by Patricia Grandjean
Jan 19, 2013
01:59 PMBox Office
Q&A Exclusive: Ann Leary
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The last time we spoke with author Ann Leary—two years ago—she was involved with Literacy Volunteers of Greater Waterbury, moonlighting as an EMT and staying engrossed with her blog/website, annleary.com, on which she'd posted some of the most charming videos of her pets we'd ever seen. She'd also finished a draft of her latest novel, The Good House (published by St. Martin's Press Jan. 15), which draws upon her background in Marblehead, Mass., her current community in the Litchfield Hills, and her personal past with alcoholism. Leary will be doing book appearances and signings at R.J. Julia in Madison Jan. 25 and the Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Feb. 9. By the way, she's also married to actor/producer Denis Leary, and co-hosts a talk show on NPR, Hash Hags.
Let's start with the obvious question: What prompted you to write The Good House?
I've been wanting to write a book set in a small New England town for a long time. I moved to Marblehead, Mass., when I was 14, and if you come from New England, you know that unless you're born in a New England town, you're not really "from" there. I grew up moving around all the time as a child, and mostly in the Midwest. So when we moved to Marblehead, which is a very charming, historic town on Boston's North Shore, I was really taken aback by the New England personalities, which were quite different from what I had known prior to that.
I also grew up with the idea that if you were born in a place and grew up there, you would have this automatic sense of being accepted and belonging—which I now know isn't true, having had many friends who grew up in one town and struggled with those feelings. But I thought that way as a child, and I really envied my classmates in Marblehead for their shared background; many who had grown up there had parents and grandparents who also grew up there. In Marblehead, there still are citizens from its earliest families: There's a Peaches Point and Dolliber Cove, and there were Peachs and Dollibers in my class. Their ancestors were the first setllers in the 1600s. So my imagination was always running wild about how fabulous it would be to be like them—to have that kind of heritage. Now, as you know, I live in another small New England town, and I've gotten to know a lot of wonderful people here, and their families have been from this area for many generations. Again, I'm an outsider here—we've lived here for about 15 years.
So I had this idea of writing a book that would explore the theme of New England townie vs. newcomer, but also I wanted to write about a scandal. Originally, the book was going to be about a scandal I read about in a newspaper, concerning a psychiatrist and patient. But that ended up being a subplot. Because once I started writing the book, I discovered that the narrator I chose, Hildy Good, actually had a more compelling story to offer.
I don't personally know Marblehead, though I've traveled to similar points in Massachusetts. But when you talk in the book about the Hickory Stick Toyshop, obviously I recognized the Litchfield County reference right away. I actually could picture the spot where the Hickory Stick Bookshop sits in Washington, across from that funky pizza place and Grape in the Shade, the vintage shop.
Absolutely. Well, you know the book is set in the town of Wendover, Mass., and that's fictitious—but it really was drawn from my memories of the Ipswich-Essex areas of Massachusetts, which are a little north of Marblehead and a little more rural. Though I never lived in that area, I often drove through it. I actually used to take riding lessons up there and really loved it—I fantasized about how fabulous it would be to live there.
But because I live here, a lot of the geographical specifics are drawn from my part of Connecticut rather than Massachusetts. People from the area will recognize names of streets that I find charming: Hat Shop Hill Road in Bridgewater, for example. My friend Fran Kilty owns the Hickory Stick Bookshop, which everybody in this area loves and knows is a treasure. I just wanted to be able to throw in fun things that I love, from near and far.
And I did that with characters in the book, too. One of them is the Frank Getchell character. When I finished the first draft . . . I always send my first drafts to two people. One was my sister, Meg, and another was a friend of mine, here in town. After Meg read the book, she called me and said, "I love it, but I really think you need to change the specifics about the Frank Getchell character," and then she mentioned a guy we went to high school with who actually was a descendent of one of the earliest Marblehead families. He's a great guy, but I didn't even know he's now the fix-it guy, the garbageman, he's got this whole business. And then my local friend, Jane, called me the same week, saying, "Look, I think the book's great, but you've got to change the specifics of The Frank Getchell character," and then she named this guy who lived in my town who I did think some people might figure was the Getchell character. She said, "I just think he might be embarrassed." I finally said, "You know what? This is great, because I now know there's one in every town." None of the characters are based on any specific person, but of course I draw on people I know or have observed in my community, and communities I've lived in elsewhere.
But what about Sneakers? Is he based on your cat Sneakers?
Yes, Sneakers is the only character who has a real life counterpart. He's no longer with us, I'm afraid! But we have two new fabulous cats. I loved putting Sneakers in the book, because I'm really a dog person. But the cats that I've had—and we've had cats all my life—their personalities have stayed with me all my life.