Susan Scarf Merrell is the acclaimed author of Shirley, a thriller about Shirley Jackson, which is set to be a feature film starring Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg. When not writing, Merrell teaches in the MFA creative writing program at Stony Brook Southampton and is director of the Southampton Writers Conference.
Behind the Hedges: How long have you been coming to the Hamptons? Why do you love it so much?
Susan Merrell: I first came out for a summer weekend in 1986. My architect boyfriend moved out here in 1987 to work. We commuted back and forth to see each other on weekends until I moved out here full-time in February of 1989. We married that September and have lived here year-round since then. In all honesty, I was terrified that I would be bored, that the off-season would be too quiet. Now I live for the off-seasons. Not one minute of regret. I love it here.
BTH: What’s your favorite thing to do out here?
SM: I spend an awful lot of time walking in the woods—with my husband, Jim, with friends, with my dog, but mostly alone. I like the spare scrub oak landscape, and the mossy bits by the sides of the paths, and the way the laurel blossoms all erupt at the same time. I like being the first footsteps in the snow. I like being drenched in rain. I like the wildlife: the squirrels and deer, the turkeys and guinea hens, the rare sighting of a red fox.
BTH: Why did you choose to live in Sag Harbor?
SM: I didn’t. Thirty years ago, my husband insisted on it, that it was the only place to live where there were actual people in houses during the week in the winter. That’s no longer true, of course, but Sag Harbor definitely feels like a small safe place even now. It’s funny, I see faces I don’t recognize every time I go into the village, and yet, I feel as if I know those people, as if people who choose to live in Sag Harbor are the kind of people I will like.
BTH: You’re well known for a book about Shirley Jackson. Do you think you have anything in common with Shirley?
SM: Yes, I do. But I don’t know what it is!
BTH: Any plans for another book?
SM: Deep in the last phases of one. I’ve committed my first (fictional) murder, which was surprisingly hard to bring myself to do.
BTH: Who is your favorite East End author, alive or dead?
SM: That’s such a tough one. Even simply considering the people I work with in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton—Lou Ann Walker, Amy Hempel, Cornelius Eady, Roger Rosenblatt, Emma Walton Hamilton and others—there are so many East End writers whose work I admire. I adore the writer Jessica Soffer as a talent and a human. The same goes for Zachary Lazar. And of those who are gone, Vonnegut is far and away my favorite.
BTH: What East End author do you think is unjustly neglected?
SM: I really like the work of the novelist Kurt Wenzel. He’s darkly funny. I would love to read more by him. And another sleeper is the young adult writer Catherine Creedon, better known as the director of Sag Harbor’s library. Her novel Blue Wolf is so good.
BTH: What’s your most treasured possession?
SM: I want to say my beagle, Waffle, but he objects to being owned. A specific thing that I treasure above all else is a signet ring that belonged to my father’s grandfather. Its gold is so worn you can no longer make out the inscription of his initials. My dad wore it. Then each of my sisters did. Then I did. Now, my daughter wears it. Part of the treasure of that ring is how many of us have shared that link to the past, to a family member we never met.
BTH: Describe your perfect day on the East End in detail.
SM: I wake up early, watch the sun come up, have coffee and write for a few hours. I meditate. I walk the dog in the woods. I come home and shower. I read for a few hours. I try—and fail—to stay off social media! When Jim gets home from work, we walk into town and head to our friends at the Dockside, where we sit outside and eat, watching the sun go down.
Or, if we’re lucky, we are on a friend’s boat doing the same. I love to walk on the beach, to kayak, to visit Dave Falkowski or Jennifer Pike at their farm stands. Honestly, every day out here is close to perfect, whether it’s snowshoeing in the woods, feeding my neighbors’ chickens, hanging out in the yard around the fire pit, or at a bonfire at Gibson Beach.
BTH: If you could snap your fingers and instantly have another career, what would be your dream job?
SM: I seriously have my dream job. My colleagues are great, I run exciting and useful programs—the Southampton Writers Conference, the post-MFA novel-polishing program, BookEnds. I love the MFA students, and learn from them as much as I teach. No complaints there. That said, I totally wish Stacy and Elizabeth at Dockside would let me guest chef some night. In my dream life, I am a chef.
BTH: If you could have anyone at your Hamptons dinner party (dead or alive) who would you invite?
SM: Shirley Jackson, for sure. Iris Murdoch. Emily Wilson, whose Odyssey translation I so admire. Meg Wolitzer. Patricia Highsmith. Kurt Vonnegut. Joe Heller. Herman Melville. Colson Whitehead. Dan Chaon. And why not? Barack and Michelle.