Few novelists -- a notoriously wall-flowery breed -- would say, as Ann Hood did when interviewing to be a TWA flight attendant in 1978, that they would rather throw a party than go to one. Needless to say, she got the job.

Recalling the question more than 20 years later, in the living room of her spacious Victorian home in Providence, R.I., Hood says she'd probably respond the same way today. "I often feel that I have a split personality," she says. "I love more than anything to be in my study writing, but when it's time to do a book tour, I love that extroverted part, too -- talking to people, reading, traveling, going out into the world."

Certainly you might infer a touch of schizophrenia from the decor of Hood's living room, which faces a street a few blocks from the Brown University campus and, as such, supplies a view of a steady stream of jogging c ds on this mild September afternoon. In the far right-hand corner, a group of antique baskets stands next to a Yamaha Portatone keyboard, and propped up against the fireplace mantel are color photocopies of Hood in a wedding-day clinch with her second husband, Lorne Adrain, an estate planner. On the other hand, Hood herself, a 41-year-old former teen model with the somewhat impersonal blonde perkiness of Martha Stewart, seems the picture of sanity in her white T-shirt, black pants and discreetly funky loafers. One suspects that the eclectic furnishings are more the reflection of a hectic domestic life -- Hood has two children, Sam, age five, and Grace, age two, with Adrain -- than of any deep personal schism.

But Hood's apparently unstudied normalcy camouflages the fact that she is, in fact, a very serious writer, whose novels subtly trace the knotty weave of emotion that at once interconnects and separates her characters. Her prose displays the kind of understated craftsmanship and fidelity to nuance that is achieved only from hours of isolated toil and painstaking apprentice work.

In an interview in the Washington Post, Nicholas Delbanco, an important early mentor of Hood's, praised her work for combining "a simplicity of diction together with a complexity of character." While Hood is reluctant to describe herself as a minimalist, she admits she will never be a writer of "dense prose," and lists as seminal influences the spare stories of Jayne Anne Phillips, Bobbie Ann Mason and Raymond Carver ("I'm always intrigued by writing that has a lot left out"). Family relationships and friendships, particularly those among women, have been her subject of choice since her first and perhaps most widely read book, 1987's Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, which was reprinted as a Picador trade paperback in September.

In Ruby, her seventh novel, also just out from Picador (Forecasts, June 22), the protagonist is Olivia, a grieving young widow who finds solace in a complex, unlooked-for friendship with the eponymous Ruby, a pregnant teenage runaway whom she invites into her home.

Personal tragedy and its aftermath loom large in Ruby, and is also a theme in Hood's other novels, where characters grapple with mortal illness and with the holes left by absent parents and lovers under her resolutely unsentimental gaze. This quiet mining of pain is the legacy of a devastating loss that Hood suffered in her own life. When she was 25, her beloved older brother and only sibling, Skip, a chemical engineer, died in a freak domestic accident. Soon after, Hood moved back to Rhode Island for six months to be close to her parents. The incident proved a turning point for her as a writer, providing a focus she had previously lacked. "Chip's death is what really got me to pursue writing seriously," she says. "I write about families coping with loss, trying to regroup in a new configuration." Hood's next book, which she is scheduled to submit to Picador in late 1999, is a nonfiction exploration of her excursion into the world of "miracle healing," undertaken as part of an ultimately unsuccessful quest to stave off her father's death from inoperable lung cancer last year.

Discussing her personal background, Hood is so sunny that it is easy to miss the fact that she is describing the kind of confining circumstances that might have left her emotionally debilitated. Her descriptions of the challenges she faced are flavored not with self-pity but with a distanced wonderment; it's a quality that is perhaps the source of the delicate objectivity that suffuses her novels. The daughter of IRS employees -- her father was an IRS administrator and former navy man; her mother was an IRS auditor -- Hood lived in Annapolis, Md., and Arlington, Va., as a small child, finally settling in West Warwick, R.I., a small mill town, when she was in first grade. Hood, who says she comes from a family of "math whizzes," has no explanation for the urge to write that gripped her when she was quite young. "I was kind of an outsider growing up," she says, "and I preferred reading to being with other kids. When I was about seven, I started to write my own books. I never thought of myself as wanting to be a writer -- I just was one."

A family tradition of storytelling also contributed to Hood's ambition. In West Warwick, the family lived with Hood's great-grandmother and grandmother, first- and second-generation Italian-Americans who, during holidays, would hold court with Hood's aunts in the kitchen around the cast-iron coal stove. "On Christmas, people had to sit on the floor -- there was no room for everybody," she recalls. "They would pass around bushel baskets of cookies, and my grandmother would tell stories about the supernatural. I just sat and listened. I was an observer, which gives you a different sense of how people tick -- and which definitely informs my writing."

One Giant Nerve Ending

Hood recalls being an "odd" child ("I was just one giant nerve ending"), ostracized by her peers and unable to reconcile her inner artistic impulses with the world around her. While she had outgrown her unsociability by her teenage years, and describes them as a period of being "excited about everything -- every p m, every book," she also admits to having experienced the pain that marks the tumultuous inner lives of her adolescent characters. In high school she continued to write steadily, but the occupation of writer was not one readily considered in the relatively blue-collar setting of her hometown: "When you went into the guidance counselor, it was not to talk about any lofty ambitions. Basically, they understood being a teacher or being a nurse," she explains. "For those reasons, I didn't think of being a writer as a career."

Hood took a degree in English at the University of Rhode Island, and then, inspired by her father's tales of exotic travels during his service in the navy, embarked on her career at TWA, living first in Boston and later in St. Louis. "I loved it, because I knew I wasn't going to be a flight attendant forever," she says. "It gave me the opportunity to have tons of time off, and to travel. I went everywhere. It was a funny choice of jobs, but I was happy." When Hood was laid off in 1981 as part of staff cutbacks, she worked with an airline charter company until her brother's death the next year. Following her time in Rhode Island, Hood moved to Manhattan, determined to realize her writerly ambitions.

In Greenwich Village's Three Lives book store, Hood attended her first reading, by Laurie Colwin and Deborah Eisenberg. "That was the night I knew I could become a writer," she recalls. "I was sitting this close to someone [Eisenberg] maybe five or 10 years older than me, and she was reading a story from the New Yorker. It really crystallized things for me." While working again as a flight attendant, Hood took a master's degree in English at New York University. In 1985 she won a place at Breadloaf, where she studied under Delbanco and worked on the stories that would later become Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine.

A Breadloaf connection directed her to agent Maxine Groffsky, who quickly placed the finished manuscript with editor Deb Futter, then at Bantam. It was released as part of the launch of Bantam's trade paperback line. The book chronicles the fortunes of three women, former college best friends in the 1960s, now struggling to navigate their lives in the 1980s. It features both the unadorned, beautifully shaped prose and rotating vantage points that became Hood's twin trademarks (Ruby is Hood's first book to be told from a single viewpoint). "The book sold a lot of copies," says Hood. "It was a great way to start a writing career, because everything went so well." She is undefensive when reminded of a Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer who accused the novel of having a soap opera-like quality, and says she d sn't worry that her homey prose style and close focus on the emotional issues of "ordinary" people might be considered overly reader-friendly. "It's always interesting to me that people might consider that a bad thing," she says. "To me, that seems ridiculous. I write so that people will read what I write. I don't want to write a book that a thousand people read, or just privileged people read. I want to write a book whose emotional truth people can understand. For me, that's what it's about."

Perhaps in an effort to reach a wider readership (Bantam had let Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine go out of stock), Hood switched to editor Diane Higgins at Picador last year for Ruby. Hood says only that it was "time for a change." Of Higgins, she comments, "She's a great ally, and she understands my work, which is what you really want as a writer." Since her second book, Hood has been represented by Gail Hochman at Brandt and Brandt.

The genesis of Ruby was what Hood calls a "what-if," an admittedly morbid speculation on what it would feel like to be abruptly widowed. Hood, who met Adrain in 1992 while serving on a URI alumni panel and moved in with him four months later, used the romance as the model for the whirlwind courtship of Olivia and her husband, David, whom she marries four months after they meet. A year later, David is killed by a car while jogging on an isolated stretch of road near their Rhode Island summer house; Olivia, who had declined his wish to make love that morning, blames herself for David's death. "Lorne g s jogging every morning at 4:30," says Hood. "Usually, I'm asleep, but one morning I rolled over and got a glimpse of him in his little orange running shorts going out the door, and I thought, `It's dark out there.' And I think that planted the idea."

But the relationship that is the novel's main focus is intergenerational. The smart, troubled character of Ruby, whose unborn baby Olivia becomes obsessed with adopting, is a memorable one, teetering between juvenile delinquency and vague ambitions of forging a better life than the one she has known so far. "I have a fondness for writing about precocious, troubled teenagers, who are alienating, but kind of endearing," says Hood. "It's from remembering so clearly that time in my own life. I experienced myself as more dramatically troubled than I was, but I just remember how it felt."

Viewed in the comfortable urban setting of the home she has made with Adrain, Hood has certainly come a long way from her days as a TWA stewardess. But it is still easy to picture the enthusiastic young woman who so relished the window onto a wider world permitted by her peripatetic lifestyle. "I loved that quiet time when all the passengers are asleep, and you're just sort of floating, nowhere," she recalls. With the Atlantic ocean stretching below, and the hum of the engines as background music, Hood used the free time to write; much of Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine was composed in midair.

Which just g s to show that soul-nourishment, for writers, can sometimes take unlikely forms; and that the stewardess who serves you your in-flight peanuts may not be exactly who she seems.