Washington — The first time Gail Sheehy hit the best-seller list -- with ''Passages'' -- she flinched. She's still flinching.
Her new book, ''Pathfinders,'' has been inching its way up the list of the top 10, and she groans a bit as she thinks what this second smash success will bring: ''The success of 'Passages' was a monster -- it was a candy-coated monster. . . . I never was interested in writing a best seller. . . .'' Since we are doing a luncheon interview, the food analogy pops up again as she thinks about the sheer awfulness of unmitigated success:
''I thought of it at one point like having swallowed a whole cherry pie that got stuck in my throat. I was embarrassed by it. I felt some kind of old, unrevised liberal guilt about having made money from something I really hadn't intended to. Eight or nine months after the book was on the best-seller list there came a boomerang which is just natural for anything that has an outsize success, and people began to mistake the effect for the cause. (They thought) 'Well, if it's a big best seller, then she must have set out to write a big best seller, therefore she must be selling snake oil, hence she must be a tough, hard-boiled cookie who's just trying to exploit' . . . . I mean, that's putting the worst possible face on it. But it's hard for people to remember or even to know that you didn't have any idea that it was going to be a big success. In fact I thought it would probably sink without a trace, which is why I got out of the country for six weeks after I wrote it. . . .''
She doesn't look like a tough cookie. The day of this interview she looks more like a marmalade Persian cat in a soft, downy angora sweater the exact shade of her copper-colored hair. Earlier that morning she had been jogging and working out in a Georgetown gym, an antidote to the all-night talk shows and bruising schedule of a cross-country promotion tour. After the gym she had slipped into interview clothes: that copper-colored sweater with puffed sleeves, a copper leather belt cinching in a pleated apricot silk skirt, beige leather sling-backs, gold earrings. The colors create an impression of warmth, an original sort of chic. She has blue-green eyes that don't miss a trick - reporter's eyes and a reporter's way of leaving spaces between the sentences so that you say more than you ever intended when she asks you a question.
We were both reporters at one point on the women's page of the late, great New York Herald Tribune. So I'm curious about the paths she's chosen in her own life since then, as the author of ''Pathfinders.''
The title of the book was inspired by Robert Frost's poem ''The Road Not Taken,'' with its final lines: ''Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.'' ''Pathfinders'' is a fascinating book that deals, as the cover puts it, with ''overcoming the crises of adult life and finding your own path to well-being.'' It is a magnum opus of 494 well-documented pages. Gail Sheehy spent four and a half years interviewing, researching, and writing this book which is based on the results of some 60,000 ''Life-History Questionnaires.''
From the thousands of questionnaires, from group mailings, and recommendations of leaders in various fields, she culled 200 people who looked like possible pathfinders and monitored their lives for four years. Pathfinders, in Gail Sheehy's terms, are people who have faced life's adversities, triumphed over them, and found new, satisfying directions open up. The pathfinders include ordinary people, but also some like Anwar Sadat, Gloria Steinem, Rosalynn Carter. The book resulted from her travels and speeches in the wake of the success of ''Passages'' (subtitled ''Predictable Crises of Adult Life'').
She says people kept asking the same question all the time: ''OK, it's one thing to define passages, but who gets through them successfully? How do you make opportunities out of those obstacles?'' She explains: ''The only way I could think of to answer it was if I could tap out of the culture people who felt exceptionally good about themselves, in many different dimensions of life - personal, professional, as parents, as citizens. They would probably have had to have been through at least one passage, and if they were feeling good they must have done something right. They must have expanded as the result of it, grown, rather than contracted or escaped, or one of the other normal, more common responses. If I could get to those people and then write about them, maybe it would just present a number of answers, not one answer, not a how-to book, but a number of possibilities that would maybe open up some windows. . . .''
Gail Sheehy's own pathfinding started with a crucial decision soon after she'd gone off to the University of Vermont as a freshman. It was brought about by her high-school boyfriend who was ''deeply inappropriate,'' she smiles. He was a Korean war vet, five years older than she. ''Romantic, dashing, and insanely possessive,'' he turned up under her dormitory window with a ladder one night and asked her to elope. She was halfway down the road with him when she decided to call her parents, who were incredibly cool and didn't protest, but suggested she think it over for two weeks. She decided to stay in college to finish her education.
Enter Squadron Leader Greville Bell, of the Royal Air Force. He struck up a conversation with her one night at a Greenwich Village hangout and later called her three times to ask for a date. Gail remembers that on the fourth call he announced in his impeccable British accent that he really couldn't call again, it would be too humiliating, because as he said ''he wasn't really squadron leader Greville Bell, he was Albert Sheehy from Shelton, Conn., who went to New Haven State Teachers College, whose father was a policeman.'' He apologized, explained the accent: He'd been stationed in England for three years at an RAF base. He said he'd really like to see her again -- as Albert Sheehy. They were married a year and a half after she left college.
When her husband (who'd gone on to the University of Rochester medical school) began interning, her life turned down a different path. At that point, she says, ''I certainly saw a crossroads.'' By this time she had a job she loved , writing at the Trib, but it was impossibile to support her family and care for her very young daughter, Maura, at the same time. A succession of incapable babysitters made her face the choice. At that point she decided to take the plunge into free-lancing.
''I really hadn't planned to start free-lancing that early. I wasn't ready. . . . But it was in a way a miniature life accident (her ''Pathfinders'' word for crisis) that pushed me out on the end of the diving board. . . . Albert was an intern making 90 cents an hour, and so it wasn't just a matter of what would be the nicest career choice or path. It was that we had to survive. But I really felt there was no question for me, I really had to work out of my home for the next few years. And then came this miraculous offer the day after I left the Herald Tribune. It was raining and I was stuck in the house, and I got a phone call from Cosmopolitan (magazine) saying 'if you ever think about leaving the Tribune, we're willing to talk with you about a contract to do a number of stories for us a year, which would be guaranteed income.' Well, that was dinner! And that then gave me the freedom to begin working on a novel.''
Her novel ''Lovesounds,'' traced the dissolution of a fictional marriage at the same time her own marriage was ending. '' 'Lovesounds' was not a good novel, although it was a success as a magazine article,'' she says.
She is thinking now, years later, of trying a novel again after years of success with nonfiction: ''Panthermania''; ''Speed is of the Essence'' (a collection of articles); ''Hustling,'' a ''new journalism'' look at prostitution that later emerged as a television docudrama starring Lee Remick; ''Passages''; and finally ''Pathfinders.''
Along the way, in 1970, she won a fellowship to study at Columbia under her mentor, the celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead. A grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation in 1974 enabled her to forge ahead with her studies of adult development.
But one of the most crucial crossroads in her life came when she had what she calls in ''Passages'' a ''breakdown of nerve.'' It happened when she was on assignment in Northern Ireland for New York Magazine, writing about women who were taking over from men being imprisoned.
It was a sunny day, one later called ''Bloody Sunday.'' She was standing on an open outdoor staircase, and the fighting in the streets seemed to be over. She was asking a young boy how the paratroopers could fire their gas canisters so far and he was in the middle of answering her when a bullet exploded in his face.
Suddenly she and all the other people on the staircase were caught in a crossfire between snipers on the roof and the army's armored cars. ''As I got to the top of the block of flats on the staircase, I was hesitating about whether or not to put myself in even further and (trying) to bang on a door when I saw a bullet, I literally saw a bullet several feet in front of my nose just as if it were hanging in midair. And I watched it embed itself in the wall of the flat. And in that moment that whole collection of protective illusions that I had carried along since early childhood, thinking that I was a terribly plucky young girl who pole-vaulted across icebergs in Mamaroneck Harbor, climbed trees and jumped out of windows, who became a journalist who traveled around the world in a classically intrepid way. Suddenly I was very naked and I didn't have any source of safety. . . . And that triggered some hard work at reexamining the sources of one's faith in the purpose of life. . . .
''It wasn't just this bizarre brush with death. In fact my perspective had begun to change on my 35th birthday, when it kind of hit me that these normal passages can be even more harrowing than the life accidents, because there isn't any dramatic outer event to explain the way. And I remember . . . having an outburst, being upset, fearful, angry questioning where am I going? Who's coming with me? Is it enough to be just a performer as a journalist any more? . . . What sort of sacrifices am I willing to make in my life for continued career participation? Do I want to have another child? Do I want to be remarried? What about friends? There really hasn't been much time to keep up old friendships or build new ones in all this flurry of professional activity. Aren't they important, weren't they always important, doesn't it feel a little empty not having them?''
And so ''Passages'' was born. ''I think I was very fortunate,'' she muses, ''in having the profession I do because in part I think every writer who does a book about serious subjects is working out some of their own demons and trying to explain through other people's experiences as well as through commonalities of experience. I think that colors the choice of subjects. I suppose it was very comforting to me when I did my first interview for 'Passages' to find that other people shared the same perspective. . . .''
Hitting the top of the best-seller list with ''Passages'' was a shock for the little girl who grew up in suburban Mamaroneck, N.Y., and spent half her life in a rowboat.
But on her way to becoming successful Gail Sheehy has had two superb mentors: editor and publisher Clay Felker, a longtime friend, whose innovative approach brought early success to New York Magazine; and Margaret Mead, who beamed on the ''Passages'' study of adult development and helped point out a path in her anthropology courses and through personal encouragement.
In a sense what Sheehy has explored in both ''Passages'' and ''Pathfinders'' is a unique sort of anthropological mission, studies of the rare and endangered species, urban contemporary man. But her interest in tribal customs surfaced early, even at the Trib, where she brought the same sort of rapt attention to stories about the delicatessen-and-bridge culture of Lefrak city matrons as she later did to the Black Panthers of New Haven, the prison widows of Northern Ireland, the streetwalkers of Midtown Manhattan.
Because she's a writer and interviewer herself, there's one thing that bothers her about the coverage of her new book: ''The chapter on faith. Not one interviewer has mentioned it. People really don't know how to talk about that chapter or anybody in it. That's why it was so difficult to write about it.''
She outlines the part faith has played in the lives of significant ''Pathleaders'' like DeGaulle, Sadat, Golda Meier, Churchill, Emerson, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt. ''One after the other, there was some personal setback or tragedy or failure, major failure, and they'd go off for a period of withdrawal and personal examination. And they would really re-examine their faith at every level, in themselves and whatever source of spiritual guidance they felt, and their values, and the people that might have been part of their (political) party -- and then they'd come back in some way transfigured and give the benefit of that personal transformation to their social milieu. . . .
''And then these people pollinate others and then get a whole kind of critical mass of leadership that begins redefining the core values of the culture, and that is ultimately the spiritual awakening that gets the society off on a new period of optimism, social objectives, energy, hope, and so on.''
In that chapter there is only the smallest hint of her own path to faith as she begins describing a Midwestern Protestant whom she gives the pseudonym Elizabeth Bain Loeb. She says of Mrs. Loeb that she ''came circuitously to her adult faith, in much the same manner I had found my own way back.''
Sheehy found her way back, she remembers, when she and her husband were separating and she felt really lost. ''I felt I had slammed into a brick wall that had shattered all my assumptions about what was right to do . . . and what was meaningful for me. The family life was very meaningful for me. Also my ego was very bruised at that point because I was the rejected one, even though there was still a great deal of love there. And I had a very small child and couldn't imagine how to keep the responsibility of being parents going, although we did work that out and it became one of the emotional victories for all of us. But at that time I really didn't know the Bible and hadn't learned the stories. And I didn't have any parables at hand.''
It was when she was sent on assignment to St. Mark's Episcopal church on Easter Sunday that year that she found a renewal of her faith. It was during the Vietnam war, when the artists and writers who belonged to that Lower East Side church were demonstrating against the war, wearing yellow ribbons instead of Easter finery. ''I walked into this church, the first time I'd been in church in maybe four or five years, and had an overwhelming sense of a kind of homecoming. . . . I felt refreshed and felt we could do something together with these 'people who were searching through their own creative medium' for God.'' She later joined the church and felt ''very nourished by that spiritual home'' for about five years.
And then, she says, the neighborhood changed, her life changed, and she found herself in a new stage with a new path.
''Since then I've found different ways and places to tap that spiritual place of honesty and reality. There are different churches in different parts of the world. But sometimes I also love to climb hills and be there very early in the morning, when it's really quite pure. And I feel that then can be a church. . . .
''So I think that I'm not as concerned as I was after that specific place was no longer available. I moved to a different part of the city, history moved on, and I missed it terribly for a while. And now I'm not so concerned about finding a physical home or specific denomination to be the shelter for the faith. But I seem to be able to find it wherever it is.''