In her 17th novel, Stella Bain, Anita Shreve tells the story of a woman traumatized by her experiences in World War I.
What was your inspiration for this novel?
I wanted to write a novel about an American woman who suffers from shell shock as a result of atrocities witnessed during World War I. When the novel begins in Marne, France, Stella Bain does not know who or where she is. During my research, I was surprised to learn that there were few, if any, diagnoses of shell shock among women, when—just as thousands of men had done—they risked their lives and sanity on the ground and in the ambulances of Europe and beyond.
Why does WWI continue to fascinate both readers and authors?
WWI is a romantic war, in all senses of the word. An entire generation of men and women left the comforts of Edwardian life to travel bravely, and sometimes even jauntily, to almost certain death. At the very least, any story or novel about WWI is about innocence shattered in the face of experience.
Memory is important to the story. How did you convey the deconstruction and reconstruction of Stella’s memory?
Deconstructing and reconstructing happened largely as a result of playing with the time frame. But I also attempted to do this with the prose. When Stella wakes in France, her thoughts are fragmented, and [they are] written that way. When she reaches England and begins her therapy, a quest is suggested in the visiting and revisiting of a magical, but very real, place called the orangery. There the prose suggests a kind of question-and-answer rhythm. Then we are thrust into a fugue state when Stella remembers who she is. When we are on a battlefield, the writing takes the shape of nearly mechanical vignettes. Toward the end, the writing grows easier and quieter, indicating a kind of resolution.
One of the book’s many pleasures is its unpredictable plot. Did you have a strict outline when you started?
I may have begun the novel with an outline, but that was blown to bits almost immediately when I realized I could not tell the story in linear time. For many reasons, most having to do with plot, I had to rejigger the chronology. I wrote the novel seven times. My husband hopes very much that I never have to do that again.