1.) Where did the idea for this novel come from? Is there a particular scene or character that you wrote first?
The first novel I ever tried to write was a sprawling story about a woman who ran a clam bar. It ended up collecting dust on a shelf. After Some Assembly Required was published, I went back and reread the manuscript to see if there was anything salvageable. There’s a cyclical rhythm that seasonal business owners get caught up in that has always struck me as monotonous and challenging. And so there was still something compelling to me about my original main character and her situation. Nothing remains of the original work except for Mary Hopkins and her clam bar, and even Mary underwent significant changes. But I’m glad I took the time to find Mary’s voice.
2.) Summer Shift seems to echo your previous novel, Some Assembly Required, in that it spends a significant amount of time on the theme of moving beyond loss. How, if at all, do you think your perspective on this theme has evolved between the two books?
Loss is something I’ve always been thematically drawn to in my writing, and so, yes, both books do deal with the process of moving past it. While I was writing Summer Shift, I was reading a lot of eastern philosophy and trying to incorporate some of this thinking into my own life. A lot of these ideas ended up in the book, for example, allowing oneself to be at ease with what is rather than constantly wishing things were different. Sometimes by merely shifting the way we see things, resisting our reaction to always judge, we can ease our own suffering. Carleton really embodies this wisdom for me, his being able to let go of the past and live his life in the present moment. Lovey’s disease forces her to live this way as well. Mary, like myself, is a student.
3.) You have listed ‘waitress’ among your previous professions. How much of your restaurant experience is present in the novel? Which restaurant employee do you most identify with?
I waitressed at a number of different establishments when I was in high school and college, including a couple of seafood restaurants on the Cape. I definitely drew from that experience in writing Summer Shift, the controlled chaos, the internal caste system and the alliances that develop between co-workers. I think one of the interesting things about being young and having a summer job was that we all knew this was just a brief stop-over in our lives, and that we’d all be moving on to something else, most of us sooner rather than later. And yet we were learning some pretty important life skills. While I don’t see myself in any particular character, I can identify with each in some way, as an author must, I imagine.
4.) One of your more striking images is that of the ‘shard of glass’ being first pulverized by the ocean before ultimately becoming sea glass. How do you see the Cape Cod landscape as a reflection of Mary’s progression throughout the novel?
As many Cape Codders do, Mary turns to nature in difficult times. I believe if we’re open and in tune enough with our surroundings, we can often derive answers from our natural world, finding useful metaphors for our own lives. Standing at the edge of an ocean that’s been around for hundreds of millions of years, one’s problems are immediately weighed in a greater context. Nature has so much to teach, whether it be a lesson about perseverance from a fiddler crab, about the transient nature of all things from a shift in the tides, or how, through contemplating a shard of glass, we might learn that everything inevitably looses its sharp edges and yet there is beauty to be found even in that.
5.) Wayne’s synesthesia is a particularly interesting character trait. Is this character drawn from any personal experiences? What sort of research was involved in bringing his gift to the page?
I’ve always been interested in peculiar neurological afflictions, especially ones that create ironic situations. I may have Dr. Oliver Sacks to thank for that (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). I had read about synesthesia years ago and had always planned to give it to one of my characters. The manifestation where people “taste shapes’ is far more rare than the kind where people attribute colors to letters, number or music. I recently saw the Kandinksy exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York (2009). He was purported to have the “seeing sound” variety and, for much of his career, his work was inspired by music. There’s a book called The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E. Cytowic that I used as reference to understand Wayne’s particular type of synesthesia, and then proceeded to explore how, as with Kandinsky, such an affliction might be transformed into an artistic advantage.
6.) How would you compare the writing process of Summer Shift to that of Some Assembly Required? Did either come more naturally? Why or why not?
Some Assembly Required was my graduate school thesis for my Masters of Fine Arts degree. It took several years to write and saw lots of critical feedback from professors and fellow students along the way. There were interruptions in the writing as well, as I had to put it down to do other schoolwork from time to time. Summer Shift had a much easier birth. It took me about 18 months to write. Not another person set eyes on the manuscript until I sent it off to my agent. Throughout the process I kept wondering if it was all too easy. After all the hand holding with the first novel, I worried whether I’d be as successful on my own. But I’ve heard other authors talk about how some books just seem to flow from them. That was the case for me with Summer Shift.
7.) Two characters in the novel suffer from debilitating (? Would like to avoid “terminal”) diseases: Lovey is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; Carleton is living with Parkinson’s. How would you compare their coping mechanisms? Do you see a greater degree of resignation in either character?
I had a great aunt who suffered from Alzheimers’ disease and I was very involved with her care. I saw a tremendous amount of frustration in her at the beginning that eventually gave way to her settling into the inevitability of her situation. I think much of this was a function of the disease running its course. They say that Alzheimer’s is harder on the caregivers than it is on the patients. While I’m not sure if I agree with that, I did feel it was harder for us to let go at times. Parkinson’s affects the body dramatically and the mind to a much lesser extent. And so I would think someone would have to work harder to find a place of acceptance. Even Carleton, wise as he is, has moments of shame and frustration, particularly when faced with the prospect of having to interact with other people. I imagine that’s how it is in real life. No mater how enlightened and at peace you may be with your situation, there are going to be those moments where you resist what’s happening to you. I believe coping with pain, loss, illness and life, for that matter, is a practice, something you work on rather than something you achieve.
8.) Discuss your research for the character of Carleton Dyer, a painter that bears a striking resemblance to Henry Hensche, a Provincetown painter. Did you learn anything else about the history of the arts on Cape Cod?
I have many friends who are visual artists on Cape Cod and I’ve have had the good fortune to be drawn into their world, which includes gaining an appreciation for the history of the Provincetown art community. I saw Carleton as an amalgam of painters like Henry Hensche, Edwin Dickinson, Ross Moffett, and others. I imagine how exciting it must have been to be a part of such a cluster of talent all living and working in the same small town, bouncing ideas off one another and achieving worldwide recognition. From Charles Hawthorne’s arrival at the turn of the century through to the Abstract Expressionists of the 40s and 50s, Provincetown, for all its beauty, light and freedom of spirit, has always managed to capture and inspire artists, a legacy that lives on today.
9.) Do you have any new projects planned? Will you set another book in Cape Cod? Why or why not?
I recently had the opportunity to spend one week of pure solitude in one of the legendary Provincetown dune shacks. These are fabulously rustic little cottages with no electricity or running water, and situated just yards from the ocean on the backshore of town, accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicle. My intention had been to use this time to unplug and develop thoughts around a premise I had for a third Cape novel. All I’ll say is that my week was very productive and I’m excited to get going. I feel so lucky to be able to live and work in a place that has so much to offer in terms of natural beauty, history and an abundance of fascinating characters.