Menage a Quatre

If there is a constant in the writing of Ellen Gilchrist, it is the inevitable appearance of female characters who are bright, curious, passionate, high spirited, and daringly naive, often to the point of maddening distraction.

Best known as a writer of short fiction who follows the evolving fortunes of her favorite creations from story to story, the 62-year-old author won a National Book Award in 1984 for Victory Over Japan, a collection of interconnected pieces that featured a variety of feisty women from south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Gilchrist has eight other story collections to her credit, most notably In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981), Drunk With Love (1986) and Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle (1989), and three novels, including Sarah Conley (Little Brown, 259 pages, $23.95), just released this week, and the vehicle to introduce her first new major character in a decade.

In typical Gilchrist fashion, the title character makes her debut as the star columnist for a small local newspaper in Tyler, Ken., during the late 1950s at a critically formative age: Sarah Conley is all of 14 years old, and clear on what she wants out of life.

Two chapters later, it is 1996, and Sarah is a senior editor for Time magazine in New York City and pondering a lucrative opportunity to write a screenplay in Paris. Her professional skills are never in doubt, and it is matters of the heart that create the essential conflict, giving the novel its emotional shape.

Told in chapters that shift back and forth in time, the novel involves what a cynic might call a menage a quatre, with Sarah, and her best friend from childhood and college at Vanderbilt University, Eugenie Moore, marrying men “two brothers”, as it happens “who are better suited for the other woman.”

Sarah does not last very long with Timothy McAllen, her husband from those years, although there is a son, Jimmy, who figures prominently in the unfolding drama. When Sarah learns that her old friend Eugenie is dying of cancer, she and Jack have a chance to reclaim lost opportunities.

In the hands of writers with lesser narrative skills, Sarah Conley could quite easily slip into the realm of a Harlequin romance. But Gilchrist is blessed with the enviable ability to fashion fully realized female characters who by themselves are equipped to carry the day.

The fact is, too, that Gilchrist’s best work emerges in short stories, a form that allows her to concentrate more on voice and character, and where plot can be handled with greater refinement. Indeed, Gilchrist acknowledged in a recent interview that she is most comfortable when writing in the shorter form, but decided on a novel this time as a change of pace and as a way of responding to her audience.

“I was a poet before I was a fiction writer, and one reason I like stories so much is because I feel they are close to poetry,” she told me.” But I had a reader ask me a while back to write a novel because she wanted a book she could keep on reading for more than one night. I thought that was a reasonable thing to request, and I decided to give it a go.

A native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Gilchrist now lives in Fayetteville, Ark., and although the South figures prominently throughout her writing, she does not consider herself a regional writer. “I think in terms of literature, plain and simple,” she said.

The one character Gilchrist admits to being the most autobiographical, Rhoda Katherine Manning, is the one who has captured the fancy of most of her readers. In Rhoda (Little Brown, 419 pages, $13.95), a new paperback that gathers stories from five previous collections in which the character appears, Gilchirst herself asks the question in her introduction, “So is Rhoda me?”

Her answer there is much the same one she offers in her interviews:

“I don’t know. She starts off being me and she ends up being my creation. Because Gilchrist has written so extensively about Rhoda, and a number of other memorable characters as well, she decided she had to break new ground with Sarah Conley.

“There’s no way I could write a novel about any of the characters I had been following through four or five collections of stories because I had used up so much of their lives,” Gilchrist said. “It never occurred to me to write a novel about them.”

Beyond that, she had details in mind that did not conform to the lives she had already established in the earlier works.

“I had this basic plot in mind for a long time. I think I knew who Sarah and Eugenie were, and as soon as I began to make notes for the writing of the novel, I thought, I already know so much of this.”

Although she hears often from admirers and respects what they have to say, Gilchrist said she never writes with any particular reader in mind.

“I don’t think it is a good idea for a writer to think about a reader when a work is in progress, because your job is always to give the reader the very best of what you have to give, period. When you are done, you say, This is the truest thing I have to give you. I hope you like it.”