as locals called it. And the pictures of the fire were just as terrifying. Later I read a book called The Week That Maine Burned. But it wasn’t until eight or nine years later that I thought about writing a novel based on the fire. One of the details that had most intrigued me was the notion of women and children having to flee into the sea to save themselves from the coastal fire. I began to imagine a woman named Grace with two children who has to do just that, and the novel was born.
Grace’s trajectory at times reminded me of a coming-of-age story. She is a married woman with children, but over the course of the novel she discovers and embraces her independence and sexuality. Where did the inspiration for her character development come from?
The development of Grace’s character came about because of the era and her marriage. It’s not a particularly good marriage even before the fire. But the era—post World War II—was a stultifying period for women. Most were housewives, stuck at home unless they had a car, which Grace didn’t. Laundry was done on a washboard and hung to dry. There’s a scene in the novel in which her husband, Gene, comes home with a wringer-washer in an attempt to save the marriage. The machine is so welcome, it does the trick. For a time.
"I’m interested in the reality of a woman pushed to the edge. How will she behave? I take it minute by minute."
The struggles of Grace and the other female characters in the novel to carve out lives for themselves despite the restrictions placed on their gender feel very realistic for the historical setting. Did you draw on family history to craft this aspect of the novel?
I did research to be true to the era. That was essential in shaping Grace’s character, especially in regards to what she can and cannot do. I used my mother and her chores and her approach to them to flesh out Grace—although I did not use my parents’ marriage. They were happily married for 56 years. But I remember the wringer-washer, the sheets and towels on the line, the one-night-a-week grocery-shopping trip, the playpens and bathinettes.
Grace’s relationship with her mother evolves significantly over the course of the book. How responsible do you think her mother is for Grace’s personality and situation, especially at the beginning of the novel?
Grace’s mother, too, is a woman of her era, but with prewar notions of how a woman should behave. When Grace tries to tell her that her marriage is troubled, the mother steers the conversation elsewhere. She doesn’t want to talk about such difficulties. But after the fire, as the necessity for Grace to make a life for them all evolves, Grace’s mother begins to soften her stance. Grace married at a young age. Her fiance fought in the war and appeared to be a gentleman. He was at school trying to better himself. That would have appealed to Grace’s mother at that time.
The balance between the bleak moments of Grace’s trials and the moments of triumph and grace is so delicate. How did you calibrate that during your writing process?
I kept it as real as I possibly could. I often do this in novels. I’m interested in the reality of a woman pushed to the edge. How will she behave? I take it minute by minute. Because Grace has endured so many hardships, the joys, when they come, while they may seem small to us, are momentous to her.
Music plays a key role in this novel. Are you a fan of classical music or did you have to research this element of the story?
I’m a fan of classical music but don’t know much about it. I do, however, love Brahms Second Piano Concerto very much and thus included it in the book
The coast of Maine has been a frequent setting for you, and Grace’s connection to the sea and the natural world is a touchstone of The Stars Are Fire. What is it about this place that continues to inspire you?
Every novel I think to myself: OK, I’m moving west in this novel. But I can’t seem to take a step away from the coast of Maine. It’s in my bones, I suppose. I know the area very well, and one of my favorite activities in life is to sit in a chair and look at the ocean.
The action of The Stars Are Fire felt very organic as it unfolded. Did any plot points surprise you in the midst of writing, or did the book follow your original plan for it?
I knew that Gene would be gone for a large part of the novel, and that the reader might be wondering if he would come back. I certainly knew the fire would be a large part of the book. And I knew that eventually Grace would either push a baby carriage or drive a car away from her home. I didn’t know where she was going or exactly why.
What’s next for you?
I’m afraid I can’t say. I’m superstitious about talking about a work in progress. I wrote my first novel, Eden Close, in complete secrecy, and that worked, so I’ve kept to that decision throughout the other seventeen.
Author photo by Elena Seibert