I’m thrilled to welcome New York Times bestselling author, Nancy Thayer – Queen of the Beach Reads – for a conversation in advance of the publication of our latest novels: My new novel, The Summer Cottage, publishes April 23, while Nancy’s Surfside Sisters publishes July 2.
I fell in love with Nancy’s novels decades ago, before I was an author myself. There’s just something about her writing, characters and sense of place that defines summer to me. It’s a rare day at the beach when I’m not carrying around a sand-laden novel from Nancy, Dottie Frank, Elin Hilderbrand or Jane Green. Moreover, Nancy was one of the first authors I reached out to after writing my first novel, The Charm Bracelet, and her early blurb and support was instrumental in that novel’s success (and meant the world to me).
Nancy is not only back with her latest novel – her THIRTY-FIRST! – but she’s literally back from back surgery.
First, how are you feeling after your recent back surgery?
I feel great, Wade! Thanks for asking. The surgery went well, and recovery is a dream—I can’t cook, do housework, or drive for six weeks. Basically, I can write, nap and read. My darling Charley brings me coffee in bed! (I’m sure he’ll be glad when the doctor tells me I’m good to go!)
We both center our novels in the resort towns and states we live and love. In fact, to me, our settings are as big of characters in our works as our protagonists. How long have you lived in Nantucket and what is it about the town you love so much that inspires you, and also makes it such a rich setting for your novels?
I came to Nantucket to visit a friend 36 years ago and met a wonderful man named Charley. We were married 34 years ago and have lived here ever since. Our house is in town, so we walk to the post office, pharmacy, bookstore, library, church, doctor’s office, bank, and also down to the harbor. I’ve always loved small towns like the ones my grandparents lived in. Many of the streets here are paved with cobblestones. Many of the sidewalks are brick. None of the buildings is over three stories high. A sense of history is with us everywhere.
So I love the coziness of the small town, but I also enjoy the sense of being on an island. In the summer, gorgeous yachts from all over the world dock in our harbor, and the island population swells with fascinating people. The shoulder seasons and winter are favorites with year-round islanders. We have time to hear lectures at the library or the historical association, see movies or plays, or simply enjoy candlelight dinner with friends. When the storms howl, and the waves tower and crash as the ocean slams onto the shore, we run out to the beaches. The gale force winds fill our lungs and our souls, and it’s like being connected right to the heart of the universe.
That is so beautifully said. And I feel the same way living in Saugatuck, Michigan, where The Summer Cottage is set. I grew up in a small town but ran away to the city, living in Chicago and St. Louis for decades. I vacationed in Saugatuck one summer and immediately fell in love with the tiny artist community nestled into the dunes of Lake Michigan. The town and setting immediately resonated in my soul, and it called to me so deeply that I bought a knotty-pine cottage in the woods and moved there after my very first book was published. There is such a sense of community, creativity, mutual respect, history and rooting for one another. I’m blessed to live in a spiritual place that inspires me creatively. The coast of Michigan fills my soul and my senses – from fall color to boating on the water, from the first snow to the first daffodils. The beauty of Michigan and Lake Michigan are central characters because they are a huge influence in my life and on my writing, and my characters reflect that as well.
Tell me about your latest novel, Surfside Sisters. And just what is about summer that appeals to you?
Surfside Sisters follows Keely and Isabelle, two island girls who are best friends from pre-school, as they move into adulthood and try to capture their dreams. Both want to be writers when they grow up. When they hit adolescence and their twenties, they discover dreams don’t always come true easily—or at all. And one girl is from a wealthy family and the other is from a modest family, which complicates matters, and when men and romance enter their lives, emotions become powerful. One girl becomes a published novelist, and the other doesn’t. I write about envy and heartbreak and bad luck and good luck, too, and about what breaks the strong link of friendship, and what mends it.
Summer on Nantucket is heavenly to me, because that’s when I get to see my grown children and their children and their spouses and their friends. What a treasure it is to see my daughter Sam with Sara, her best friend from kindergarten, and their husbands and their children. And what pleasure when my son Josh and his husband David, both experts in their fields and living in Arizona, come to swim all day and sit around the dinner table talking and laughing in the evening. I won’t pretend it’s my cooking that draws them—they come for the beach and do the cooking, too, because they love it.
And my four grandchildren! Watching them grow up, first playing with a sand shovel and a bucket at the beach, and the next year swimming, and later kayaking and sailing, is one of the best experiences in my life. It has taught me, Wade, what I’m sure your grandmother knew, that getting older is a blessing if you are able to watch the natural changes in life in the young people you love. Somehow it makes the world make sense.
And my girlfriends! We’ve changed over the 34 years I’ve lived on the island, and when they come visit, we probably spend more time eating and drinking margaritas than we do swimming, but their visits fill me with laughter and love and hope—and gratitude for every day.
Sounds amazing! I can’t wait to read it! And we have a common thread in our new novels as well: Dreams.
The Summer Cottage is the perfect summer escape about the restorative power of family tradition, small-town community and the feel of sand between your toes. It centers on a recently divorced mother, Adie Lou Kruger, whose ex never understood her affection for what her parents called their Cozy Cottage, the charming, ramshackle summer home—complete with its own set of rules for relaxing—that she’s inherited on Lake Michigan. But despite the fact she’s facing a broken marriage and empty nest, and middle age is looming in the distance, memories of happy childhoods on the beach give her reason for hope. She’s determined not to let her husband’s affair with a grad student reduce her to a cliché, or to waste one more minute in a career she doesn’t love, so it becomes clear what Adie Lou must do: rebuild her life and restore her cottage shingle by shingle, on her terms. But converting the beloved, weather-beaten structure into a bed-and-breakfast isn’t quite the efficient home-reno experience she’s seen on TV. Pushback from Saugatuck’s contentious preservation society, costly surprises and demanding guests were not part of the plan. But as the cottage comes back to life, Adie Lou does, too, finding support in unexpected places and a new love story on the horizon. One cottage rule at a time, Adie Lou reclaims her own strength, history and joy by rediscovering the magic in every sunset and sandcastle.
The novel is about many important things – friendship, motherhood, the meaning of home, pleasing others – but it’s mostly about the loss of dreams and being happy. Sounds simple but it’s so hard in life. Why? We be who others expect us to be. We fulfill the expectations and dreams of others. We lose sight of what makes us not only happy but who we truly are. This book is about taking control of your life again. Most of us tend to think of “dreams” as some ethereal, elusive thing that happens to certain people, but not us. But dreams were real as kids. Remember when adults would ask us, “What do you dream of being when you grow up?” And then all of that fades. Adie Lou was once a girl who dreamed big, but she buries those for everyone else, for the sake of earning more money, but mostly because she thinks it’s silly to do so as an adult. But when she’s lost everything – her parents, her husband – she has a moment of awareness. She has a moment when she realizes that she’s lived in fear much of her life and that she’ll lose herself along with everything else if she continues to do so.
Oh, Saugatuck summers! We hike the dunes, spend afternoons on the golden sand beaches, visit wineries and U-Picks, gorge on blueberries, asparagus, strawberries and good wine, head to Friday night art auctions on the lagoon at Ox-Bow (an artist colony affiliated with the Chicago Institute of Art), watch theatre at the Center for the Arts, or just cook dinner at home and eat on our screened porch or eat at one of the great restaurants in town with friends. But, like you, while I adore the summer, we locals get our town back after it ends. September and October are among my favorite months.
When growing up, did you have a family cottage/cabin?
We had grandparents to visit, which is why I love your novels so much.
My family and I lived in Wichita, Kansas, and my mother’s parents lived in Emporia, Kansas, a small town that seemed a world away. I used to spend a week there by myself every summer because I was the oldest, best-mannered child. (Of course.)
My grandparents had a screened-in porch at the back of their house. It was cool there during the hottest day, perfect for reading. Every night my grandfather said, “Time to give the flowers a drink.” He raised every kind of flower—I didn’t know all their names—although I did know the name of the hollyhocks I used to turn upside down and use as ballerinas. I was transfixed by the rainbows the water made in the sunlight.
Most nights, my grandfather walked with me to buy an ice cream cone at the nearby pharmacy. I remember so many people calling out hellos as we passed their front porches. It was such a complete, safe, friendly world, where I was loved and where I loved so completely. Life wasn’t lived in such a hurry then. I could spend hours on the front porch swing, reading or just listening to the summer.
My aunt and uncle used to live in Wichita, and I’ve visited Emporia (not far from where I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks) many times! (And hollyhocks are among my favorite flowers, too, along with peonies!)
The Summer Cottage is inspired by summers spent with my grandparents. Growing up in the Ozarks in the 1960s and ‘70s, my parents would drop me off after school ended on Memorial Day, and I would stay with my grandparents – my parents visiting on weekends – until school started again after Labor Day. That old log cabin didn’t have a TV, microwave, telephone or indoor bathroom. We bathed right in the ice-cold creek. But while that cabin may have been short on luxuries it was long on memories. My grandma – a hardworking seamstress – and my grandfather – a former vacuum salesman – used to say that the only things we needed were innertubes, fishing poles, books, and each other. The cabin had a stone fireplace that smelled of smoke, and a tiny upstairs contained 10 cots to hold all the visiting grandchildren and relatives. After a while, you knew whose snore was whose. But the best thing about that cabin is that I got to know my grandparents not only as my grandparents but as real people. I could always feel the love my grampa had for my grandma reverberate in every log, chink and mossy steppingstone in that cabin. My grandparents taught me that even the tiniest of cottages could feel like mansions if they were only filled with love. Those summers on the water and that cabin so influenced me that I moved from the city as an adult and bought a knotty pine cottage in Saugatuck. That’s where I now write novels and recreate the summers of my childhood. There are special places all of us return in order to reunite with family and escape from the real world, and The Summer Cottage celebrates those places and memories.
Themes of family, forgiveness, history and self-discovery are major themes in our novels. Why do they play such a big role in the stories you write?
The complications of families have always fascinated me. My sister and I can still argue about whether our father loved me or her more. (He loved her more.) I know only children who are amazed when their children fight furiously and thirty minutes later sit down to play a board game, laughing together, the fight forgotten. I’m still trying to forgive myself for the mean things I said to my brother or the time I lost it and yelled at my children. I believe forgiving ourselves is one of the hardest things we can do, and the most worthwhile.
I agree. My mom was a nurse and a hospice nurse, and she used to say that the majority of people for whom she cared at the end of their lives were filled with regret. Don’t be filled with regret, she used to tell me, over and over. “Life is as short as one blink of God’s eye,” my mom liked to say. “And we are all given gifts to make this brief journey here truly miraculous – to fulfill our incredible potential – but too few or ever realize that before – blink – our journey is over.” My mom encouraged me to love big, take risks, forgive others and forgive myself, and those are not only a big reason I’m an author now but they are major themes in every novel I write.
I write about women, like my grandmother, whose voices tend to be overlooked in their lives, women who’ve led seemingly ordinary lives but as depicted in the small moments are truly extraordinary. You do as well. Why does that have such meaning to you as a person and an author?
When I was in college, all the novels I was assigned to read were written by men about men. About war. About stabbing bulls in a ring. About accumulating wealth.
I knew then that I wanted to write about what we call “ordinary” women, because I think we ordinary women face challenges and tragedies as well as the boring hard work of everyday life, and it is the “ordinary” woman—and man—who keeps the world turning.
Perfectly said! You’ve summed up just how I feel! And, to me, the “ordinary” lives are the ones that are truly extraordinary. Just look at the woman from whom I take my pen name, Viola Shipman. She sewed overalls at a local factory; my Grampa Shipman was an ore miner. They saved spare change in an old crock in their garage; when it got full, they hauled it to the community bank and started a college fund for my mom, who would be the first in the family to earn a degree. That change changed my life. As did my grandparents. Their lives, on paper, were very ordinary, but the seemingly simple lessons they taught me were life-changing: Work hard; be kind; never give up; the simplest gifts are the greatest. And the heirlooms I write about in my novels – charm bracelets, recipe boxes, hope chests – may not have cost much or represent grand wealth but these items meant the world to my grandmas and reflected the dreams, hopes, loss and family history of people whose sacrifices and love changed my life forever. Ordinary, indeed.
We also have a Show-Me state connection. I was born and raised in Missouri, and you attended college there. Does Missouri influence you or your writing in any way?
Missouri is called the “Show Me” state, meaning we’re not influenced by fancy promises. The Kansas state motto is “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” meaning “To the stars through difficulties.” I grew up knowing I could achieve what I wanted, but not easily. I used to ride a quarterhorse down in the Ozarks, where the land is beautiful, but also full of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. I grew up believing life can sometimes be beautiful, sometimes turbulent, sometimes both at the same time. And oddly for someone who writes fiction, I can’t, in person, tell a lie and I really do not like it when others lie. Honesty seems a core value of Missouri and Kansas. What do you think, Wade?
I couldn’t agree more. My grandparents had a term for liars: “Feather-bedders,” meaning they lied to make themselves feel a bit “fluffed up” or more important. Honesty is a core value of the Ozarks, along with keeping your mouth shut and your head down, and just working hard. Along with Michigan, Missouri plays a big part in my novels. The people are as tough as the rocky terrain, not impressed by the faux grandeur of the world, but just by the simple beauty of a sunset. I’m a lot like my kin.
What else would you like to add?
I love your books, Wade, and I believe they are important. We’re whizzing through the future so quickly we’re forgetting how to treasure what we have in our hands. We need to cherish and learn from the lessons and lives of our forefathers and foremothers. My daughter has my grandmother’s hope chest in her house; that’s four generations! Charm bracelets, recipe boxes, hope chests, letters, all these are touchstones to memories, lessons and enduring love. We need to honor our grandparents and the values they gave us, and their love is with us always, even when we become grandparents ourselves.
Thank you! You just made me ugly cry. And, I feel the same about your work, too! I believe that we’re losing our family history and connection. We take photos on our cells, but then delete them. We text one another, and then delete them. We look for recipes online. I understand and appreciate that’s our world today, but we can’t lose touch with our family history. How can we know where to go if we don’t know from where we came? That’s the foundation of The Summer Cottage: I hope it helps readers rediscover their own strengths, histories and joy by rediscovering the beauty of their own family memories and history as well as the magic in every magical Michigan sunset and sandcastle.