- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2000

BROOKLIN, Maine Best-selling author Anne Rivers Siddons is hard-pressed to say which of her 15 novels she likes best, but she has no problem reeling off a few of her favorite characters.There's Maggie, the Southern belle of "Heartbreak Hotel," and Lucy, the headstrong Atlanta beauty in Mrs. Siddons' 1988 breakout book, "Peachtree Road."

Of course, there's also Maude, the narrator of "Colony," the Southern-born outsider in the summer community along the Maine coast that was modeled on the seaside retreat here where Mrs. Siddons and her husband, Heyward, spend their summers.

The newest addition to the list is Cousin Nora, whose abrupt entry into the life of 12-year-old Peyton McKenzie propels the plot of Mrs. Siddons' latest work, "Nora, Nora," a coming-of-age novel that marks a departure of sorts from her previous fiction.

The red-haired, outrageously unconventional Nora, who motors into town in a flashy pink Thunderbird, is the imaginary big sister that Mrs. Siddons, an only child, yearned to have while growing up in a Southern town 20 miles south of Atlanta as the civil rights movement was emerging.

"She was brave and funny and go-to-hell and all those things," Mrs. Siddons, 64, says in an interview before returning to the South ahead of winter. "And I guess I realized that she couldn't be that perfect, that she'd have to have her own weaknesses. But on the whole, I love her. I wish there was more of her in me."

"Nora, Nora" is a departure from many of Mrs. Siddons' books, which tend to chronicle leading characters over several generations. Shorter than her earlier novels, it focuses on a relatively brief period during 1961 when Nora's and Peyton's worlds collide.

Like a few of the earlier books, however, it touches upon the tumultuous civil rights struggles that were sweeping Mrs. Siddons' native region as she left her hometown of Fairburn, Ga., to attend Auburn University.

During a trip to Atlanta, Nora and Peyton stumble upon a sit-in by black protesters at a lunch counter and wind up as participants.

"It's a very dear subject to me. It really was a great epiphany of my life," says Mrs. Siddons, who caused a stir when she wrote a column for her college newspaper in support of racial integration.

The column, which she recalls today as "a rather pedantic little thing," prompted the dean of students to call her in and suggest she might want to reconsider what she wrote. She refused, and the newspaper ran the piece with a disclaimer saying it did not reflect the views of the university.

"I was really aware of the disapproval on campus, and I got the first taste of how it might feel to espouse a cause that was not everybody else's," she says.

After graduation, Mrs. Siddons initially worked in advertising but decided early on that writing was her forte. She worked for Atlanta magazine as the city was on the brink of a boom, and she began writing books after being approached by an editor who had taken notice of her work and suggested that she turn her talents in that direction.

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Even though she numbers a lot of men among her readership, Mrs. Siddons has been pegged from the start as a "women's writer." To Mrs. Siddons, that brings to mind "someone who writes romances and light, fluffy things," but she has come reluctantly to accept the label as an albatross she cannot avoid.

Book covers chosen by her publisher fuel the perception.

"I told them when I wrote 'Colony' that if they put a woman with her dress blowing in the breeze in [the] front of the book, I will quit," she recalls. The ultimatum worked, apparently: The cover shows a woman in bluejeans.

Mrs. Siddons says she and fellow novelist and friend Pat Conroy write about the same things, "but I don't hear him being called a men's writer. But we both bear the Southern-writer cross."

Many, but not all, of Mrs. Siddons' novels are set in the South. Even when she shifts the setting to New England, California or Italy, she writes from the point of view of someone who moved there from the South, which gives her books a Southern sensibility regardless of location.

"Southerners have always been great expatriates," she says.

Being pegged as a women's writer or a Southern writer hasn't proved a hindrance to sales. Since "Peachtree Road," her all-time best seller, came out, her books generally have lingered on the best-seller lists for two months or more. More than 14 million copies of her books are in print.

All her novels were optioned to Hollywood, but only one "Heartbreak Hotel" was made into a film, the 1989 "Heart of Dixie," starring Ally Sheedy.

Mrs. Siddons, who moved from Atlanta to a town house in Charleston, S.C., in 1998, faced no writer's deadline as she prepared to bid her seasonal farewell to her summer cottage. It's next door to writer-editor Roger Angell's home and down the road from the farmhouse where the late E.B. White lived.

"Nora, Nora" was the last book of a four-book contract, which left Mrs. Siddons with no deadline pressure for the first time since "Peachtree Road." However, with four or five ideas for new novels usually percolating, her literary talent is not likely to remain idle for long.

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