TWENTY YEARS AGO, WHEN GUEST'S first novel was plucked from a slush pile at Viking and readied for publication, there was considerable doubt and dickering about the author's choice of title. "Ordinary People?" Guest recalls hearing marketing types fret. "Who wants to read about ordinary people?" Well, they came, they read, they saw the Oscar-winning movie. Even so, some at Ballantine, publisher of Guest's third and latest novel, weren't at all sure about Errands as a title. It sounded domestic—not a good selling point. The author agreed to rethink matters, "but then a friend told me that America's founding fathers described their journey to the New World as an errand into the wilderness," says Guest, 60, "and I just knew I had the right title."
Her novel centers on 36-year-old Annie Browner, a Michigan woman coping with her three contentious children while coming to grips with the death of her husband. The story was close to home—Errands is based on the untimely 1923 death of Guest's grandfather, a printer in Detroit, and the struggles of his widow and five children. "I have a lot of their letters and diaries," says Guest, who has three children and five grandchildren of her own. "Friends asked why I didn't just use the letters as the basis of the novel and set it in the '20s. But I needed to make it my story. My family was very stiff-upper-lip—I never heard about the sadness and anger you feel when you lose your father at age 10, as my father did. I wanted to write a story to find out what it felt like."
Errands will, no doubt, give Guest's fans yet another reason to wonder why she writes only about dysfunctional families ("What other kind are there?" she asks) and to ask why oh why she can't dream up just one happy ending. "I think all my books have happy endings," insists the author, who lives in suburban Minneapolis with her husband, Larry. "I look for people who come face-to-face with challenges and come out stronger on the other side."