Best-selling author Anita Shreve’s favorite summertime activity, something that’s been drawing her back to the Maine coast for most of her life, is staring at the ocean.

She is constantly amazed at how inspiring, how “health-giving” looking at the shifting surf for hours on end has been for her over the years. Not to mention that it gives her fodder for novels.

Anita Shreve

For her 18th, “The Stars Are Fire,” Shreve was particularly inspired by a detail she read: How Maine’s devastating wildfires of 1947 forced some women, with children, to spend the night in the ocean to save their lives.

The day the book went on sale, April 18, Shreve talked with the Maine Sunday Telegram about it, as well as her long career and her emotional connection to Maine. That same day she drove to a medical appointment and two days later she canceled her book tour. It was scheduled to include two dozen stops and run into late July, ending with a talk in Biddeford Pool.

Shreve, 70, wrote on her Facebook page that she would be undergoing chemotherapy this spring but did not give more details of her illness. She said she hoped to see readers on subsequent tours and that it would be “a thrill” for her to hear from readers while she is recovering. A publicist for publisher Alfred A. Knopf said Shreve would not be disclosing further details of her illness, at least for now.

Meanwhile, the book received the kind of praise appropriate for a writer from whom compelling storytelling is simply expected. A USA Today reviewer said that “The Stars Are Fire” proves again that Shreve is “masterful at creating compelling characters whose inner conversations about love and intimacy are both heartfelt and heartrending.” A Washington Post review lauds the way “Shreve builds suspense with small details.” Even a critical Kirkus review, which laments thin character development, deems the book “worth reading for the period detail and the evocative prose.”

Shreve, whose books have sold 6 million copies, became internationally known when her 1998 novel “The Pilot’s Wife” was picked as an Oprah’s Book Club selection. It was later made into a TV movie on CBS. Her novel “The Weight of Water” was made into a film starring Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley and released in theaters.

Shreve, a Massachusetts native who first came to spend summers in Maine as a child, has been a summer resident of the Biddeford Pool area for more than 20 years and lived there year-round for several years as well. She now lives most of the year in Newfields, New Hampshire.

Q: What brought the fires of 1947 to your attention? What made you feel like you could set a novel during that time?

A: When I lived in Maine, I lived (near an area) in which 151 of 156 houses burned, and that would have been along Fortunes Rocks Beach. I would hear people say, “Oh my father remembers that. He took us by where it happened.” And then about a decade ago, I read a book on the fire (“Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned” by Joyce Butler), because I had an interest in it. And then I put the book away. More recently, one detail came to mind that I remembered from that book, that women had to go into the sea to save themselves.

So I began to imagine a woman, named Grace Holland, who lived in a bungalow with two very young children and her husband, Gene, and they are caught in the fire. What’s interesting about any fire in 1947 in Maine is that there was no early warning system. The best you could hope for was a car with a bullhorn on top, driving through town and telling people to evacuate. And if you didn’t have that, the next thing you’d have would be the smell of smoke. The fires broke out along the coast and some inland, around Bar Harbor and in York County, and they all seemed to break out within the same three- or four-day period.

And the reason for that was Maine had been in a situation of intense drought. It really hadn’t rained since the summer began. And, as August went into September, people began to be very alarmed. Not only because of fire, but farmers couldn’t set their seeds because the soil was so dry. The wells went dry. Farmers didn’t have water for their livestock. And of course everyone began to fear for people’s lives. There was a regulation handed down that you could not smoke a cigarette unless you put it out in a jug of water. It wasn’t good enough to put it out on the ground because it might spread.

Q: Do you recall where, what towns, women had to go into the sea because of the fire?

A: I sort of think (in the book by Butler) it was Kennebunk, but I can’t be sure. But many people in Fortunes Rocks went into the sea. It wasn’t just a one-time occurrence. That’s a fairly drastic thing to have to do, to save your life. Tough for a mother to keep her two children from either getting burned or freezing to death in the ocean. York County was very badly hit, Goose Rocks Beach, Cape Porpoise, what is now Arundel.

I want to emphasize I’m not an expert on history. I don’t write historical fiction. I often use a catastrophe or an historical incident, and it’s really a backdrop against which I want to write about my characters.

Q: Is the town in the book based on any one town in Maine?

A: It’s really an amalgam of all those York County towns that burned. I did not want to locate it anywhere, otherwise I’m really not writing fiction. It’s funny about fiction – if you write the exact town then you have to stay very true to the facts of that town and the precise people who lived there. I wanted to imagine Grace Holland and her children, so I had to change the name.

Q: You’ve talked about a house you saw in Maine, a white clapboard house with a mansard roof, that you have used in several of your novels. What specifically about that house caught your eye, or your imagination? And have you ever been in it?

A: I have now. I saw a beautiful white clapboard house with a wrap-around porch right on the water. Upstairs in the mansard roof it had many dormers, suggesting to me many bedrooms. I liked that house so much that, and this is the thing a fiction writer can do, you can pick it up and transfer it pretty much anywhere you want. And I transferred it to the New Hampshire coast. Sometime after “Fortune’s Rocks” came out, I believe, the owners of the house invited me in to see it. What was extraordinary about it was that almost nothing had been done to it. The bedrooms were precisely the same. There was a very primitive kitchen. So many of the features I had imagined for it were actually true.

Q: What time period was it?

A: Call it 1890s. I’ve taken it almost to the present day. I used it for 1929, 1930. I used it in the 1990s for “The Pilot’s Wife” and I used it in the 2000s for “Body Surfing.”

Q: Why did you move it to New Hampshire?

A: Because I didn’t want to bother the people who actually lived there. I wanted to set it off the New Hampshire coast because I had earlier written a novel, called “The Weight of Water,” set there. I should point out though that the house in the new book, “The Stars are Fire,” is not that house.

It’s a bungalow, probably built in the 1920s, a much lesser house. You’d probably say it’s in a working class neighborhood, in Maine.

Q: Your mother, like Grace in the book, would have been raising children in the late 1940s. She had no car and a ringer washer, like Grace. Is Grace modeled, at least somewhat, on your mother?

A: Only so far as her reliance on the neighborhood. We did live in a bungalow. She didn’t have a car. We could only go shopping once a week, when my father got home with his paycheck on Thursday night. Her life was very circumscribed. She was a housewife. She did chores. They were harder to do then than they are now. She didn’t learn to drive until she was in her 40s, I think. She is not a model (for Grace) however, because she and my father had a happy marriage for 56 years. Emotionally, she was never Grace.

Q: A lot of your books have strong women as characters, and on your website you mention women facing difficult circumstances or crisis situations as a theme in some of your writing. Where does that come from?

A: I think it comes from me. Not necessarily in my life. It really stems from writing “The Weight of Water” (1997). The question I asked in that book was, if you take a woman and you push her to the edge, how will she behave? There’s a huge difference between my imagining and my real life. My books are often dark, and I am not a dark person. I have a rich imaginative life, thank God. I used to joke that I’ve probably save thousands of dollars in therapy by being a fiction writer. The older I get, the more I think that might be true.

Q: What do you like to do when you come to Maine?

A: Here’s the deal: When I come to Maine, I sit on the porch and I look at the water. I’m sort of astonished at the number of hours you can spend doing this. You’re not remotely bored. You’re not wishing you were doing something else. You are just absorbing something very, very health-giving. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to meditating. And it’s not formal at all, you sit there and your mind just empties.

Q: Is that why water, or the sea in particular, has a central role in your books?

A: I keep looking at it (laughs). I’ve used that metaphor of the sea in a million ways. I might have exhausted that metaphor, but we’ll see. In “The Stars Are Fire” it saves (Grace’s) life. And in an earlier scene, it’s very menacing, because a woman who lives right on the beachfront is in serious danger of losing her house, because of the tidal surges. She is on the verge of putting sandbags in front of her house because, if the tidal surge gets much higher, she will get flooded out.

Q: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

A: I started writing right after college, and I was a teacher so it really wasn’t very feasible. Then I became a journalist and I did a lot of nonfiction writing, but I knew in my head that I would be a better fiction writer than a non-fiction writer. And so I said to my agent at the time, “I think I’d like to write a novel,” and she said immediately, “Don’t.” And her reasoning was, if you can make a living writing nonfiction, why on earth would you mess that up by trying to write fiction. So I wrote my first novel, “Eden Close” (1989), in secret. Then I showed it to her, and she sold it, and I’ve never looked back.

Q: But when did you know you wanted to write at all?

A: Oh, I knew it while I was teaching (high school English near Boston). And I quit teaching for that reason.

Q: So you didn’t think about writing when you were a kid?

A: (Writing) wasn’t on the radar screen. It’s very different from today. The average 9-year-old is encouraged to be a writer and a novelist. Well, that wasn’t happening in my family, and I don’t think anybody’s family that I knew. The idea was, really, go to (a secretarial school) and be a secretary. That was really the most potent message when I was growing up. My father was a very practical person, he lived through the Depression, and he felt that a really good job to get would be a secretary, and then you’d go be the boss’s secretary. I had different ideas. Although, my father had a great deal of wisdom and I followed it in many instances in life.

Q: Do you set aside the same amount of time every day to write? Or do you write sort of as things come to you?

A: This is now my 18th book. My routine has been the same from the beginning. I write in the morning. Pretty much as soon as I’ve had my coffee I go straight to the desk. The fewer things that intervene between waking up and when I go to the desk, the better off I am. And I often start by reviewing what I’ve done before, so I seldom have to sit at the desk and, just out of whole cloth, write. I edit what I’ve done the day before and that’s kind of the segue into continuing where I left off. And then I’m done by 12:30 or 1 o’clock. You know exactly when you’ve gone too far, because that will be the part that you edit out the next morning.