"She hated formal question-and-answer sessions," one of her story subjects said of journalist Jane Howard. "She just followed me around—talking about my life and hers. I've liked her ever since." Howard's easy empathy with all kinds of topics and people made her, after her graduation from the University of Michigan, a successful writer for LIFE and later the author of two best-sellers, Please Touch (about encounter movements) and A Different Woman (on the rise of feminism, including her own). "I sometimes still think of myself as a 13-year-old," says Jane, now 43, and her combination of ingenuousness and curiosity helped her in collecting material for her latest book, Families (Simon & Schuster, $9.95). For two years she "followed around" some 200 family units, ranging from the traditional—parents and kids and kin—to some newer constellations: a lesbian couple raising a child, a divorced single mother, a Tennessee vegetarian commune, and followers of an Indian guru. Her book focuses on some 20 encounters, mixing Howard's journalistic insights with personal revelations. Raised in Winnetka, III., the daughter of a newspaperman, Jane is single and childless. Recently she talked with Irene Neves of PEOPLE about her findings on American families—new and old.

The family is often described as a dying institution. Is it true?

Families are changing, in flamboyant and dumbfounding ways, but the noise of these changes doesn't amount to a death knell. The trouble we take to arrange ourselves into some semblance or other of family points to a need so deep it is all but genetic.

What evidence did you find of these changes?

Today only 16.3 percent of this country's 56 million families are conventionally "nuclear," with breadwinning fathers, homemaking mothers and children at home. That leaves 83.7 percent to find other arrangements. Nearly 16 million Americans live alone. Four out of 10 children born in the 1970s will spend some time in single-parent families, 90 percent of them headed by women.

How else are families changing?

Parenthood for the first time is optional. Nearly five million men have volunteered for vasectomies. Many educated people are deciding not to raise children at all. In fact, the more education you have, the smaller the family you are likely to raise. Yet there are childless couples willing to wait seven years for an adoption, and an estimated 20,000 women are artificially inseminated each year. Despite the divorce statistics, I've seen an astonishing amount of evidence of longing for a family.

So on balance you remain optimistic?

Yes. Our capacity and need to be part of one family or another—perhaps of several—is one of the things that makes us human, like walking upright and killing for sport and bearing tools. If our first or second family doesn't please us, we go find ourselves a third.

Isn't "blood thicker than water"?

Not necessarily. Some of the most impressive clans I came across were based not on common ancestry but common enthusiasms. Our ancestors were tribal because they had no choice. But times change. Families are smaller, life spans are longer. Once most children lost their first parent at age 14; now the average age is 40. One-fifth of us move every year. The trouble with many of our families is not that they are meddlesome ogres but that they live so far away.

How important are money and love?

Money, or even the absence of it, is not what keeps families going. Economically, families have been obsolete for generations. Children, as someone said, are a financial disaster; to bring up one to the age of 18 in New York City costs $85,000. What holds a family together is not money but emotion—and that emotion is not necessarily love.

What do you mean?

Of late, love among families has become all but unfashionable. Direness, adversity and guilt are not a pretty package, but I've found none more compelling to explain what keeps families together. Families mean not only continuity and support but also guaranteed inconvenience. That can be a big bore, but it's the price you pay for security and affection. We all need other people for whose sake we would swim rivers and go without sleep.

Some young people are rejecting their own families these days. What do you think?

Americans, as Will Rogers said, will join anything but their families. But there's no use trying to get away from the clans that bore and bred us. The harder we try to escape the more pitifully doomed are our efforts, the likelier we are to repeat their same mistakes. What we have to do, it seems to me, is make peace with our original families and keep sharp watch for others.

What makes a good family?

Whether it is the family one is born into or a family of friends, certain earmarks are common to both. Good families have a chief or a heroine or a founder. They have a shared history and at least three generations—or more if possible. And it helps to have a "switchboard operator," someone like my mother, who at any given time knew where everybody else was.

Anything else?

I found that good families are important to all their members, but not absolutely everything to any of them. Parents are nearly as devoted to whatever they do outside as they are to each other and their children. Everybody is busy. Good families are hospitable and deal squarely with dire-ness, such as illness and heartbreak. Pity the tribe that doesn't have and cherish at least one eccentric. They prize their rituals too—nothing welds a family more than these. They have a sense of place, which these days is not achieved easily. They honor their elders and find some way to connect with posterity. And they are affectionate. As someone said, "The tribe that does not hug is no tribe at all."

Because you are unmarried and without children, were people surprised that you chose to write about families?

One Southern professor did ask me, "But how would you know anything about families?" I wanted to protest, "I know as much about responsibility and love as people who are conventionally attached to others." There are ways and ways of achieving kinship, of which birth and marriage are only the most obvious.

Have you considered marrying and having children of your own?

Several times I've been urged to, and I suppose that, however unconsciously, I've chosen not to. If I were conventionally attached, I'm not sure families as a subject would interest me very much. I would probably be preoccupied with my children and husband or, more likely, my ex-husband. But being single all these years, I have relied hugely on friends for such associations.

Then you are in favor of extended families?

Yes, and if we don't inherit an extended family of aunts, uncles, nephews and cousins, then we should extend our families any way we can. There are a lot of amazingly unconnected and lonely people around. Though it makes me feel like an evangelist when I say it, I really believe that without rejecting the families we are born to, we could greatly nourish our lives by forming families of friends.

Then why did you visit so many traditional clans?

To shed light on how similar the two kinds of connections are, and how much old-fashioned clans can teach the new kind. Every family I visited surprised me. Most, sooner or later, made me laugh. Each one taught me something I hadn't suspected before.

Were you surprised that strangers would share so much with you?

Astonished! Many volunteered answers to questions I would never dream of asking. Can you imagine asking a middle-aged woman, "Are you sexually active?" But if somebody listens, people do open up. Some of the talk that touched me most deeply—fights between husband and wife, secret affairs, a woman who gave up her baby—I couldn't bring myself to write about, or else I alluded to them in a way that these people couldn't be identified.

What was the main discovery you made?

That a family doesn't mean just fun—parties, birthday cakes and vacations. It is defined by a responsibility, which is to cope, if not with actual tragedy, at least with occasional disease and disappointment and the other ugly things of life which maybe families alone can deal with. If a friend helps you deal with those things, then that friend is family.