Harriet Doerr takes her new-found fame in stride
Pasadena, Calif. — ''They want more of me?'' Harriet Doerr, the 74-year-old writer whose first book, ''Stones for Ibarra'' (reviewed here last January by Ruth Doan MacDougall) has not only received a glowing response from critics but has also found a place on the best-seller lists, still seems surprised at being the subject of so much attention. A native of Pasadena, the mother of two, and a keen gardener, Mrs. Doerr began serious writing only after returning to college some years following her husband's death in 1972. She had no plans to become a writer; she had only intended to complete a bachelor's degree in history begun almost 50 years before.
Even without the thought of embarking on a new career, going back to college after so many years was a daunting prospect. As a young woman, Doerr had attended Smith College for one year, then transferred to Stanford University, where she completed all but the last year and one-third of the requirements for her degree. Still, she wondered if she would be able to cope with going back: ''You're afraid you may have lost your mind: After so many years you wonder if you still have the ability to think and concentrate. And you worry about how foolish you'll look.'' Doerr is a trim, energetic, articulate woman whom it is hard to imagine ever looking foolish.
She began to resume her education by taking classes at nearby Scripps College. One of these was the creative writing course in which she was encouraged to develop her talents.
From Scripps, she went on to Stanford, where she became involved in the writing program founded by Wallace Stegner. While some people question the usefulness of writing programs in general, Harriet Doerr is fairly certain that she would not have started to take her writing seriously without the structure, support, and feedback of a formal program. ''What's the saying? 'You can't teach writing, but you can learn writing.' No one can tell you you have to be more sensitive or more insightful. But someone can point out repetitious phrasing, awkward sentence construction, things you don't always notice yourself.''
Mrs. Doerr has spent most of her life here in Pasadena. Her present home, where she has lived since 1941, overlooks a beautiful profusion of lemon trees, flowering shrubs, and bushes. Although she claims she has not cherished a lifelong ambition to be a writer, she admits to being an inveterate reader. Her book-lined shelves attest to a wide range of interests in classic, modern, and contemporary fiction. Shortly after she was married, she made some ''very amateurish'' attempts at writing, including what she describes as ''some perfectly dreadful poems!''
''Stones for Ibarra'' is not autobiographical, but it draws upon her fascination with a country that has held a special place in her imagination ever since she and her husband first visited. ''We lived in a small Mexican town on and off for a dozen years.''
Doerr began writing stories about an imaginary Mexican town and its inhabitants without at first realizing that they would coalesce into a novel. Set in the 1960s (''the close of the period I was most familiar with, before the discovery of oil brought so many changes''), the stories take place in a country town where an American couple come to reopen a dormant copper mine. Doerr chose a small-town setting because she wanted everything to be ''encapsulated.'' The lives of the townspeople and the lives of the Americans who have settled among them take on a kind of contrapuntal relationship, a meeting of two very different cultures.
''Stones for Ibarra'' also achieves the surprisingly difficult task of portraying a good marriage. Although Richard and Sara Everton's life together is overshadowed by his impending death, theirs is clearly an exceptionally happy union. Doerr recognized these difficulties while writing the book: ''I felt as though I were balancing all the time on the edge of a very deep gulf of sentimentality. It's such a fine line you have to tread.''
Although some of the stories were first published in journals, Doerr found that getting stories published was quite as difficult as getting a novel published, perhaps even more so. ''My agent, Liz Darhansoff, didn't make any money from me for five or six years - not even enough to cover her postage costs.'' Publishers objected to the book on the grounds that it was just a group of stories, not a conventional novel. Doerr's conception of the book as a set of ''linked stories'' did not appeal to publishers, who tend to prefer books that fit into a convenient slot. Editors wrote to her suggesting she convert her book into a novel before sending it back to them. ''But I wasn't going to work on it for a whole year without any kind of assurance or commitment from them!''
Finally, Gwenda David, Viking Press representative in England, happened to spot Doerr's stories, which had won a Transatlantic Review Henfield Foundation Award in a competition that drew upon the work of students from 20 university writing programs, including Stanford's. When an editor at Viking agreed to publish the books but asked for some changes, Doerr was perfectly happy to make the minor alterations that were needed. ''I had a baby being born in one story while its mother in the next was still pregnant with it. Now that the order of the stories had become more strictly sequential, I had to take care of things like that.''
All the time that she had been waiting to be published, however, Doerr found herself terribly distracted. It was almost impossible for her to work on anything else when she knew that people were still reading ''Stones for Ibarra'' and trying to make up their minds about it. Now, the book is due out in January as a Penguin paperback. It is scheduled to be published next year in England by Andre Deutsch and has been translated into Danish, Swedish, and German.
''Stones for Ibarra'' is one of several books by older writers that have recently been published (among them Helen Hooven Santmyer's ''And Ladies of the Club''). Doerr does not think her age either encouraged or discouraged publishers. ''They didn't know my age! In fact, when Viking sent me the form to fill out for publicity material, I didn't send it back for three months, because I didn't want to say how old I was!''
Doerr plans to return to the Stanford writing program this fall. Will she be teaching others how to write? ''Oh, no, I couldn't teach. I'm not wise enough!'' She will continue her own writing. ''This time, I know from the start where I'm going. I know where the place is - it's a little town I've seen from the road in Mexico. I've never actually been there ....'' Those of us who have read and admired ''Stones for Ibarra'' can look forward to another wonderful reading experience when Harriet Doerr brings her powerful imaginative consciousness to bear on another little Mexican town.