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Author Gail Sheehy; Chronicler of those who found their way

By Louise SweeneyStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 1982



Washington

The first time Gail Sheehy hit the best-seller list -- with ''Passages'' -- she flinched. She's still flinching.

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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'').