Sarah McCoy is one of those people you automatically fall in love with. We did an event together and I never had so much fun in my life. (Case in point: Sarah and Jenna Blum and Jane Green and I all planned a writers pajama party in a hotel, and even though it never happened, we all acted as if it had.) Sarah's also a wonderful, wonderful writer, and her new book MARILLA OF GREEN GABLES explores one of the characters of one of the most beloved books around, Anne of Green Gables.
Sarah is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children; The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central; and Le souffle des feuilles et des promesses, a French exclusive title.
Sarah! Thank you for being here!
It’s always fascinating to me what makes a writer decide that a particular novel is the book they need (not just want, but need) to write now. What was it like for you when you started Marilla? What made you decide to revisit Anne of Green Gables? And what made you decide to center on Marilla?
I actually hadn’t thought to write Marilla until about two years ago. At the time, I had just completed another novel called Pride and Providence, which sold internationally. I was in the process of changing North American publishing houses. While getting to know potential new publishers, the executive editor at William Morrow/HarperCollins gave me a call. She basically asked me to share a book a book idea that excited me to write next. No strings attached. No Show me the first 100 pages or What have you been researching for the last five years? The door was wide open. All she asked was: What makes your heart sing to write? I’d never had an editor take an active role in the brainstorming part of a book’s development. It was refreshing—and inspiring.
So I followed her instructions and the first idea that came to mind was… Marilla Cuthbert. I’d always been fascinated by her as a prominent yet only partially known character in my beloved Anne of Green Gables series. I grew up with the books and was obsessed with everything related. I dreamed on the characters long after I finished reading. Particularly pertinent to writing this book, in Chapter 37 of Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery drops this juicy detail on us and then keeps on walking with Anne Shirley.
What a nice-looking fellow he is,” said Marilla absently. “I saw him in church last Sunday and he seemed so tall and manly. He looks a lot like his father did at the same age. John Blythe was a nice boy. We used to be real good friends, he and I. People called him my beau.”
Anne looked up with swift interest.
“Oh, Marilla—and what happened?
I can’t tell you the hours I spent dreaming on the answer to that, what happened, Marilla? I guess you could say I’ve been writing this book my whole life if one was to pinpoint that lightning-to-brain moment of curiosity. And like being fire-bolted by the heavens, this was a novel that somewhat terrified me to write. Green Gables is sacred, after all. But my love for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s legacy usurped my fears. So I went into the writing with the goal to honor that and give Marilla the spotlight that I felt Montgomery would approve.
There’s something about that word “spinster”—which of course was a terrible thing to be in the 19th Century, and now is no more terrible than saying you are left-handed. But what I loved is that you took that label and made Izzy the one who pushes your heroine out into the world, and even makes Marilla realize that there are other lives than the traditional one that she can choose. Can you talk about this please?
You know, Caroline (and you do because you know me well), I’ve never been a person who was content with living within a box. Parameters, molds, and model criterion of perfect humanity have always sat uneasily in my gut. Don’t get me wrong, I'm no rebel for the sake of rebellion. I understand that rules and protocol can be a stabilizing, good framework. A farmer must respect nature’s laws of seedtime to get the harvest. A bird must respect gravity to fly. I get it. But I also think that too often, we declare social laws that really have no credence outside of making one set of people feel accepted and making another feel rejected. What is the ideal family anyhow? Mother + father + 2.5 kids + an oh-so-happy Labrador in a 5-bedroom, suburban Mc-mansion on the cusp of a shining metropolis? Does that family formula make us say, “Oh, yes, they must be good people. They must live good lives. Mark them down in the annals—that’s the model.”
What if your life’s picture doesn’t look like that? Is it therefore not worthy of praise, of being ‘Liked’ on Instagram, of being remembered in history? We’ve got a really skewed perspective of worth, especially women’s worth. That isn’t particular to modern times either. I think Montgomery (as a pastor’s wife) recognized it, and if she couldn’t voice her unorthodox opinions in real life, she definitely did in her fictional Avonlea. Marilla, Matthew, Anne: they are celebrated for being a beautiful, successful yet unconventional family.
That’s part of why I believe the Green Gables legacy continues to thrive. It’s about overcoming adversity and fearlessly sharing the message: “You can, too.” Unlike many of the louder messages being shouted at us from TV, radio, the Internet, etcetera, this one is shared between the reader and the page. Only there does it have a chance to seed itself. I know its capacity. I experienced it the first time I read Anne of Green Gables. It influenced who I grew to be as an adult, a writer, and an advocate of diversity.
I absolutely loved all the historical details. The writer Mary Morris once told me that in doing research, forget the dates, but look for the stories, the human drama. Can you talk about your research? What surprised you?
Out of the hundreds of cable channels, I could honestly do with just four: History Channel, Biography Channel, Turner Classic Movies, and PBS. I am a proud history geek. You can’t beat the drama of historical narratives. It’s too wild for anyone to make up! I write historical fiction because that’s what fires me up.
Lucy Maud Montgomery gave us two complicated, yet deeply lovable characters in Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. She left an excellent literary breadcrumb trail, and I considered it a joy to follow it backwards to discover their younger selves. The most important part of doing Marilla justice was to pay attention to the Green Gables world that Lucy Maud Montgomery created. I annotated all the original series, alongside every biography I could find, including The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery. Montgomery wrote so many tiny, wonderful details that give glimpses to Cuthberts’ pasts. So I spent a good amount of time re-reading the first few books (in which Matthew and Marilla are featured) and recording every description, emotional response, comment, opinion, habit, routine, and preference. Then I placed them into the historical context to find the connections.
Being an American, I had to also give myself an intensive course on Canadian history. I was in touch with Canadian author Susanna Kearsley, who graciously answered my questions about the varying opinions of Canadian politics. Susanna sent me links to archives related to 19th-century political parties, particularly as the documents pertained to the issues of English sovereignty, independence, slavery, and runaway slaves from America (pre American Civil War). I learned there was far more conflict in Canada than we, Americans, recognize. It was fascinating and eye opening to see similar cycles of bitter division between citizens. I wrote this book during our own conservative versus liberal struggle in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The historical mirrors were undeniable.
Last but not least, I spent October 2017 on Prince Edward Island island. It was important for me to walk Montgomery’s old haunts, explore the island’s historical settings, and meet with her relations that continue to thrive in Cavendish (a.k.a. fictional Avonlea). I felt quite like I was living in Avonlea, and who better to welcome me than Montgomery’s kin. George and Pamela Campbell—brother and sister cousins to Montgomery— opened their family’s home to me. They own and operate the Anne of Green Gables Museum and the Anne of Green Gables stores across the island. Their knowledge concerning Maud’s writing life and the lore of Green Gables was invaluably helpful. I was honored to receive their and the Montgomery heirs’ blessings on this book.
The past is truly prologue for the present. Your novel takes a fascinating side route to a lot of important moments, revealing them to us in new and important ways. For example, instead of writing about the Underground Railroad, you hone in on the survivors who hit Canada, and what their lives might have been like. What was your writing process like in deciding your historical timeline?
That was probably the easiest part of this book. Lucy Maud Montgomery gave me the birth and death of my characters. According to the Anne of Green Gables series, Marilla was born in 1824, and she died in 1910. She also wrote that during Marilla’s childhood, her father built Green Gables. It was a developmental time for Avonlea as an established island village. I chose to begin the novel at roughly a similar age as when we get to know Anne Shirley. I like narratives that have threads between them, and I certainly wanted to pay homage to the novel of inspiration (Anne of Green Gables).
There’s a kindred spirit link between young Anne and old Marilla. With this book, I wanted to show that a ‘spirit link’ doesn’t just work forward in time. It works backwards too and loops in unconventional ways that our limited scope of human understanding may not comprehend. Nonetheless, it exists. So we begin when Marilla is thirteen years old in 1837.
You’ve written so many extraordinary books. Does the writing change for you in book to book, or do you have a process that you depend on?
Each book process feels similar in that all my work is historical fiction. So I start in the archives, unboxing forgotten facts and memories, digging up infinitesimal details, because they always hit at something larger! I consider myself a story archeologist. (For a brief stint in college, I thought about being a real one—I even took Geology, which is about as interesting as staring at a rock. Literally.) So first came the research into the fictional Avonlea, created by Lucy Maud Montgomery, within the context of a real Prince Edward Island in a real Canada between 1830s-1860s. It was a tremendously dynamic time in the country and in Marilla's life, as you read in the book.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Truthfully, I’m still obsessed with Marilla’s world. There’s still so much about her, about her family (the Cuthberts and the Johnsons), about Green Gables and Avonlea. That’s the thing with Montgomery’s story world: you want to stay in it! I thought I’d quenched my childhood thirst for more Green Gables by writing this book, but it seems it’s just given me a taste for how delicious the water from this well is… and I want buckets more.