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Enough About Age : 83-Year-Old Author of 'Stones for Ibarra' Finds Inspiration in Life, Not Numbers or Even Her Hometown

August 27, 1993|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the library with the melon carpet and the melon walls and the French windows overlooking the garden with matching melon roses, Harriet Doerr is finally facing up to that remark about Pasadena.

"Yes, yes, yes. All right. I did say that (many times) . . . but now I feel foolish about it. Really, I do." This may be as close as Doerr ever comes to apologizing for the truth. The truth, in this case, being that she "couldn't think of a thing to write about Pasadena" though she's lived here most of her 83 years.

"I see, of course, that anyone with imagination can write something about anywhere--Buenos Aires, New York City, even Pasadena. Particularly with fiction, where you can bend the facts . . . ," she says with a smile.

Harriet Doerr--as in "Doerr prize," says New York magazine--has a new book out and it is not about Pasadena, but about the place she loves so dearly--rural Mexico.

Unlike Pasadena, where she raised her two children, "Mexico is a very mystical place and every person sees the mystical part in a different way."

The book's title--"Consider This, Senora"--is an admonition to look at Mexico, its people and Americans in a different way. But in Doerr's spare, sweet style, the admonition is a gentle one.

Consider, the book suggests, the possibility that love is worth all the trouble and pain it causes, consider that good manners have a place in the universe, consider that memory is the prism through which the beauty of life is revealed.

Doerr knows something of memory and its uses. "This business about my age continues to come up, but it's kind of irrelevant now, don't you think?" she asks.

Other than her failing eyesight and hip surgery, now perfectly mended, Doerr's age has little to do with her writing. Yet, it has everything to do with it.

"Writing, you see, derives from an accumulation of experience. You need to have lived long enough and have accumulated enough facts to give you a little stone to stand on. And then memory and imagination take over," says Doerr.

Doerr was 73 when she wrote her first book, "Stones for Ibarra." And, for a time, her age was the talk of the publishing world. But when "Stones" went on to win the American Book Award in 1986, it was clear, as one critic put it, that "the most significant thing about Harriet Doerr is not her age, but her talent."

As a young girl, Doerr wrote "terrible" poetry. In 1930, after a year at Smith College and another year and a half at Stanford University, Doerr quit school to marry her "longtime friend," Albert.

Not long after their first child was born in 1935, they went to Mexico for the first of many extended visits to oversee her husband's family mining business. Her earliest and, she says, most earnest writing about the Mexican countryside and its people took the form of letters to family and friends. "Well, everybody threw them away," says Doerr, "but, oh, what I would give to have them now . . . ."

Fortunately for posterity, Doerr has a keen sense of recollection. Although she insists her books are not autobiographical, they do draw heavily upon her 15 intermittent years of living in small Mexican villages.

It was after her husband's death in 1972 that Doerr decided to get her college degree. She took liberal arts courses at Scripps College and then returned to Stanford as a Wallace Stegner Fellow.

"I lived in this teeny, tiny house on campus and couldn't have been happier," says Doerr. "This is a terrible thing to say, but it was fun to be away from Pasadena," she adds, apparently unable to break the lifelong cycle of finding her hometown dull.

In school, Doerr's teachers urged her to write and write some more. It was not easy. "I'm a slow writer, I like to take time. I will happily spend an hour on a single word and then go back and erase it . . . In all my life, I have never dashed anything off--and you may quote me--I go over and over and over. It's like cutting stone."

With support and encouragement from such creative writing legends as Stanford's John L'Heureux and Stegner himself, Doerr says she found confidence. "They kindly recognized hesitant writers and urged us on."

She remains a reluctant star in the literary galaxy. When a negative review of her work appears--a highly unusual event--Doerr says she is "never, ever" tempted to respond in any way, even to correct dramatic errors of fact.

"I believe everyone has a perfect right to say anything they wish about my books. If it is a tiny bit dagger-like, I think I had it coming."

In a highly favorable review of "Consider This, Senora," The Times called it "deliberately out of fashion." To which Doerr responded, "Well, I'm 83, so I suppose I am out of fashion. But I wrote only of people with important concerns--life, death, love and those things that are never out of fashion . . . for both Mexicans and Americans."

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