Judith Guest: author of 'Ordinary People' is no ordinary person

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It is midmorning and the limo waits patiently around the corner from where Judith Guest is querying the Hilton Hotel waiter, ''You got any bananas?'' There are, unfortunately, no bananas to be had, so Ms. Guest, looking every bit the Minnesota homemaker that she is and not the least bit the best-selling author that she also is (she wrote the book ''Ordinary People''), settles for a small dish of applesauce.

This is typical of this atypical housewife and author of two nationally acclaimed novels, who seems intent on being ''just plain folks,'' limousine notwithstanding. She happily digs into her applesauce, chatters on about her three sons and her new cabin in Wisconsin (''northern Minnesota was just too expensive''), and makes fun of arugola - ''that new hot lettuce everyone is eating out in L.A.''

But Judith Guest is no ordinary person, despite her everyday conversation. A tall woman with short, clipped hair and a blunt manner, she is bereft of the sophistication and literary airs one might expect of a successful author. ''Ordinary People'' and last year's ''Second Heaven'' have both netted hefty fees for paperback and film rights. The movie version of ''Ordinary People,'' directed by Robert Redford and starring Mary Tyler Moore, earned Academy Awards in 1980 for best picture, supporting actor, director, and adapted screenplay.

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In fact, within publishing circles, Guest is something of a Cinderella - that one-in-a-million exception to the rule that unknown writers without agents and a proven track record can't break into print. For all the housewives who dream of launching a writing career from a typewriter parked on their kitchen table, Guest is a dream come true.

Nearly 10 years ago she did exactly that - pecking out her first novel while her family was away during the day. She sent the completed book to Viking Press cold - no letter of inquiry, no agent, nothing - a route that usually guarantees defeat for the would-be author.

But a year and a half later, ''Ordinary People'' emerged as Viking's first ''over-the-transom'' publication in 27 years. It even ran for weeks on the best-seller list, an almost unheard-of event for the unheard-of author.

Today Guest works serendipitously away on her third book - she admits she writes what she feels like writing without worrying too much about structure - teaches creative writing near her home in Edina, Minn., a posh Minneapolis suburb, and lectures frequently across the country. She is also out beating the publicity bushes for the paperback version of ''Second Heaven.'' That book, too, she says, is ''looking for a screenwriter'' to make it into a film.

She is not shy about her success. ''How can I say it's difficult to break into publishing?'' she asks boldly. ''I did it. I think good writing will out.''

While critics around the country took notice of her books, and even more notice of the award-winning film, she quickly earned the label ''popular fiction writer.'' Even she admits that the ''accessibility'' of her style, which she says ''pleases and displeases me,'' is one of the chief reasons for her success.

''There are a lot of writers out there writing about subjects that people would be interested in,'' she says, ''but they can't get at it because of the style.'' While she confesses that she sometimes wishes she could write ''more elegantly, like John Updike or Grace Paley,'' she hastens to add ''that people are hungry to read about people like themselves.'' And that, the author says, is exactly what she does.

Both of her books chronicle the emotional underbellies of upper-middle-class suburban families, probing themes of love, hate, forgiveness, and neglect, issues that some critics lambasted as simple ''WASP repression'' but what Time magazine called critical for ''everyone who attempts to raise children.''

Guest sees her themes not so much as simple literary ones, kept tidily between book covers, but major discoveries within her own life, which she maintains is similar to the lives of her characters. Married with three sons, she is quick to admit that the biggest changes in her life have occurred because of her role as wife and mother, and not as best-selling author. ''My youngest son has just left for college. Now that takes some adjustment.''

What has she observed within her own life that deserves explication in her novels? In her own words, themes of ''autonomy, emotional denial, the myths about marriage, and appearances.''

She says society teaches people and especially men to ''be afraid of their feelings.'' There is no substitute, she comments, for ''self-knowledge.'' ''You have to keep looking inside yourself for answers. You just have to be brave and do it.''

While some have scorned this as so much psychobabble, she asserts that her primary reason for writing is to point out some solutions for people's often snarled, complex lives. ''I only have so much interest in reading about problems ,'' she says with a slight air of exasperation. ''Those novels that conclude with the 'well this is just the way it is and it can't be fixed' attitude, I don't agree with,'' she says.

Calling herself an optimist, she maintains that novels should not be ''preachy,'' but that they should make a reader care about characters and ''be uplifting in a way. Point out the options.'' In both her books, her characters, the husbands, wives, children, emerge from scathing emotional troubles, if not exactly healed, then definitely on their way to newfound sources of affection and stability, and most often in a revived form of family.

''I only know that it's a possibility to try and do something [positive],'' she says. ''That is the part that interests me.''

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