Photo and story by Jim Arvantes
Cleveland Park neighbors and novelists Kate Lehrer (at left, above) and Susan Shreve (at right) are very different types of people drawn together by similar kinds of interests. Kate is private, reluctant to share details of her life with the outside world while Susan is much more open, willing to reveal certain secrets.
“I don’t tell myself secrets let alone anyone else,” joked Kate during an April 9th Tuesday Talk at the Cleveland Park Library, featuring the two novelists.
Kate and Susan are both award-winning novelists, but they write about different types of characters. Susan writes about outsiders, explaining that, “we are a country of outsiders and most of us know what that feels like.”
Kate grew up about 38 miles north of Dallas in a small town characterized by strong women, and she writes about what she knows best—strong women.
There are other differences. Kate and her husband, broadcaster Jim Lehrer, executive editor and former news anchor of the PBS NewsHour, are not fond of dogs and cats. Susan and her husband always had a multitude of dogs and cats when living next door to the Lehrers, not an ideal situation for good will between the two neighbors.
But Kate and Susan’s common interests coupled with their burning ambitions as writers and novelists always outweighed their disparities, ultimately serving as the foundation for a deep friendship that has lasted 40 years.
During the April 9th Tuesday Talk, the two discussed their enduring friendship, explaining how it has helped to define their long and successful writing careers.
Susan is the author of 15 novels and 30 books for children as well as essays for dozens of magazines. Her new novel, More News Tomorrow, comes out in early June. Another novel, A Country of Strangers, is under option for film while Daughters of the New World was an NBC miniseries titled “A Will of Their Own.”
Kate has written four novels, numerous essays, and book reviews. Her novel Out of Eden received the Western Heritage Award for outstanding novel of the year. Her fourth novel, Confessions of a Bigamist, has been adapted to a screenplay. She is currently working on a non-fiction book and collaborating with her husband on a series of mysteries whose working title is “The Cleveland Park Murders.”
Kate and her family – her husband Jim and three daughters — moved to Macomb Street in Cleveland Park in 1979, becoming next-door neighbors to Susan, her husband and four children. The two families shared an alley that served three houses in the back of Macomb Street.
Susan was an established novelist, and Kate knew about Susan through a friend. The friend gave Kate a copy of Children of Power, a novel by Susan recently published at the time.
“It is a wonderful book,” said Kate, a critic for Diane Rehm’s book club on National Public Radio for many years.
Kate was at the time a “clandestine writer,” penning stories in secret, though she had written a children’s book when she lived in Dallas in the early 1970s.
In the late 1970s, Susan was writing and teaching five courses at George Mason University while raising “four obstreperous children” with her now deceased husband. As next-door neighbors, Susan and Kate and their families became fast friends.
“Kate’s life seemed very reasonable,” said Susan, who founded the Master of Fine Arts program at George Mason University where she is a professor of English and co-chair of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. “I kind of fit right in.”
Susan learned that Kate was a writer and the friendship deepened, taking it to a new level. Susan had forged contacts and friendships throughout the literary world and provided a conduit to other renowned writers for the Lehrers.
“Susan introduced Jim and I to so many writers – she filled out our lives with writers,” said Kate. “She knew them all.”
While living in Bethesda, Kate had written one of her first novels, a book she now describes as “poorly conceived and poorly put together.”
“There was nothing about it that wasn’t poor,” remarked Kate, provoking laughter from the audience.
Susan asked American writer John Gardner to read Kate’s manuscript and Gardner provided his feedback, praising Kate’s prose while also telling her, “You are much better than that book.” He urged Kate to “put this book in the closet and start all over, you can do better.”
Kate soon had another idea for a novel about a mother who kills her daughter. Susan told her, “that is a dynamite idea” for a novel, Kate recalled, prompting more laughter from the audience.
This is not to say that the friendship between Susan and Kate is all one-sided. Far from it. “It became a very deep friendship of conversations about books, what we were thinking – about everything,” said Susan, “the sort of thing I hadn’t had in my life.”
Like many close friendships, Kate and Susan’s relationship underwent a period of strain. “A friendship with a woman who is a writer can be very intense as Kate’s and mine was,” Susan said.
There was a point in the relationship where too much had been shared – secrets that ended up in one of Susan’s novels, leading to a period of estrangement. But Kate remembered Susan’s generosity and willingness to help her, and the two eventually reconciled, becoming great friends once again.
As a woman who writes about other strong women, Kate talked about strong women she admires during the question and answer segment of the event.
“The most obvious right now is Michelle Obama,” said Kate. “Hillary Clinton is another incredible strong woman who has gone through an awful lot in her life.”
Kate stressed that, “We have a plethora of women who are strong – whether they are writers or in the political world or another world.”
The two authors also talked about writers they enjoy reading. Susan praised the work of Jesmyn Ward, describing her “as a very young, beautiful writer telling the truth about our times.”
The question and answer segment prompted a discussion about the mechanics of writing. Kate arrived at the event with a blue legal pad, which stayed on her lap throughout the presentation.
“I use a blue legal pad because I read that blue paper makes you more creative than a yellow pad,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience. She writes her first draft in longhand before typing the second draft into a computer. The second draft inevitably leads to a third draft.
Susan explained that she likes to write in a spiral notebook, often while propped up in bed. “There is something intensely personal about long-hand writing,” she said.
Susan and Kate also admitted that they do not always know what they are going to write about when they start the writing process. “Part of my writing is to find out what I am writing about,” Susan explained. “I know I am going to tell a story, but I don’t know what I am going to learn from that story.”
After 40 years, Kate and Susan are sure about the strength and vitality of their relationship, confident it will continue to shape their lives for many years to come.