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A sniper takes out an outspoken law student in front of the entrance to George Washington University’s Gelman Library. A spy follows a shopper as she weaves through produce stands at Eastern Market. And at Cardozo High School, there are fatal levels of mercury. Doom has sometimes sneaked onto the pages of Susan Richards Shreve’s novels, but it’s never splattered her work quite the way it does in her latest, A Student of Living Things, which posits Washington, D.C., circa 2010 as a post-terrorist wasteland.
Shreve started writing the thriller as a response to the “national grieving” she says she’s observed since 9/11. The sniper attacks of 2002 further darkened her mood. “When I was my kids’ age, my parents had confidence that things would be OK,” Shreve says. “I don’t have that. I’m not despairing it, but it’s more uncertain in every way.”
The author, 66, has lived in Cleveland Park since she was 7, and she drew from decades of scary Washington moments to create A Student of Living Things: the 1968 riots, for example, when an assistant to her father, who had a long career in journalism, was shot down while carrying a pizza. “The generalized fear of the sniper was one thing, but for a white person post-MLK, it was very definitely racial,” Shreve says. “There were just simply racial killings.…It was very specific.”
Shreve began publishing in 1973, three years before she became a professor at George Mason University, where she still teaches writing. Her connections in the District’s literary scene are substantial—though she says only that she’s living in an “old apartment that belongs to a writer” while her house is being remodeled. When prodded, she reluctantly IDs her benefactor: P.J. O’Rourke. “I grew up in Washington,” she says. “You get awfully sick of hearing names dropped.”
The Shreve home has hosted many names worth dropping, such as Anne Tyler and Eudora Welty, over the years. That’s partly because Shreve is married to a literary agent, but it had more to do with Shreve’s tenure with the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, of which she’s been president and board member, among other positions. “It was really an embarrassment of riches in terms of people to talk to,” Kate Shreve, Susan’s daughter, says. “The writer community is a curious bunch of people. They spoke to small children and really listened.”
None of this seems to square with the dystopia on the Potomac that Shreve paints in A Student of Living Things, in which the protagonist, Claire Frayn, describes the view from her Capitol Hill apartment as reminiscent of “the black-and-white polka-dot dress Grandma Frayn used to wear to sing in the Welsh church choir. White splashed irregularly on a black background. When I stand in the large window facing north, what I see is an occasional streak of white spreading across the landscape where a random bomb has exploded, taking down a small building.”
Kate, 32, is the family’s lone scientist. She works on stem-cell policy issues at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Despite sharing a career with Claire, Kate claims she provided no inspiration for the character—other than lending her mother her old biology textbook. Claire, you see, surrounds herself with dead specimens for comfort’s sake.
“People keep asking me, ‘So, did you used to collect dead insects?” Kate says. “No, I don’t have preserved fetuses in my bedroom.”
“I use real people, real places, and a real social structure,” Susan Richards Shreve says. But I’m also a fabulist to the extent that the book is about what could happen. Do I think it’s about to? No.” Then again, this is coming from a woman who always wrote from the kitchen table so she could keep an eye on her kids: “I just didn’t want them to eat poison,” she says.—Rachel Beckman