I go to bed at night,” says Judith Guest, “and I’m so tired of talking about myself my tongue hurts.” But as the literary sensation of the year, her ego is in fine shape. Judith Guest is the 40-year-old housewife and mother of three sons who wrote a novel and simply mailed it off to a New York publisher. Unsolicited manuscripts are about as welcome in publishing offices as letter bombs. But incredibly, after two rejection slips, Guest heard from Viking: they wanted the book. “I got on the telephone,” she remembers, “and called a million friends.”
The novel is Ordinary People, hailed by critics, picked by five book clubs, including Book-of-the-Month, bought by a paperback company for $635,000 and snapped up for the movies by Robert Redford. Ordinary People is about a 17-year-old boy’s struggle to readjust to home and school after a suicide attempt and eight months in a mental hospital. It is an emotional, often harrowing account of a family under pressure.
From her comfortable, elm-shaded home in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, Judith Guest is learning to cope with what she admits is “instant fame.” All her previous experience has been with the quiet life. Born in Detroit, the eldest of five children, she earned a B.A. in education at the University of Michigan and taught school for three years. “I’ve been a closet writer since I was 12,” she says, but nothing much came of it beyond a few short stories. She made a series of corporate moves around the country with her husband, Larry, a microfilm company executive, and devoted herself to her family. Her house is spotless. But when Larry is at work and their sons are in school, she retreats to a dark nook off the living room and bangs away on a Sears electric portable. She’s now deep into a second novel which she won’t talk about.
“One night,” says Guest, “I got worried—what if I can’t do it again? But Larry said, ‘So what? You did it once.’ ” Guest remembers her first attempt at fiction. “It was a Western and when the Indians came, I wrote a line about the pioneer woman turning to her husband ‘with quaking fingers.’ ” Next morning, she says, “when I reread that, ecch,” and America’s literary discovery mimics throwing up. “I knew I’d never be a writer.”
Since then, of course, she has written tons, none of which she will show Viking though it has expressed interest. “It would confirm their darkest fears.” Guest says she is a slow writer. “I revise and revise. The final draft isn’t final until it’s in the mail and I can’t get to it.”
She thinks of herself as a “walking tape recorder.” In the midst of arguments with her husband, she confesses, “I suddenly realize, ‘Hey, I could use some of this,’ so I step back and try to record mentally what we’re yelling at each other.”
Judy Guest still does her own washing and ironing, remains active in the Newcomers Club book group and loves to chatter on the phone with pals. “Gee,” she says, “I was recognized for the very first time yesterday. I took $5 worth of overdue books to the library and the librarian said, ‘I know you. You’re the famous Judy Guest, the one who writes.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m the infamous Judy Guest, the one who brings back overdue books.’ ”