Late Bloomer

She finished her Stanford degree at age 67 and wona National Book Award at 73. Now Harriet Doerr is writing the story ofher life.

November/December 1997

Reading time min

Late Bloomer

Photo: Art Streiber

With its tiered formal gardens and imposing setting at the crest of a hill, Harriet Doerr's home in Pasadena, Calif., is a bit intimidating. But from the moment her voice calls out a cheery greeting, any feeling of formality disappears.

Doerr is working out back with her Mexican gardener. The two finish their conversation in Spanish, taking exuberant delight in the wisteria that cascades from an expansive overhead arbor. Then Doerr turns her clear blue eyes on me and announces that, although she is legally blind, "I can get a fix on you from just a few little things. I'll get you."

While I have no doubt that Doerr will not just get me, but see right through me, it's still impressive to watch as she maneuvers around her rambling home, decorated with flowered couches, handsome old furniture and the artifacts she and her late husband, Albert, collected during their many sojourns in Mexico. Light as gauze curtains but not frail, she leads the way to a pleasant, sunny nook where she has prepared a simple lunch of fruit and salad.

In 1983, at the age of 73, Doerr became a darling of the literary world with the publication of her first novel, Stones for Ibarra , which went on to win a National Book Award. Critics and readers alike admired Doerr's spare style and eye for evocative detail.

It wasn't only great writing that captivated Doerr's readers. Her own life story was as compelling as any novel. Born in 1910, she interrupted her undergraduate career at Stanford in 1930 to marry and raise two children. Forty-five years later, she returned to campus to complete her degree--and so impressed her writing teachers that they urged her to stay on to study in one of the country's most renowned creative writing programs.

Wallace Stegner, who headed the program at the time, once said of her work: "Although Harriet Doerr had come to writing very late in life, she discovered, as we all did, that she was an almost flawless lens, with a capacity to make a world out of the fragmentary images she had caught."

Doerr has the habit of deflecting such compliments. "People are always so kind to say such things, but do you really think it's true?" she asks. It is after lunch and we are sitting at the edge of her garden, separating the tangled roots of coral bells and heeling the plants into peat moss to be replanted later among the azaleas and citrus trees surrounding her house. She has some rare white coral bells among the more common pink ones. The white have become increasingly hard to find these days. "I'd feel horrible if they died out," she says.

Just as she nurtures the rarer flowers, Doerr has harvested memories from her long life. These reappear in fictional form in Stones for Ibarra and her subsequent two books, a novel, Consider This, Señora , and a collection of short stories and "other inventions," The Tiger in the Grass .

Her fiction is saturated with her memories of Mexico. "Where you are changes you--the tree outside your window, the mountains, the lake," she says, closing her eyes, remembering. "Writing derives from an accumulation of experience. It's as if you collect facts and observations over time, like a stone to stand on. From there, imagination takes over."

Doerr's eyesight has been dramatically impaired by glaucoma and scar tissue--she has tunnel vision in one eye and only peripheral vision in the other--but she still accepts most invitations to speak at graduations, cultural events and fund-raisers. Last spring, she was back on campus as one of the guest authors at a fund-raising program sponsored by the Associates of the Stanford University Libraries. It happened to be her 87th birthday. But there she was, in her favorite red silk dress, signing copies of her three books and talking about the writing life and what it's like to be old. "I'm getting smaller by the moment," she joked to the appreciative audience. "At this rate, I'll disappear under the table before the night is over."

She spoke of the frustration she was facing as she tried to complete her fourth book, an autobiography that her editor, Cork Smith, is anxious to see published. It would chronicle her life, which she sees as divided into three sections: her years as wife and mother; the weeks and months over a 40-year span that she and her late husband spent in Mexico; and the writing years launched in 1975 with her return to Stanford.

Smith is helping Doerr work around her vision problems. One idea is for Doerr to dictate some of her prose to a secretary. But she explains that she writes first in her head, then on paper, through a process that she believes couldn't occur in the presence of a secretary.

"I operate from chaos and have all sorts of secret approaches to my work. I don't think I could do it with an audience," she says. "Other people don't need to be alone with their thoughts so much. I sort of starve if I don't have time alone."

This slow fermentation happens not just in the early stages of writing a story, but through each revision: "I'm quite happy working on a sentence for an hour or more, searching for the right phrase, the right word. I compare it to the work of a stone cutter, chipping away at the raw material until it's just right, or as right as you can get it."

Perhaps no one was more surprised than Doerr by her late-blooming writing career. True, she showed promise early on. She was asked to read several of her poems at her high school graduation in 1927. But, she says, "They were awful. Three childish, dumb sonnets. I don't even allow the school to reproduce them."

She grew up in Pasadena, one of six children in an old California family that could afford gardeners and cooks. Neither her father nor mother wrote for pleasure, but there were always books in the house and an appreciation for beautiful prose and poetry.

In 1926, at 16, she met the man she would later marry at a party thrown by her parents. Albert Doerr, '30, was an engineering student at Stanford who took her to a championship boxing match on their first date. She dressed in flowered chiffon and a wide-brimmed straw hat, with ribbons falling in streamers down her back. They sat in the third row, so close that a few droplets of blood splattered onto her dress. The hat--blocking the view of spectators behind--had to come off. After the bout, Albert Doerr asked how she liked the contest between the fighters. She hedged, not wanting to offend him. "I need to know more about the fine points," she remembers answering.

By the time she headed east to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., a year later, she was "half in love" with Albert Doerr. And by the next summer, she had decided to transfer to Stanford. When Albert graduated in 1930, the two married, and Doerr left Stanford without completing her degree. "Women left college easily in those days," she says. "Unless you were talented, you were almost doomed to go into nursing or education"--fields that held no interest for her.

Her marriage marked the beginning of what she recalls as a nearly perfect era--the time when her two children, a boy and a girl, were young, and she and Albert spent summers at a small beach cottage near Del Mar in Southern California. It was the late 1930s and, as she wrote in the opening essay of The Tiger in the Grass , "There was very little right in the rest of the world . . . I am convinced that the scattered houses on the beach and on the hill, the expanse of empty sand, the endless and untroubled coming on of days and nights, the slow hours passing unmeasured and unnoticed, were my first intimations of paradise."

She regards the second phase of her life--her years in Mexico--as "impossibly flawless." The country captivated Doerr and became the subject of much of her writing. "It is a mystical place," she says, a place where "every person sees the mystical part in a different way. My sin was not keeping a journal while I was in Mexico. It would have reminded me of incidents, funny things, bits of news, true facts to jog my imagination."

Yet it seems, in talking to Doerr and in reading her books, that she has a remarkable memory. And she has put that recall in the service of her fiction. "The real events are like grains of sand on a huge beach of possible images," she says. "The stories are all made up; they're not autobiographical. But I have lived them."

In 1935, not long after her first child was born and while pregnant with the second, Doerr and her husband went to a rural town outside Mexico City for the first of many visits to oversee his family mining business.

During that first trip, Doerr was horrified by the poverty. "But after I had gone back two or three times and had learned a bit of the language, I began to have an appreciation for it," she says. "The Mexican spirit is very remarkable, but I'm still puzzling it out. It's not that they don't get sad, but they seem to take a long, long view or have a depth of perception that we lack."

While Stones for Ibarra is not strictly autobiographical, there are many connections between the novel and Doerr's life. In the book, an American couple, Richard and Sara Everton, travel from their home in San Francisco to Ibarra, where they plan to rehabilitate an old family mine "in order to extend the family's Mexican history and patch the present onto the past. To find out if there was still copper underground and how much of the rest of it was true, the width of the sky, the depth of the stars, the air like new wine, the harsh noons and long, slow dusks."

Not long after they arrive, Richard is diagnosed with leukemia. The Evertons find that Mexico and its people provide daily lessons on how to live and die. Like their neighbors, they develop "a companionship with death. By the end of a year, they will know it well: the antic bravado, the fatal games, the coffin ship beside the cantina, the sugar skulls on the frosted cake."

The novel's Richard Everton lives five years after the diagnosis--half as long as Albert Doerr lived after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1962. Doerr's fictionalized account of this period never gives in to sentimentality or seeks refuge in religion. She simply marvels "at how things are, the courage of people, their beauty. Some of the people I write about depend on the promise of an afterlife. I don't have that, but I have the memory of their faith."

It was Doerr's son Michael, '53, who teased her into returning to college in 1975, three years after the death of her husband. Although the bachelor's degree she received two years later was in history, Doerr had also taken creative writing courses and found she liked writing. Novelist and English professor John L'Heureux says he was delighted to find her in a summer writing workshop.

"People always ask if we--in the workshop--were dumbfounded by her writing," L'Heureux says. "But of course we weren't, because at that time she was only learning to write like Harriet Doerr."

Still, the promise was there, and after Doerr graduated L'Heureux asked her to stay on and join Stanford's creative writing program. "At first, she wrote beautiful sentences that often weren't attached to anything. They existed only to be beautiful and descriptive," L'Heureux recalls. "But she soon brought her prose under control and simultaneously tapped into that hard, crystalline vision she has of human nature and human failings and human aspiration. She began to write and rewrite and rewrite again the splendid connected stories that became Stones For Ibarra."

Ron Hansen, the award-winning author of Mariette in Ecstasy , was a Stegner fellow at the time. He and the other writing fellows were less than pleased that someone who hadn't been accepted into the program through the intensely competitive application process was going to be in their writing workshop.

"But then she turned in this work that was just stunning," Hansen says. "When she read from it aloud, there was this long pause. No one knew what to say. She thought we all thought it was horrible, but we hurried to tell her it was wonderful."

Doerr was old enough to be a grandmother to most of the students, but she quickly fit in with the crowd, joining them after class for beer or coffee or a hamburger. "She worked very hard, seven days a week," recalls Hansen. "But about once a month, she'd clear away her typewriter and have a party for us all. There would always be baked brie and nice wine. She'd entertain us with stories about the good old days. It seemed like she'd been everywhere and knew a bit about everything."

As a writer, Doerr was "discovered" when a scout for Viking Publishers in London sent several of her stories to editor Smith. He was perplexed and intrigued by this unknown American writer who had won a contest in London for stories that took place in Mexico. He hadn't yet heard the age of the author.

"I thought they were wonderful," recalls Smith, who asked her for more stories. "It was one of the smartest things I've ever done. The other smart thing I did was to say, 'This is a novel,' that these stories are all about a couple and their life in Mexico and the death of the man. I wrote her a contract for not very much money, and we worked on it a bit and that was that," Smith says.

It was L'Heureux who helped Doerr put the stories in an order that would make them a novel. They both delight in telling about the afternoon in 1983 they laid the stories out on the floor of her Palo Alto living room, moving them around until the larger narrative among the stories fell into place.

Doerr left Stanford less than a year later, and returned to her house and garden in Pasadena, where she wrote Consider This, Señora and The Tiger in the Grass . But she still thinks about the roses she planted behind her house just off campus on Dartmouth Avenue. "I made my own little garden out back and watered the plants with a hose from my bedroom window," she recalls. The roses are gone, victims of a recent remodeling, but some of the other flowers are still there, blooming.

Yvonne Daley writes and teaches in California and Vermont.

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