Sitting with Beth Gutcheon in her spacious TriBeCa loft, it's easy to see where her characters and themes come from. Like Rue Shaw, the heroine of Saying Grace, Gutcheon is intelligent, funny and a keen observer of the lives of her family, friends and neighbors. Her conversation, crammed with entertaining digressions about incidents in those lives, displays the same robust love of storytelling that made Five Fortunes such fun to read. Both books, with their focus on relationships and emotions, fit comfortably enough in the "women's novel" category, and the author d s not disdain that label. "I love smart commercial fiction. Susan Isaacs, for example" she says, "and the readers who interest me are in the preponderance women. I am one of them, I like the books they like." Yet the books Gutcheon writes are also anchored by a moral gravity and concern for the characters' actions in the world that led one reviewer to describe her first novel, The New Girls, as "light of heart and serious of mind."
Gutcheon's new book, More Than You Know, marks a departure from these engaging past achievements. Published by Morrow, the novel is emphatically not lighthearted. Shifting back and forth between the 19th and 20th centuries, the tightly focused double narrative--in itself a change for a writer fond of big casts and capacious plots--tells an artfully constructed tale of young love lost and hopes blighted by sudden violence. Several of the protagonists are permanently damaged in a manner previously foreign to Gutcheon's bedrock (though never facile) optimism. Most startling of all, the author employs her skills in realistic character development and detailed social observation to create a flat-out ghost story, in which a scarily credible specter terrorizes a teenage girl vacationing on the coast of Maine during the depression.
"Everything about this book has been different," agrees Gutcheon. "Maybe the most obvious thing to say is that it's the first since 1978 that I wrote on spec. Nobody saw it until it was done, it didn't have to be something I'd already promised to an editor, it was able to take its own form."
That form required an agonizingly long time to materialize. "I started the book in the early 1980s, after Still Missing [her second novel]. I got halfway into it and realized I'd conceived it wrongly. I was telling it from the point of view of Hannah, a contemporary New York teenager, but she didn't know enough for me to handle the two story lines. So I put it aside, then when I came back to it all these years later, there was a single block of about 60 pages of Hannah as an old woman remembering these events and that's the voice of the book. I almost couldn't remember writing that section, but finding it and finding that voice was the key."
"I've found in the past that the more closely I identify with the heroine, the less completely she emerges as a person. So from the first novel I've been learning techniques to distance myself from the characters so that they are not me and I don't try to protect them in ways that aren't good for the story. It's taken all these years--writing fiction is hard!--to create a character who is so far from me, from a completely different time and much older than I am, and still feel assured about telling her story."
A pretty and vibrant woman of 55, Gutcheon seems very unlike her elderly, loss-haunted narrator. She lives zestfully in the moment, whether she's praising Jane Smiley's new novel, Horse Heaven ("Isn't it incredible the way she gives the horses personalities?"), or describing the trials of owning a Portuguese water dog ("They're just so bad--owners pass each other on the street and give a nod of recognition"). Yet Gutcheon knows as well as Hannah that "one moment can change your life, alter or end all your chances."
"My parents lost a daughter before I was born," she says. "It was a routine tonsillectomy, the surgeon made a mistake, and she bled to death. My mother sent a healthy child to the hospital and got back a corpse. I was the next baby, and it's a very big part of my makeup that life is fragile and unfair, and every bit of it could turn on a dime." Several of Gutcheon's novels concern the disappearance or death of a child, and all of them acknowledge the power of bad luck or ill will to suddenly and drastically affect people's destinies.
Other family experiences had a more cheerful impact on Gutcheon's work. "I'm very interested, in all my books, in community, what binds people together, which I think is an obvious consequence of being the fourth of six children. Also, my father, Frank Richardson, in his quiet way, was a master at building communities. He served on the library board, the hospital board, the sanitary board, he led the local school board through a period of great crisis. We had dinner at 7:30, and by 8 he was always out the door because he had a meeting."
Life was comfortable in the affluent suburbs of western Pennsylvania (her father worked at Pittsburgh Plate Glass), but Beth Richardson never entirely fit in. "My mother is a very bright woman who really encouraged our intellectual lives, and all my brothers and sisters are very smart and well educated, but I'm the one who was always reading. I spent my childhood searching for places where they couldn't find me and say, 'Bethie, get your nose out of a book!' One of my favorites was the third shelf of my sister's closet; I could spend the whole day up there with all my Oz books." Her mother and older sister had both attended Westover, a fancy girls' boarding school, "so my big act of rebellion was to choose Miss Porter's."
Moving on to Radcliffe for a B.A. in English literature, she met Jeffrey Gutcheon, an architecture student at MIT, and married him in 1968. "We thought we'd go off and invent the world together, which turned out to be both more romantic and less than we'd pictured." Their son, David, was born in 1970. Beth Gutcheon was active in Planned Parenthood and with her husband wrote Abortion: A Woman's Guide, released in 1973. She got involved in the American quilt movement and published two books, The Perfect Patchwork Primer (1973) and The Quilt Design Workbook (1975). She wrote a screenplay, The Children of Theater Street, later nominated for an Academy Award. "I'd never seen a life that would be good for a person of my tastes and sensibilities," she says of her scattershot early career. "What I really wanted to do was read, and I think writing was just a natural consequence of that passion. After a while, if you have this Calvinist background, you can't just indulge yourself endlessly, you have to find a way to make something out of the thing you love so much."
She turned to fiction at the end of the '70s. The New Girls, like many first novels, drew on the author's youthful experiences in its tale of five girls at Miss Pratt's School for Young Ladies. Several of the protagonists were directly modeled on people Gutcheon knew "because it really didn't occur to me that it would ever be published and be read by strangers." But it was: Jean Strouse, a friend from Radcliffe, introduced Gutcheon to Wendy Weil, who sold the book to Diane Reverand (then Diane Matthews) at Putnam. When the book appeared in 1979, says Gutcheon, "I would look at the text and think, 'What was I thinking of?! And what will my friend so-and-so think when she reads this?' I didn't like feeling that I had invaded the privacy of others, and I've taken a lot of pains in subsequent books not to. Interestingly, when people read the book, they said the character they really believed in was Jenny, who wasn't like anyone I knew, and the ones who never became real to them were the ones based on actual people. I realized, Oh! If you don't make them up you don't make them real to other people."
Although she lived in SoHo, in Manhattan, and knew the parents of Etan Patz, the boy whose disappearance in 1979 inspired her next novel, Still Missing, "there was nothing about the mother I created, or her problems, that had anything to do with the Patzes," says Gutcheon. "I was shocked to hear complete strangers demonize these normal, careful, loving parents, who had a terrible thing happen to them, as a way of proving to themselves that it had happened to the Patzes for a reason and couldn't happen to them. I wrote Still Missing to make people feel what it would be like to be in that situation."
Published by Putnam in 1981, the book was a bestseller. Producer Stanley Jaffe bought the movie rights and offered Gutcheon a chance to write the screenplay. "I wasn't prepared for this big success," says Gutcheon. "I handled it badly, and it destroyed my marriage. Suddenly I was the single mother of a teenage boy I had to put through school. I had started a novel I couldn't finish [the early version of More Than You Know] and had the option of writing for film, which paid a great deal better and gave me health insurance for the first time in my life." Without a Trace, the movie based on Gutcheon's novel, did well enough that she was offered more film work "at a time when I needed the company and needed the money."
It was 10 years before Gutcheon's next novel appeared. "I couldn't have done it without Diane Reverand's patience and friendship. She just said, 'I contracted for one book, you fell apart, you've described another book to me, you seem to be taking 10 years to write it: fine.'" Gutcheon had already mapped out for Reverand the plot of Domestic Pleasures, which involves a romance between divorced people with teenage children, when she fell in love with Robin Clements, headmaster of a California school and single father of two. The story line had no connection to her own life, says the author, but "it was being happily married to a very secure, loving man who wanted my success that made it possible for me to actually start the novel." She followed Reverand to Villard, which published Domestic Pleasures in 1991, and then to HarperCollins for Saying Grace (1995) and Five Fortunes (1998).
"Saying Grace was already in production when we moved to HarperCollins, and suddenly Diane had so many executive and administrative responsibilities, plus the list she brought with her, plus the list she inherited. She didn't have time to be my editor the way she used to, and I was far away [Gutcheon and Clements were living in California], so I couldn't just pop in. Those two books went through the publishing process in a way that made me feel I needed a fresh start with a different editor."
After Gutcheon finished Five Fortunes ("my quintessential California book"), she and Clements moved back to New York, where he now teaches at St. Bernard's School. She wrote More Than You Know without a contract, and Wendy Weil (to whom it's dedicated) sold the book to Megan Dowling at Morrow. "She's been a dream editor on this project, and it has a lot to do with the fact that we're new to each other. We've had to develop ways of talking. She's had to find the right way to read my drafts and say what she needs to say without knocking me off my pins, but without being so squashy that I can knock her over. The success of this book is important in her life as an editor in a way that it couldn't be to Diane, who's so successful. I felt that Megan and I were foot soldiers in the same army."
Gutcheon is working on a new novel, but not yet ready to talk about it. "Before I commit three years of my life to a project, I have to have the characters, I have to have the situation, I have to have the arc of the plot, I have to know what the book means. I haven't got the four elements for this one yet." Besides, she adds, "I keep saying that I'm on a reading sabbatical. I became a writer because I love to read, yet I never get to unless I'm reviewing a book or doing research. I started the year Robin and I spent in Maine just reading and ended up writing More Than You Know. Since then, I've been trying again to take my reading sabbatical, but I always end up working on something."