Nantucket Book Foundation Executive Director Maddie Hjulstrom interviews Nancy Thayer, whose novel Girls of Summer comes out on May 26.
- I've never written a single novel, much less over 30! Where do you find all these ideas? Are you ever stumped as to what to write next?
I don’t think authors find ideas as much as the ideas find the author. I always knew I wanted to write about ordinary life and normal families and over the years I’ve learned there really aren’t such things. My first novel, Stepping, was about a stepmother. It came out in 1980, long before Oprah, back when people didn’t talk about divorce openly. I like to write novels that my readers feel comfortable and even cozy in while at the same time I’m including themes such as custody battles, gay lovers, Bipolar disorder and so on as part of normal life. In Girls of Summer, environmental issues on the island are part of the main plot.
- I see you have a BA and MA in English (I have a BA in English too) -- what books make your top 5 list.
Bleak House. Buddenbrooks. Howard’s End. Jane Eyre. And always, Agatha Christie. And I can’t seem to write a mystery.
- Which ones influenced you as a writer?
Shirley Jackson, who is notorious for the short story “The Lottery,” wrote a hilarious novel called Life among the Savages, about a family with four children. All of Edith Wharton‘s books inspired me. Charles Dickens. Louisa May Alcott.
- What are you reading now?
I just finished Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and The Long Call by Ann Cleeves, who is a genius mystery writer, and I’m dipping into a book of poems by Lynn Ungar called Bread and Other Miracles.
- Family is a major theme for you, and all the drama that goes along with it. Can you tell us a little about your own family -- the one you grew up in, and your husband and children? Do they influence your work?
I grew up in the most normal family: three children, mother and father, in Wichita Kansas. I loved my life but I thought Kansas was boring and I wanted to live in England and Nantucket is pretty close! I got married at 20 to a man 16 years older than I was, a college professor and twice divorced. We had two children and traveled and got divorced. The same year the divorce went through, I was living with my children in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and my best friend was Rob Forman Dew whose book that year won the American book award. Our children were the same ages and we got together often and we were always laughing and always believing in the other’s work. Then I flew to Nantucket to visit a friend and met Charley Walters. We’ve been married almost 36 years.
I’ve never used Charley for a book but I’ve shamelessly used my children, Josh and Jessica. Fortunately, the children and Charley are readers, too, so they were comfortable with discussing how to kill off a character while we were eating dinner.
- Have you ever gotten into trouble for something you've written? If no, do you wish you had? :)
I haven’t gotten into trouble, but some themes in my books upset people. I’ve had letters from women saying her stepmother ruined her life and I had no right to write about a good stepmother. On the other hand, I’ve had emails from women and men thanking me for writing about subjects like mental illness.
- What is your favorite part of Nantucket besides your own home? What do you love about living here?
My favorite part of Nantucket is Charley. He is so interesting I would follow him anywhere. Also, I love the small town feeling. I really believe we have more fascinating people here per capita than any other town. Our library is brilliant, a beautiful place, full of lectures and books and events, and a quiet place to just be.
- Tell us a little about "Girls of Summer" -- what inspired it, what you enjoyed about writing it.
The main idea of Girls of Summer was that a 56-year-old woman falls in love with a 46-year-old man while her grown daughter, 27, falls in love with a 37-year-old man. And when I realized the 37-year-old man was an environmentalist coming to the island to talk about the ocean, I knew the book was on its way and my editor agreed. (The basic plot and draft were written a year before real things started happening on the island.) And truthfully, the moment of inspiration was when a patch of our dining room ceiling fell on my head.
- With a new book out each year, you must have to stick to a disciplined writing schedule. How do you do that, when people like me are bothering you? ;)
It helps that writing is just about my most favorite thing to do. I’ve been writing for about 40 years so I’m actually nervous during the days I’m not writing. I write first thing in the morning while I drink my first cup of coffee. I don’t talk on the phone or do errands until noon.
- Could you give us your thoughts about what we're going through right now, and how books can help? If you had one message to share with your fans right now, what would it be?
These days are terrifying, heartbreaking, and difficult. Books can take us into a different world. Books can calm us and amuse us, and they can help us go forward. They can teach us. The world is giving us a wake-up call now and we can use this time to read and listen to good music and rest and get back in touch with what really matters.