Author Gail Sheehy; Chronicler of those who found their way
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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. . . .''Skip to next paragraph
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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.''