THE attic of the caramel-colored Victorian house has been converted into an office: a (supposedly) quiet, secluded retreat for novelist Michael Malone to work in. Below, on the second floor, his wife's study is piled high with books on the Renaissance literature she teaches. Nearby is their daughter Maggie's bedroom, bespeaking all the cozy comfort and fun an eight-year-old busy with roller skating, tap-dancing, ballet, and violin lessons could wish for. And downstairs in the living room is something one seldom finds, even in spacious, hospitable old houses like this one.
It's a proscenium arch which turns one half of the room into an auditorium and the other half into a stage.
You would think that their respective careers would be enough for Maureen Quilligan and Michael Malone to handle, without regularly putting on plays, both with the participation and for the enjoyment of a considerable portion of the local population. But working creatively with people -- each other and friends outside the family -- is something they simply couldn't do without.
Since 1975, Michael Malone has published four novels and two nonfiction works. His two most recent novels, ``Dingley Falls,'' (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980) and ``Uncivil Seasons'' (Delacorte Press, 1983), won wide critical acclaim, and ``Uncivil Seasons'' has been bought for the movies by Warner Bros. Mr. Malone is currently working on a novel for Doubleday, which has been purchased for filming by Twentieth Century-Fox.
Discussions are in progress for a production of his play about Queen Elizabeth I, ``Defender of the Faith, etc.,'' at a prestigious theater on the West Coast.
Maureen Quilligan held the successive posts of assistant professor and associate professor at Yale University from 1973 to 1983, where she was awarded a prize for excellence in teaching the humanities. In addition to her latest book, ``Milton's Spenser: The Politics of Reading'' (1983), Ms. Quilligan is the author of ``The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre'' (1979). Both books were published by Cornell University Press. Currently she has a work in progress under contract to Random House, entitled ``When Women Ruled the World: The Glorious Sixteenth Century.''
As if all this were not enough to keep the family on its toes, since early 1984 Ms. Quilligan has held a tenured position in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, 200 miles from her home in Clinton. After driving Maggie to a before-school roller-skating session on Tuesday mornings, she boards the train for the four-hour commute to Philadelphia. And she doesn't return home until 9:30 on Thursday evening.
This commuter schedule has meant adjustments for everyone. When her mother is in Philadelphia, Maggie wants her father to be up in the early morning while she gets ready for school. This means that his habit of writing late at night has had to change.
``There are no distractions late at night,'' says Mr. Malone, referring a bit wistfully to his favorite time to write. ``It's a very safe feeling. Writing is a responsive act, and I like to write by hand because it's silent and you can actually hear the characters. But if you're that open [during the day], you're responding to everything: to the cleaning lady saying she's pulled the wires out of the vacuum cleaner, to Maggie yelling, `I'm home! Where are my ballet shoes?' ''
In spite of the obvious dedication and intensity they bring to their respective careers, one never has the sense that the Malones' family life or their friendships with their neighbors have been sacrificed to their careers.
On the contrary. The reason they are reluctant to move their home base from Clinton to Philadelphia -- a step which would simplify their lives considerably -- is the sense of community they feel in this small New England town. And that's where the proscenium arch comes in.
In the summer of 1982, with a staged reading (in their living room) of Oscar Wilde's ``The Importance of Being Ernest,'' the Malones inaugurated CATS, the Clinton Amateur Theatrical Society. This reading was followed by a full-scale production -- exuberantly staged by Mr. Malone -- of Shakespeare's ``Twelfth Night,'' for which Ms. Quilligan painted an exquisitely lyrical stage curtain. All three Malones had parts in the play, whose cast also consisted of friends and neighbors -- almost all of them Clintonites.
This production was followed by performances of ``You Can't Take It With You'' and ``Arsenic and Old Lace.'' And now, despite their demanding schedules and Ms. Quilligan's Philadelphia commute, they are planning another CATS venture.
``Writing novels is so solitary,'' Mr. Malone explains.``Theater is a community. The creative work is shared with a group, a tribe. And that's a great feeling.''
His wife goes even further. ``Michael starts communities wherever he is. Clinton was marvelous to begin with, but it was not until the letters went out saying we're going to have these rehearsals for CATS that it really began to feel like a community.''
And within their family, too, it is a sense of sharing and mutual support that bring the Malones their greatest rewards.
``Our working together is really the center of our lives,'' says Mr. Malone. ``It's the great pleasure, not just of our relationship, but of our individual careers. I go over every word Maureen writes. If I don't understand it, we talk about it. And I have in the house the person who I think is the best reader I've ever known.
``Whenever two people have careers,'' he continues, ``neither of those careers is as productive as it would be if it were the only career. And that's just as true for Maureen as it is for me. But the gift that comes into my books is the same gift that makes me care about the people in my life. If I didn't care so much about what happens to Maureen and Maggie, I wouldn't be able to write the way I do.''
Ms. Quilligan looked intently at her husband. ``You say we both would have written more without the family. That's not true. I wouldn't have. I wouldn't have been happy enough.''
The mutual support, happiness, and love in this relationship are perhaps best summed up in the dedication of Maureen Quilligan's last book:
``To Michael Malone: slayer of dragons, messenger of God, and -- what is rarer -- partner in true conversation.''