Author Susan Scarf Merrell and I are walking her beagle, Waffle. I frequently check over my shoulder to make sure he’s still behind us. “There’s a compost pile he has to investigate,” she says without stopping.
We’re back in the woods of Sag Harbor, the town where Susan and her husband, architect Jim Merrell, have lived since the late ’80s. “At that point, it seemed like the only town that had lights on in the winter. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life,” she says. “One day I was walking in these woods and suddenly I had this picture of Rose and I just knew that she was the person vulnerable enough to imagine the story I wanted to tell. Does that make sense?”
Rose is the heroine of Susan’s latest novel, Shirley (Blue Rider Press), published on June 12, 2014. The titular character is the author Shirley Jackson, whose writing is undergoing a resurgence. Her two most famous works are the short fiction “The Lottery” and the novel The Haunting of Hill House. In the past several months The New Yorker has run two of Jackson’s never-before-published stories, “Paranoia” and “The Man in the Woods,” both of which will be included in a forthcoming collection of Jackson’s previously unpublished writing.
Shirley is a made-up account of the year in which a fictional young woman, Rose, comes to live with Jackson and her husband, book critic Stanley Hyman, at their home in Bennington, Vermont. Told from Rose’s perspective, the novel explores themes of abandonment, what it means to love and be loved, and, at the story’s heart, how to be—all done with a tight, psychological tension as Rose becomes obsessed: both with the disappearance of Bennington College student Paula Welden, and with the magnetic pull of Jackson’s dark, often conflicted mind.
Susan tells me, “One of the things I find most interesting about the process of creating fiction is this idea that you begin a book, you know it’s a novel, you know it’s not true, and somehow you want to create a space where the characters believe that everything in that implausible world you’ve written is totally plausible. Jackson says the only thing that matters is that it be true in the story and have happened there.”
She continues, “When I saw Rose in my head, she was un-parented, she was pregnant and she didn’t know how to be a mother. She wanted to be somebody she had no example of. She was the perfect vulnerable host for the telling of the story and once I saw her it just seemed as if the world fell into place and it began to happen.
“But that was three years in. I had been thinking about Jackson, trying to write about her: first as a biography, and then as a kind of ‘me, looking for Shirley,’ trying to understand what her and Stanley’s early marriage had been like, and how that early marriage with all its wonderful connection had led to the later unhappy years. I think everybody who gets to my age wonders how other people live their lives and what constitutes a successful marriage. That was the underlying thrust of the novel for me: What’s a good marriage? How do you assess what you’ve done with your life?”
Waffle has caught up to us now. Susan explains that, after her last book, A Member of the Family (HarperCollins), was published in 2000, “I wrote two books that did not sell. They just weren’t very good. I was struggling to find what I wanted to write about. And then, around 2006, I decided I wasn’t going to be a writer anymore, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I ended up going back to school, to the Bennington Writing Seminars, which really changed my life. I had so struggled with the question of how to be a person who was a writer—I knew how to write but I didn’t know how to be a writer.”
Fortunately for her readers, Susan has created a brilliant answer with Shirley, which reviewer Carol Memmott, of the Washington Post, describes as having “a lightness of prose which makes the novel even at its darkest moments seem fresh…Merrell brilliantly weaves events from Jackson’s life into a hypnotic story line that will please Jackson fans as well as anyone in search of a solidly written literary thriller.”