Guest began Ordinary People as a short story, but found herself writing more and more as she explored the characters in greater depth, wanting to know more about their backgrounds. "Before I knew it," she says "I was 200 pages in". It took her three years to write, after she gave up her teaching job and decided to concentrate on actually finishing a novel.
It became focused on the psychology of the characters, particularly Conrad.
I wanted to explore the anatomy of depression — how it works and why it happens to people; how you can go from being down but able to handle it, to being so down that you don’t even want to handle it, and then taking a radical step with your life — trying to commit suicide — and failing at that, coming back to the world and having to "act normal" when, in fact, you have been forever changed.
Guest did not have an agent initially. The first publisher she sent it to rejected it. The second sent a rejection letter that read in part: "While the book has some satiric bite, overall the level of writing does not sustain interest and we will have to decline it." An editor at Viking Press bought the manuscript, but the company waited eight months before putting it out, the first time in 26 years it had published an unsolicited manuscript.
It would go on to win the Janet Heidiger Kafka Prize for best first novel. Ninety thousand copies were sold in hardback; Robert Redford, who would eventually direct the film, acquired the rights before publication (actually traveling to Guest's suburban Minnesota home to do so). Since 1976, half a million copies of the paperback have been sold.
In the wake of the film version, the novel has been assigned in many American high school (and sometimes middle school) English classes due to its young-adult protagonist. This has led to some challenges to its inclusion on reading lists and curricula due to not only the subject matter but a short scene near the end of the novel in which Conrad and Jeannine make love. The American Library Association ranked it 59th on its list of the hundred most frequently challenged books in school libraries during the 1990s.