Today I have a Q&A with Mary Simses as part of her blog tour for her debut book The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe which has just been published here in the UK.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café?
It’s a novel about a 35-year-old attorney named Ellen Branford who leads a fast-paced life as a partner in a large New York City law firm. Her grandmother dies, unexpectedly, one weekend when Ellen is visiting her at her home in Connecticut, and, just before she dies, she asks Ellen to deliver a letter. The letter is to a man who Ellen’s grandmother knew when she was young. Ellen leaves Manhattan and her fiancé, Hayden, who is also a lawyer, and travels to the small coastal town of Beacon, Maine (where her grandmother grew up) to deliver the letter. Shortly after Ellen’s arrival, she falls through the rotted boards of a dock, gets swept away by a rip current, and is rescued by a local carpenter named Roy. Ellen’s plan of delivering her grandmother’s letter and quickly returning to New York soon goes astray, but Ellen discovers some interesting secrets about her grandmother’s past and some insights about herself as well.
Where did the inspiration come from for this story?
The idea came from something I heard on the radio one morning. A woman told a story about how just before her grandmother died, she said, “Erase my hard drive.” I began to wonder what that grandmother had on her computer that she wanted to keep secret. It led me to think about a much broader range of questions, such as what someone in their later years might want to change about the life they had lived and what regrets they might have about decisions they’d made. All of that led to the idea of an elderly woman reviewing her life and feeling the need to set certain things right before she died. I used a letter as the object that would get the story going, as I wanted something old-fashioned and tangible, but the computer-hard-drive story is what led me to write the book.
Which came first, the characters, plot, or destination?
I think all three came together at one time, at least enough to get me started. The plot evolved over time, as did other characters, but the main idea for the story, the character of Ellen, and the location of a small town in Maine happened almost simultaneously.
When I heard the story on the radio, about the grandmother and the hard drive, I began to generate ideas and the one that kept coming back to me was the idea of a grandmother giving her granddaughter a letter to be delivered to a man she once knew. Because I grew up in Connecticut and because my mother’s family has a long history there (several generations) I’m very attached to the New England area.
When I thought about where to send Ellen, the granddaughter, my first thought was to send her to a small New England town. I already knew that I was going to have Ellen living and working in Manhattan so I needed a place that would be a sharp contrast to Manhattan, Having been to Maine a number of times during my life, and knowing that it’s beautiful, rugged, and remote, I thought it would be the perfect place.
Can you tell us a little bit about your next book?
I’m working on another novel, although it’s been on the back burner since Blueberry Café came out, but I’m slowly getting back to it. The main character is a woman who goes to visit her parents in the house where she grew up, on the Connecticut coast. While there, she ends up dealing with some “unfinished business” in her past life. I think my themes are small coastal towns and unfinished business! I keep coming back to those ideas.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I knew I always loved writing. When I was young I wrote a lot of short stories and poems and my teachers encouraged me to write – especially my ninth grade English teacher, with whom I’m still in touch. But as I got older and had to start making decisions about what to do with my life, I never thought of being a fiction writer. I didn’t have the confidence to believe I could actually make a living at it. I’ve always been a very practical person in terms of careers.
So I ended up deciding to major in journalism. I figured at least that way I’d still be writing – although it’s a very different kind of writing. After college I worked in Connecticut for a trade magazine that covered the field of magazine publishing. Then I ended up going back to school to get a law degree.
I was working in the legal department of a large corporation in Westchester County, New York, when it became apparent to me that I had to start writing fiction again. I kept imagining scenes and thinking of dialog (and saying it out loud while I was driving! ) and I figured I’d either have to write or I would go crazy not doing it (or have an auto accident!). I enrolled in an evening fiction writing class at Fairfield University in Connecticut. And that was it. I was totally hooked again – but now, as an adult. I wrote “on the side,” whenever I could – late at night, on weekends, while traveling.
Over the next few years, several of my stories were published in journals and literary magazines. Then my husband, Bob, and I moved to South Florida when he was transferred by his previous law firm. I had our daughter, Morgan, and put the writing away for several years, during which time Bob and I opened our own law firm. But, once again, I came back to writing fiction and began to work on more short stories. A close friend and author kept telling me I needed to write a novel, and, finally, I took the big leap and wrote what became The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café.
So the long answer to the short question is that I really didn’t think I would ever have a career as a fiction writer. But now that I have one novel under my belt, maybe I can do it.
If you could write another style of genre, what would it be and why?
Humor. I would love to be able to write books that make people laugh out loud, from beginning to end. I enjoy reading funny things myself and I think there can never be enough laughter in the world.
I have a tendency to insert at least some humor into most of what I write, even if the story is serious. It’s not that I set out to do it – it just happens that way. I used a fair amount of humor in Blueberry Café, although, again, the underlying story is a serious one. I guess I just find a need to lighten things up from time to time.
If I could write a truly funny book, that would be great. I don’t think it’s in my DNA, however. There are some authors who do it so well – like Bill Bryson with his travel books or David Sedaris. It’s a particular talent and they are very lucky to have it.
If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
How about two pieces? The first would be to start small. I think writing short stories is the best way to get started. Most novelists have done this, including me. Writing a good short story forces you to create and develop a character and take a plot from the beginning to the end in a few pages. It’s also a lot less daunting than writing an entire novel.
The other piece of advice is to find a fiction writing class and/or writer’s group in your area. What you can learn from others about voice, plot structure, character development, and general story-telling mechanics is invaluable. And other writers can provide so much inspiration. Taking the evening fiction writing class is what really got me going and was probably the most important thing I did in terms of my writing.
Where would be your idyllic location for a writing retreat?
In the summer it would be somewhere in New England, on the coast, with a view of the water. It could be in any New England coastal state as long as it had a great view and a nice town nearby that I could putter around in and photograph when I needed a break.
If it were in the winter, probably some little coastal town in southern California, with the same requirements – great view, nice town.
I’d also be more than happy to leave the U.S. and head to a nice place in Europe – perhaps a little villa on the Amalfi Coast. I can picture it now – steep cliff, bright white walls, turquoise water . . . . If anyone out there has a place they’d like to loan me, please feel free to contact my publisher!
If you were going to be stuck on a desert island and could only take 3 books with you, which ones would you chose?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Harper Lee only wrote one book – but what a book! Her story of racial injustice and coming of age in the American South, combined with memorable characters and beautiful prose make this the favorite book of many people, including me.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s love story and cautionary tale of the decadent 1920’s in an exclusive suburb of New York City is so compelling and elegantly written it’s hard not to fall in love with it. I certainly have.
A condensed, one-volume encyclopedia. If I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands, I might as well be learning things. And there may be some practical information in there that I could use, such as instructions for building a boat or a lesson on spearfishing.
Is there a Desert Island Survival Guide for Dummies book? If so, could I please have that thrown in as a fourth?
Keep an eye out on the blog as I'll be reviewing The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café shortly.