Is it true you started writing The Mill River Recluse when you were working as an attorney for the U.S. Senate?
Yes, that’s true. I was a few years out of law school and employed as an attorney for the U.S. Senate, drafting environmental and natural resource legislation. My husband was finishing his last year of medical school and getting ready to start his internship — the first grueling year of a medical residency — so he was working long hours and was often gone late into the evening or overnight. Basically, I had a lot of “alone time” on my hands. I had always intended to try to write a novel, so I started writing in the evenings after work. It took about two and a half years to finish a first draft.
How did winning two trophies at a 7th grade writing contest encourage your dream of becoming a writer?
I have loved reading and writing as far back as I can remember, and I distinctly recall writing my first poem – about the color orange – in fifth grade. After that writing contest in middle school, though, I knew I wanted to become some sort of writer. I actually announced my intention to my parents when I got home. It was the first time I articulated that desire and felt it with certainty. It turned out to be many years before I could devote some time to writing my first novel, but I knew from that moment that writing would always be an important part of my life.
Was the character of Mary McAllister inspired by anyone you knew?
The character of Mary McAllister and the central story idea for The Mill River Recluse do have a real-life origin. The basic concept for the book was inspired by a certain gentleman named Sol Strauss who lived in Paoli, Indiana, the small town in which I lived during high school and where my mother was born and raised. Mr. Strauss, a Jewish man who fled Nazi Germany, operated a dry goods store in Paoli in the 1940s. Even though Mr. Strauss lived quietly alone above his shop and never seemed to be fully embraced by the town’s predominantly Christian population, he considered Paoli to be his adopted community. When he died, the town was shocked to learn that he had bequeathed to it substantial sum, which was to be used for charitable purposes to benefit the people of Paoli. The Sol Strauss Fund is still in operation today, and Mr. Strauss is still remembered for his extreme generosity. I thought it would be very interesting to build a story around someone who is misunderstood or different in some way, and to show that even someone who is seemingly far-removed from his or her community may in fact be more special and integral than anyone could imagine.
You grew up in small towns all across America — is that why you decided to set your novel in a small Vermont town? Is Mill River based on any of the towns where you lived?
It felt very natural to set The Mill River Recluse in a small town, as I feel comfortable in and familiar with that environment. In fact, one of the places I lived growing up – Cheraw, Colorado – had only about 160 kids in kindergarten through twelfth grade and used (and still uses!) a four-day school week! I attended high school in Paoli, Indiana. It’s a little larger than Cheraw but is still a small community. It was quite an adjustment for me when I started college at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. There were about 35,000 students enrolled when I was an undergraduate, which was far more than the population of any of the towns in which I had lived up until then.
In creating the fictional town of Mill River, I tried to impart the cozy feelings of safety and community that so many small towns have. I didn’t base it on any particular town, though, because I wanted to be able to create and modify aspects of it to fit the story I was trying to tell. And, I selected Vermont as the state in which Mill River would be located because that state (in addition to being the home of countless beautiful small towns and villages) has a unique and longstanding town meeting tradition. Every town in Vermont holds a town meeting on the first Tuesday in March where residents come together to vote on town business. An annual town meeting was the perfect place for Father O’Brien to address the people of Mill River at the end of the novel.
Was it difficult to make the transition from a Washington DC attorney to working at home as a full-time writer?
Truthfully, it was a transition that I never expected to make! But, it wasn’t all that difficult. My legal job required mostly long hours of writing independently, punctuated by client calls and meetings with colleagues. Writing fiction also requires long hours of working independently, and my day is typically broken up by things I need to do for book publicity as well as to care for my son and keep the house afloat. So, my schedule feels very much the same – it’s just that I’m doing slightly different things! – and I absolutely love it. I am living my childhood dream.