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Shirley Hazzard, back at last

Award-winning writer completes first novel in more than 20 years

Shirley Hazzard is an award-winning novelist and the type of author they supposedly don’t make anymore. She writes in longhand, on a yellow legal pad. She doesn’t own a television set, or a computer or even an answering machine.

“I DON’T LIKE the idea of a light flashing at me, telling me there are eight people waiting for my call,” she says with a laugh.

First published 40 years ago, the 72-year-old Hazzard has written several thoughtful, descriptive novels about love and the difficulty of sustaining it over place and time. Her books have been set around the world, from New York to Italy to Japan, and often start in the middle of the 20th century.

A native of Australia, she was interviewed recently in her well-appointed apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where books are stacked on tables and counter tops and the walls are decorated by the works of cubist painter Jacques Villon, a family friend. A line from her best known book, “The Transit of Venus,” captures the scene: “These rooms enclosed loveliness — something memorable, true as literature.”

Even her physical presence suggests a life in service to the arts, the ideal of an old-fashioned woman of letters: Her bearing is composed, her expression alert and intrigued, her hair gently brushed and layered; her long, curved eyebrows complemented by her long, elegant fingers.

But little has been heard from Hazzard over the past 20 years, since “The Transit of Venus.” She has published two nonfiction books: “Greene in Capri,” a short memoir about her friend, Graham Greene, and “Countenance in Truth,” a short work about the United Nations. But otherwise, to her quiet frustration, she struggled to complete a full-length fiction book.

“I love novels. I love fiction,” she says. “It’s all about imagination. More and more our world is closing down on imagination. Instead, we have a lot of explanations.”

LOVE IS NEVER SIMPLE

She began a novel soon after “Transit of Venus,” with some excerpts even appearing in The New Yorker. But she eventually abandoned it. Then her husband, critic and translator Francis Steegmuller, fell ill and she spent much of her time tending to him. He died in 1994.

She came to question her right to publish. She wondered whether it mattered if she completed another novel, reasoning that thousands come out each year.

“It seems an imposition unless you can do something you really believe wouldn’t be like what anybody else is doing,” she says.

But once she finished “Greene on Capri,” about three years ago, Hazzard worked straight through on her novel. She returns this fall with “The Great Fire,” an intricate romance about Aldred Keith, a British war veteran collecting data in Japan after World War II, and Helen Driscoll, a young Australian whom he meets and, with great consideration, falls in love.

As in other Hazzard books, love is never simply a matter of dating, marriage and children. Age, geography and world events interfere. Only an exhausting journey makes possible a private, temporary embrace for Aldred and Helen.

“For this he had traveled to the airy, empty harbor, where, like a legend, she lay in a mildewed swing-seat, waiting,” Hazzard writes. “Ten thousand miles had been retraced, down to the final fleshy inch where he could wake and touch her, and say her name.”

INSPIRATION

Married to Steegmuller for 30 years — they met in 1963 and were wed within a year — Hazzard says love’s fate was her chosen subject even before she experienced it herself. She recalls an “unbearable” connection to the poems of Thomas Hardy when she was a teenager, especially “After a Journey,” in which the British writer remembers his late first wife.

“It was a very romantic marriage and they came to detest each other, not speaking to each other. And when she died, the whole early part of their relationship came back over him,” Hazzard says, quoting Hardy’s line, “Things were not lastly as firstly well.”

A diplomat’s daughter, Hazzard was born in 1931 in Sydney, Australia, and lived throughout Asia as a young woman. “The Great Fire” was inspired partly by people she knew in the late 1940s in Hong Kong, when she worked briefly for British intelligence.

“Somebody approached me at a party about working for them. I think they needed people in the office,” she says. “The first thing they asked me to do was write an essay on the (Vietnamese) emperor Bao Dai. And I remember being just thrilled because I had always wanted to write. It was my first real professional experience.”

In her early 20s, she joined the United Nations and spent a decade in the General Service division, what she jokingly calls “the dungeon.” In “The Defeat of an Ideal,” a nonfiction book published in 1973, she remembers the United Nations as a worthy enterprise confounded by bureaucracy and American dominance.

“Maturity,” she wrote of her U.N. experience, “might be said to be an understanding of the conditions in which hope can be sustained and fulfilled.” Fiction proved her true coming of age. Her stories were quickly accepted by The New Yorker and her debut book, “The Cliffs of Fall,” was published in 1963 to encouraging reviews. She followed with “People in Glass Houses,” “The Evening of the Holiday” and “The Bay at Noon.”

A FOLLOWING

Some of her books are set in Capri, the historic island off Naples, Italy. Hazzard first visited that region in the mid-1950s, on an assignment from the United Nations, and it remains a second home where she spends several months out of the year.

“Even 10 years after the war it looked as if had been carpet-bombed yesterday,” she recalls.

“But the spirit of the people and their heroic humor ... made an enormous impression. It’s not an easy spirit to describe outside of Naples. A great deal of it has to do with a sense of death — that life is terrible, but not as bad as the alternative.”

In 1980, her following heightened with “The Transit of Venus,” the acclaimed story of two orphaned sisters from Australia and their travels and romantic struggles. The novel won the National Book Critics Circle prize and was a favorite among fellow writers.

“(Poet) James Merrill would give out copies to his friends, so that’s how I learned about it,” recalls poet J.D. McClatchey, who later became a friend of Hazzard’s.

“I thought it was astonishing. I had given up on novels being written with this kind of style and wisdom. Contemporary fiction seemed to have grown so flat, so whimsical, intended to show off the author’s personality rather than how characters grow in the world.”

‘PREDIGITAL PACE’

Hazzard sees herself as living two lives, the everyday life and the life of the mind. Ever on the job, she retains mental checklists that last for decades, noting the evolution of one character, Paul, a self-absorbed playwright featured in “The Transit of Venus.”

“Many years ago (in the early 1960s), I was at a weekend gathering and met this person who was in his early 20s and, in fact, went on to become quite famous as a writer. He was very much like the Paul I created,” says Hazzard, who declines to reveal the real writer’s identity.

“I decided certain things about his ambitions interested me; he was quite hard, although he knew what tenderness was. And sometimes I encountered something in my life, an action or a remark, and I thought, ‘That goes to Paul.’ You are starting to build that character and you begin to observe things that character would embody.”

Hazzard works at a predigital pace, with early drafts written on a legal pad, then revised on an electronic typewriter. When ideas arise unexpectedly, she will jot them down on a scrap of paper and then store it with other notes in an envelope.

She has received many letters about “Transit of Venus” over the years — fan mail early on, then letters asking when her next book was coming. “I felt so embarrassed I had nothing to tell them,” she says.

Her next book is, in a sense, already delayed. Promotion for “The Great Fire” has kept her from getting work done and she doesn’t expect to progress until later this year. For now, she describes herself as “accessible to ideas” for a new novel.

“I knew what I wanted to do when I was starting ‘Transit of Venus,’ but I’m not sure at the moment. I will need some solitude and isolation for something to come upon me,” she says.

“I’m very interested in writing a book with a lot of dialogue. But I’m afraid to say anything more. When I finished ‘The Transit of Venus,’ over 20 years ago, I was telling people that I wanted to write another novel, very quickly. Well, that didn’t happen.”© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.