- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

Both are teachers and writers. Both are friends as well as mother and son.

Susan Richards Shreve, 61, and Porter Shreve, 33, also have the same literary agent and managed by chance, they say to have books published the same week in June.

Ms. Shreve, an established novelist, even asked her first-time novelist son to critique her work before publication.

Her new book, "Plum & Jaggers," from Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc., is her 12th unless you count a 1997 title, "Glimmer," which she wrote under a pseudonym. She also has written 23 children's books.

Mr. Shreve produced "The Obituary Writer" (dubbed "A Mariner Original" paperback from Houghton Mifflin Co.), although he never before had even written a short story.

"What I thought was a short story turned into a very bad first draft [of the novel]," he says.

The dedication on "The Obituary Writer" reads "for my mother." Ms. Shreve's dedication is for all four of her children, plus the husband of her eldest daughter, with her son identified simply as "Po" his nickname since childhood. Neither mentions the family tie on their book jackets.

Both at the moment have Hollywood agents looking out for their interests in movie land. A different agent for each.

"Apart from the fact that I am so proud of him, I think he is crazy to choose this as a profession," said Ms. Shreve, all smiles at Mr. Shreve's June 28 reading in the Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse on Connecticut Avenue NW in Washington, D.C.

At the party she played host to afterward in the family's Cleveland Park home, mother toasted son and then son toasted mother. The centerpiece on the buffet table was an artfully tied stack of newspapers a replica of the photograph on his book cover.

Her book, which had its official publication date June 9, two days after his, was nowhere in sight.

Mother and son always have been close, they say, even if their temperaments are different. The editor-writer relationship gave her a completely different view of him, she says.

"One of the reasons we worked so well together, I discovered, is we are not so much alike. His own sense of himself is very different than my sense of myself. And he has that quality I feel is most important for a writer, which is the ability to listen to what a reader is saying."

She builds him up; he is inclined to put himself down humorously, often ironically.

"One reason I was good at taking criticism is because I had spent so many years up to selling this book failing in one way or another, sometimes quite willingly. Disappointment was sort of what made me," he says.

Ms. Shreve, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia, is president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and the recipient of many prestigious writing awards. She is a regular instructor at workshops and conferences. She pioneered the graduate writing program at George Mason University, holding classes at home so she could be simultaneously a teacher and a mother.

Her marriage to her children's father, Porter Shreve, ended in divorce. In 1980, she married New York literary agent Timothy Seldes, who has represented Eudora Welty and other well-known figures. (He was also Ms. Shreve's agent at the time and remained so for many years.)

In the background of an enlarged wedding photo high up on one wall, the younger Mr. Shreve is shown behind the couple with his arms outstretched in a gesture of triumph.

"Celebrating irony," he says, smiling in remembrance.

A graduate of St. Albans School in the District and a college knockabout in his 20s, he eventually acquired a master's degree and now teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"I was a classically abysmal student. Believe me, I wasn't particularly accommodating at St. Albans," he says. "I went to about four colleges, wherever I happened to be living. The only reason I did get an undergraduate degree [from American University] was I wanted to go into a writing program and needed it.

"I was learning by oral tradition until I was about 22. My mother always kept extremely interesting company. Rebelling against that just seemed silly. It was a stark contrast to my buttoned-up school.

"One reason I would sit down and write at 22 was because I'd been around so many good writers and so much good storytelling. I was a little bit arrogant. I assumed I knew everything. But I had no grounding, no foundation. It was just really disappointing when I found I couldn't.

"It was humbling, those years," he says. "I can speak to the lowest common denominator because I was the lowest common denominator."

He worked as a copy aide at The Washington Post from 1990 to 1994, working by night and reading by day, making up for lost time. He left Washington for Michigan in 1995, never having been attracted to the life of a journalist and never having written an obituary.

He saw the journalist's life as too restricting.

"I always found it more interesting to manipulate the story," he says. "But then it wouldn't be the truth. Or a truth."

Ms. Shreve says her son is "edgier" than she. Since her newest work has an "edgy" quality, in her words, and is about a younger generation in which the main characters are four siblings, she thought it would be a good idea to have her children look it over before submission.

"I found [Porter] an incredibly tough editor. Very serious and scholarly. More so than I am. This would surprise the people at St. Albans; it would blow them away. He is also much more fastidious and careful and a perfectionist. I kind of knew that, but it was also greatly concealed in his growing up."

She never before had shown her work to anyone this way.

"I had read my work to my husband, who fell asleep in the first five minutes," she says. "But this was just a very different book, and I wanted some hard criticism."

Her son interjects: "I was at the University of Michigan [master of fine arts] workshop at the time when I was being critical and being criticized."

Ms. Shreve says, laughing, "And he passed it right on."

He counters smoothly, "I was probably more critical than I would be now."

She comes back, "But it was incredibly helpful, because you can take that from your children sometimes."

There have been many other literary families, they insist even mother-son pairings. Typically, they downplay the issue lest it get in the way of the work at hand.

"So much of it is about a way to hype; a way of getting a hook, as everything is these days," Ms. Shreve says.

The danger, Mr. Shreve says, is "if you are a second-generation writer, it is easy to make a comparison, and an original voice is obscured by that."

It's not likely, however, they would ever turn down an appearance together on Oprah Winfrey's TV show.

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