Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle In Person

By Barbara Strickland

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  At the heart of Anita Shreve's most recent novel, The Weight of Water, is the story of an actual murder. In 1873, two women were hacked to death with an axe on Smuttynose Island, a barren island located in the Isle of Shoals, in the Atlantic. The survivor, Maren Hontvedt, was quickly exonerated from responsibility and Louis Wagner, a Prussian fisherman, was hanged for the crime. It was a grisly scandal that was the O.J.Simpson trial of its day.

Speaking with Shreve by phone in her hotel room, in the middle of a
13-city book tour, I was intrigued by the matter-of-fact tone of Shreve's voice as we discussed murder, mayhem, and history. She first became acquainted with the story on a vacation trip to the Isle of Shoals about 20 years ago. The Smuttynose murders, Shreve told me not long before her January 17 appearance at Book People, are "part of the lore and legend of that area," she says. Shreve was struck by the unanswered questions behind the legend. Although Wagner swung for the crime, she says that there's no guarantee that justice was actually served. "He never really had a defense. The defense waived their right to cross-examine Maren Hontvedt," the only survivor and the woman whose uncorroborated testimony placed Louis at the scene.

In 1975, Shreve's fascination led to a six-page short story which appeared in the Cimmarron Review. Two years ago, she came across the story in her papers. "I realized that I wasn't through with it yet." The Weight of Water, a full-length novel, juxtaposes history with the present-day story of Jean, a freelance photographer on assignment to photograph the murder site. Drawn as she is to Maren's forgotten story, Jean cannot help but become aware of the growing attraction between her husband Thomas and a young woman who is traveling with them. Her suspicion and loss flower into jealous distrust and eventually push Jean to the brink of irrevocable actions.

The Weight of Water exhibits Shreve's trademark restrained style coupled with the very unrestrained themes of murder, adultery, and incest. With her measured, deliberate prose, she creates a calm arena where the most abrupt and desperate of human passions may be observed in action. When I commented on her use of Apollonian prose to depict rather Dionysian themes, she laughed and said, "That's it, that's really it. It's very important to me to write about catastrophic situations in an extremely non-catastrophic way," she said, "It has to be that way. You have to be calm, otherwise, it... takes away from the power of what you're describing."

Shreve's next book is expected to be out in May. Titled The Pilot's Wife, it is about a woman whose husband dies in an airline crash. In the days following the announcement of his death, several revelations come to light which begin to make the widow question whether she ever really knew her husband, not the least of which is the continuing mystery of his death. "She doesn't know whether it was a bomb or not, " Shreve explained helpfully, "and no one will tell her. And there's this man who says he's there to help her, but he's actually from the union." The novel was inspired by a chance remark Shreve overheard, "The union always gets there first," referring to the practice of sending a union representative out to the homes of grieving family members, to ensure that nothing untoward is leaked to the press. Shreve said, "I'm just really fascinated with how ordinary people react to extreme situations." -- Barbara Strickland


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