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BEHIND THE BESTSELLER : Consider This

August 29, 1993

"The thing about interviews," Harriet Doerr says while I am frantically trying to notice every detail of her life: the yellow kitchen, the house in Pasadena with so many doors, the gleaming stove, "is that they never begin when you think they begin." She has seen straight through, like so many of her characters. A few minutes later, on a cool patio, surrounded by crab-apple trees and wisteria, Doerr tells me, with a true storyteller's absolute commitment to precision and detail, the story of how she discovered the location for her new book, "Consider This, Senora":

"When we lived way out in the country, in the village which was not the prototype but just vaguely the beginning of how I imagined Ibarra, between that place and Mexico City on a shortcut road we took (this is a two-lane blacktop highway not a freeway), on the left side next to some hills below a slope under the shoulder of the road, there was a very small, I hesitate to say lake, more like a reservoir, and next to it was a church and a little scattering of houses. Behind it were some hills, up above it was a flat mesa with a huge old bodega, or storage place, and the whole place seemed so remote but self-sufficient in a way, and I thought this is just so interesting. . . ." These are directions I could almost follow.

Now she tells me about the people: "Well sometimes, after we had moved to this little village when we were having water trouble we'd go to the nearest city, which was 60 miles away and just take a hotel room for one night, one bath before dinner, one after and one before breakfast. Luxury! Occasionally we'd go to places with views and we'd see houses built by Americans who'd moved down there permanently. How they decided to do this and how they chose Mexico interested me. Some chose it because of the foreignness, some because of the rate of exchange, others so they can have a whole cook and two other helpers for practically nothing. (Those people bothered me quite a lot.) So I wrote one or two short stories about expatriates, mostly women at loose ends, usually from a marriage. I thought, 'I'll put some expatriates on that mesa. I'll remove the crumbling bodega and put some Americans up there all within that wing of mountains.' "

And so she did. Before leaving the writing program at Stanford that she entered in 19XX, a professor of Doerr's insisted that she write the first chapter of a new book. She wrote the chapter called "A Picnic at Amapolas." "I wrote it fast, different from the way I write now, and the New Yorker took it. For some reason (it never occurred to me that even if I'd written the first chapter I'd signed a sacred promise to write a book and keep these people--I just put them all in without thinking of their futures) my conscientiousness or something caused me to write a book about these same people."

Was "Consider This," like "Stones for Ibarra," written originally as stories? "No, I tried not to. I still do think in stories, or episodes of people's lives, but several people have said 'Harriet, you have actually written a novel!' I tried to take Sue (the book's main character) for instance and produce her; talking to people or with a whole chapter to herself. Bud Loomis (the novel's ugly American) I put in the first chapter because I needed to laugh about something. Before long I was growing to love him . . . that gross man! I fell in love with the ugly American because in the end he loved the place as much as anyone!"

Doerr is often praised for her lack of sentimentality and I ask her about her restraint, about where she draws the emotional line. "Oh yes," she says. "I watch that line like a hawk. I feel so intensely about the country and the people that it's apt to overflow, so you have to hold the reins very tight. The reader must discover the emotion without being drowned in tears. I hope, I hope it still comes through! I hope the writing shows how very much I feel about these things: the widow putting on the bright scarf at her husband's grave."

And what about the phrase, "Consider This," which appears once in "Stones for Ibarra," and several times in the new book. "They say this," Doerr tells me, "when you're having a little discussion, not angry or anything. Then you consider it, whatever it is, and out comes some rather wise philosophy! This is so typical, this is why you fall deeply in love with the place! Just when you think, catastrophe is here. . . . Consider this!

"I'm agnostic. As you get closer to the point of dying your ideas about religion shift. I actually do not believe there is a cloud on which somebody is playing a harp, but the fact of faith is an extremely interesting thing. Sometimes I understand it and sometimes I don't. I believe I do understand it in small Mexican towns where so much is wanted that is not going to be given in a lifetime. I understand how people can depend on these promises for afterlife. A great many people can't stand thinking that life, living breathing life, is all there is.

"I have one story I started ages go, and one essay I want to write about life in general. Someone gave me a wonderful title," Doerr says, "but little scraps of paper--they don't arrange themselves on the page, now do they?"

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