Beach Reads

Nicola Harrison Tells a Tale of Montauk’s Past in Debut Novel

"Montauk" may be a work of fiction, but it holds a great deal of local truth.

Nicola Harrison’s debut novel, Montauk (St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan), tells the story of a married woman, Beatrice Bordeaux, who travels to the seaside village in the summer of 1938 in the hopes of spending time with her husband, Harry. Unfortunately, Harry’s plans to further his investment in Montauk as a resort destination mean that he’ll be spending more time in the city and Beatrice will be stuck with high society women she has nothing in common with at Montauk Manor. Over the course of the fateful summer, Beatrice finds herself falling for a new man and reigniting the purpose in life she lost when she got married.

Harrison, who received her MFA in creative writing at Stony Brook University, did extensive research for Montauk. “I knew about [developer] Carl Fisher and everything, but I learned a lot more about how he turned Miami into what it is now,” Harrison says. “And then he bought the land in Montauk. I just thought that was a really interesting backdrop. In some ways that mirrors what’s going on right now, you know, it’s not that Montauk is becoming more developed, but it’s fancier and more popular. And I just thought that that was an interesting time in history that went down—and then also the hurricane of 1938.” Harrison, who was born in the UK, was surprised to learn that Fisher’s inspiration for Montauk’s development included England. “Carl Fisher said that Montauk reminded him of the English Moors. So he wanted to create this tudor-style castle by the sea. I thought it was interesting that it looks out of place with these amazing views. So I just created this story around that.”

During her research for the book, Harrison was in touch with locals, including some who were in Montauk for the 1938 hurricane, which is a significant part of the story. Henry Osmers, who wrote On Eagle’s Beak about the Montauk Lighthouse, told Harrison about his own experience with the hurricane. “He remembered going to school that morning and it being a perfectly clear day. It just came out of nowhere,” she says. “No one was expecting that storm. That’s why it was so devastating—no one prepared for it no one knew it was coming.”

Harrison also spoke with local Vinnie Grimes. “He and his wife grew up in Montauk their whole lives,” she says. “He told me when the summer guests from New York first started coming out, he and his friends would want to make a few extra bucks here and there, so they would be the entertainment for them. He said they would go down to wherever they were, like the Surf Club or whatever, and they would put on these sort of shows. They would tie themselves into a potato sack and have their friend throw them into the deep end of the pool and have people time them to see how long it would take to untie them and swim back to the surface. Another thing he told me about was this greasy pig contest. So I took details from these stories and incorporated them into the book.”

Prior to writing Montauk, Harrison worked as a journalist. “I was focused on fashion and style,” she says. “I used to be the style writer for Forbes. I had a column at Lucky. I worked for a trade publication for menswear called MR. I was always writing, and on the side, I was taking creative writing classes and working on fiction and things like that.” Harrison decided to pursue creative writing after participating in the Southampton Writers Conference at Stony Brook Southampton. “I learned about the MFA program and thought, ‘I’m going to do this.’”

Montauk by Nicola Harrison is available now at your local bookstore. 

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