I'm so excited to be here today with Nicola Harrison. Nicola is a native of England who studied literature at UCLA and received an MFA in creative writing at Stony Brook. She was the fashion and style staff writer at Forbes, wrote a weekly column for Lucky, and has had work published in Los AngelesMagazine, The Southampton Review, and many other publications. She also launched a personal styling business, Harrison Style. She currently lives in New York and has spent many summers in Montauk. She's the author, also, of Montauk.
Welcome, Nicola. Thanks for being on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Nicola Harrison: Thanks for having me.
Zibby: Everybody, be gentle. This is Nicola’s first podcast.
Nicola: Yes, it is.
Zibby: We’re going to break her in nice and easy.
Nicola: Thank you. [laughs]
Zibby: I read her book Montauk start to finish in one big chunk. I sat on the couch. I read for six hours straight. It was so good. I'm so excited to talk to Nicola about it. Tell listeners what Montauk is about please.
Nicola: It’s set in 1938. It’s the story of Beatrice, who is a young woman. She spends the summer in Montauk at the request of her husband. For those who don't know, Montauk is a little town at the tip of Long Island past the Hamptons. She spends the summer out in Montauk. She stays at the Montauk Manor with all the wives. The husbands go back and forth to the city during the week. They come out on the weekends. Instead of getting in with the high-society wives and women, she finds herself drawn to these locals and their lives. She gets involved in their lives. That leads to some complications to say the least.
Zibby: You wove a lot of facts and images and things through it. Did you have to research? Was it a whole historical fiction thing? Did you make everything up?
Nicola: The story itself, it’s fictional. It started out with visits to the Montauk library and reading about the local history and then tours of the lighthouse with a local historian. I interviewed some locals who have lived in Montauk their whole life. They're in their nineties now. Those interviews were amazing. I learned a lot about the development of Montauk back in the 1920s by this guy Carl Fisher, this developer. He developed Miami, which was just swamp ground.
Zibby: That was all true?
Nicola: Yeah, that's true. He developed Miami into what it is now from nothing. Then he bought Montauk and developed that. I wove that in throughout. It’s interesting because I've seen Montauk have a lot of changes over the years. It’s gone from a sleepy fishing village that people didn't really want to drive all the three hours out of New York City to get there. It’s very quaint. Now, it’s become a very popular destination. It’s still beautiful and everything, but it’s changed a lot. That mirrored what I read about had happened in the 1920s and ‘30s. I wanted to capture it.
Zibby: I've watched Montauk change. I've been going to the Hamptons -- this is going to age me somewhat -- since 1979. I've seen the shift in Montauk firsthand, so I was particularly interested in this book. How did you end up writing this book? You used to work in magazines. You got a creative writing MFA. Tell me where this book came from, how you came up with the idea for this book, how you went from magazines to here. How did you get here to this beautiful book?
Nicola: I've spent a lot of time out in Montauk and a lot of summers out there. My ex-husband and I used to have a house out in Montauk. It was funny because when we bought it, it belonged to this guy. His name was Billy. He was a lobster fisherman. When the real estate prices started to rise, a lot of locals sold out and moved. He actually moved to Florida. We had this house. Then when we started going to the local fish market and the liquor store and the grocery store, we'd talk to the people and get to know them. They'd be like, “Oh, yeah. You live at Billy’s house.” For years, it was we lived in Billy’s house. It probably still is considered Billy’s house. That sense of loyalty and community to this guy Billy, I thought that was so cool. It was a germ of an idea in the back of my mind. What else did you ask me?
Zibby: How did you come up with this story? You got your new house. You've kicked Billy out. [laughs] Billy’s out of town. You decided to write a story about it, or you came up with the idea then?
Nicola: That was the beginning of it, this idea of the locals and this loyalty. When my son was young on the weekends, you know how sometimes they don't nap and you put them in the car and you just drive around? I would drive around Montauk for so long up by the lighthouse, and down to the fishing village, and down by the beach, and up by the Montauk Manor. I started piecing something together in my mind.
Zibby: Were you working full time or freelancing? When did you decide to write a book at all?
Nicola: This took me about four years to write. Previously, I was working in magazines. I was a fashion writer for Forbes and Lucky and some other places. That was earlier. It was after I had my son, so about four years ago, I started working on this book.
Zibby: Then it took you four years to write it?
Nicola: Yeah, four years.
Zibby: I bet because there's so much in there. It’s so good. You wove in so much stuff. There's so much action. How did you come up with the plot? I’ll ask you specific questions. I'm rambling. Did you come up with the ending at the beginning? Did you already know how it was going to end?
Nicola: I did. I don't know how I came up with the plot. It just came to me. I was like, “This is my story.” It was fully developed in my mind. Obviously, there are different twists and turns it took along the way. The general idea from beginning to end was in my mind.
Zibby: So cool. That's amazing. One of the things you wrote so beautifully about in the book was infertility, which I feel like is not often talked about in fiction in this way and especially not in the 1930s. It was such a neat way you handled it. You wrote, “I was trying to remain hopeful that we would be blessed with a child somewhere in the near future, but the same old fear and questioning about why it hadn’t happened yet came rushing back. The thought of being around all the women during the week with their children at the beach and the pool, teaching them to play tennis and build sandcastles, made me feel rather melancholy. Most likely I'd be the only one of childbearing age without a child to care for and everyone would be asking why I wasn’t in the family way. My stomach clenched and I suddenly found it hard to swallow.” That feeling, you captured that so beautifully. Tell me about the interest of including this dimension to the book.
Nicola: I was writing about a time when if you weren’t married with three kids by the age of twenty-five, you were considered an old maid. It’s just so different from where we are now, especially in New York City. You see women having kids so much older. I'm forty. I have a three-month-old. That would never have gone down then. I've seen friends who struggle with this, who struggle with infertility. I've seen that it’s so hard for them to go to the birthday parties and go to the baby showers and be this good friend when they're struggling with that. It’s very heartbreaking for them.
Zibby: It’s so true. You also write so beautifully about loss. I won't give anything away. Beatrice, the main character, had lost someone close to her which informs many of her life decisions going forward. You captured that feeling of suddenly just so out of sync with the rest of the world when you're grieving. This is what Beatrice is thinking, “Anything they spoke of seemed childish and petty. I seemed to have been thrust into the world of adulthood overnight. How could I relate to these people anymore?” I have gone through a period of time where I felt that way. Have you gone through this? You must have to have written about it like this.
Nicola: I lost my brother in a car accident. It was the day before my eighteenth birthday.
Zibby: No. Oh, my gosh. I'm so sorry.
Nicola: He was twenty-two. It was devastating for my family. I was in high school. I was a cheerleader. My biggest problems were boys and what our plans were for Friday night after the football game. Then suddenly, like I said, I was thrust into this adulthood. Suddenly it felt like my job was to take care of my parents and to make sure that they were eating and drinking and going to move forward. I wanted to explore this a little because you feel very isolated and very, very alone. All of a sudden, my best friends, who are my besties, I couldn't relate to them at all. They were trying to say all the right things. They couldn't. There's nothing they could say because they had never been through anything like this. I channeled that into Beatrice.
Zibby: I'm so sad to hear that. Was it just the two of you?
Zibby: I'm so sorry. Now I feel like all the rest of my questions are so stupid in comparison to that. Had you written about your loss of your brother in other contexts? Did you think about writing this as a memoir of sorts?
Nicola: Yes. You're onto it. I got my MFA in creative writing at Stony Brook University. When I was there, I worked on a memoir. It was about my brother and losing him at a young age. The reason I wrote it is -- I think this is the reason I wrote it. First of all, it was very cathartic to write about him and us growing up. I just wanted to remember all of these times that we had together. I was scared that I was going to forget things. I found that I was remembering things in terms of pictures like family photo albums. I would remember in my mind when I saw this picture. Oh yeah, I remember that. Then I was worried that was all I was going to remember, these pictures that we had. You're not going to get anymore pictures. I wanted to capture it and write down the good times that we had and things growing up. I had written that memoir. It’s in a drawer now. I didn't do anything with it. It was a very cathartic experience to do it.
Zibby: What made you want to fictionalize it this time?
Nicola: I had no intention of including that in this book.
Zibby: Really? I feel like it’s such a central part of the book.
Nicola: I feel like it was missing it before it was in. Then I just dabbled. I might do this. Then it started to develop into a thing.
Zibby: Wow. That's amazing. I had another author event recently with Sarah McColl and Claire Bidwell Smith. Both of them had lost their mothers and written memoirs about that. Both of them had been divorced. I have also been divorced, as have you. This new theory came out of this discussion because a friend of mine who is not divorced said what is it that makes -- I'm rambling. I'm not being very articulate here. She was saying people who have been divorced and are in new relationships or whatever have this creative spurt. Is divorce itself what causes the creativity? Then I said, “You know what? I don't think it’s the divorce. I think that the commonality is the loss.” Once you've had a loss, you're very aware that life is way too short and that this is your only shot. I feel like people who haven't been shocked by a big loss at some point in their lives -- not to say that if you've had a loss you're going to get divorced, but there's something to that. Do you know what I mean?
Nicola: Yeah, I do. There's a couple things that I think about that. At least for me, when you have a loss, it made me more aware of my feelings and looking more inside. It was about then when I started doing creative writing and getting more into that and more in touch with getting my thoughts and my feelings down on paper. I'm not quite making the connection that you made. Then as far as when you get divorced, I didn't necessarily become more creative when I went through a divorce. I had more time to myself and nights when I didn't have my son with me. I was just typing away on the computer and working on this book. It wasn’t like I thought, “I got a divorce, so now I'm going to write a book.” I feel like I accomplished a lot more after I got divorced.
Zibby: Imagine how much everybody would be publishing without having kids all the time. [laughs]
Nicola: I know. We’d be like superheroes.
Zibby: Everyone's like, “How do you get stuff done?” I do have eight days a month where I don't have custody of my kids. I could either sit there and cry, which sometimes I do, or I could be super productive with that time. You had a great scene with Beatrice and her husband where you wrote, “I wondered how our marriage could go on. Would I always cringe at the sight of him, a sight that at one point had made me smile until my cheeks hurt?” I love that. That juxtaposition is so great. How can someone that was the be-all end-all end up somebody else that’s tossed aside in a way?
Nicola: It’s interesting how your feelings for someone can change in an instant or very, very quickly. Something can happen. Some sort of evil or something can happen. Your love can turn to anger. It’s very difficult to make that go away and to go back to the place where you were after something's happened.
Zibby: I agree with that. In terms of getting a lot out of the writing, because you have Beatrice in the book actually write as well, you say how strange and incredible the feeling was to see her words in print. She said, “Seeing my view of a moment in time, smelling the ink of my words, that felt good.” I'm wondering does it feel equally good when you see your words in print in this book? Is that the most amazing feeling?
Nicola: It’s pretty awesome in book form in the advanced copy. Also from my journalism background, I remember that first time I got an article published. It was this big, tiny. Seeing something actually get published feels amazing. No matter how many articles I've written over the years, I feel incredibly proud of getting something published. It feels good.
Zibby: It does feel good. I like these specific, measurable, tangible type things because so much in life is not tangible at all. You also have another great character in the book named Dolly who has amazing influence on Beatrice. Dolly at times was talking about how bored she can be with all the society ladies, but that she looks for ideas everywhere she goes. That's how she gets through some of that not such exciting stuff. Do you feel like that happens to you too? Is there a particular moment you remember having to survive something but then your brain goes somewhere else and you come up with some great idea?
Nicola: Ideas come to me when I nap, which happens very rarely these days. Sometimes when I'm writing, if I get stuck on something, if I take a little nap, sometimes the idea comes to me right as I'm falling asleep. I really should nap more.
Zibby: You should. You have a golden ticket to nap every day.
Nicola: Right? I should schedule it. It really doesn't happen though.
Zibby: That's what they say. We’re so busy. We fill every second. We’re checking our phones. If you just take a walk in the park, then things will come to you. It’s like what you're saying, as soon as you unplug. Maybe I’ll take a nap. [laughs]
Nicola: Take a nap this afternoon.
Zibby: Are you working on anything else now?
Nicola: I am.
Zibby: You are already? Tell me.
Nicola: I'm working on a second novel. This one is set in the ‘20s during prohibition. It takes place in the Adirondacks and in Manhattan. It’s fun. It’s a fun time period to work on, the ‘20s, all the fashion. I'm having a lot of fun with it.
Zibby: You have a nine-year-old and a three-month-old. Not to say that people with nine-year-olds and three-month-olds can't write, but it’s a challenge. When and where are you writing these days?
Nicola: I write at a workspace called The Writers Room. It’s downtown in Astor Place area. It’s this workspace for writers. It’s just a big loft and a bunch of desks. It’s totally silent. It’s funny. All these writers come in from the hustle and bustle of the city. They just sit in silence and type away. I get so much more work done there than I do at home. That's where I work. Finding the time, I actually find that when I have a small child, I'm more productive because you have to schedule your time. I've got two hours or I've got three hours, that's it. After that, I'm not going to have it. You make the most of those couple of hours. My nine-year-old’s in school.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors having been through this process?
Nicola: Probably one of the things that helped me out most is I'm a member of a writing workshop. We meet every Thursday night. It’s led by a novelist, Jennifer Bell, who’s awesome. We've been meeting for years. We meet every Thursday. We bring in pages of what we've been working on. We read it to each other. We give each other our gut instinct. Then we go to the next person. It’s informal, but we just do it. It’s the structure of that weekly meeting, knowing we have to show up with some pages, and that accountability. Then also just hearing what you've written, hearing it out loud, it takes it out of your head and makes it something real. That's been incredibly helpful for me. I would recommend to aspiring writers to find a group or find some fellow writers. Get something on the calendar, something regular.
Zibby: That's great advice. Everyone's who’s listened to the end, we have to congratulate Nicola on finishing her first podcast.
Nicole: Yay! I made it.
Zibby: Reach out to her on Instagram, @NicolaHarrison, right? What's your -- we’ll look it up. [laughs]
Nicola: I think it’s @NicolaHarrisonAuthor.
Zibby: @NicolaHarrisonAuthor or through my website or whatever and give her one of those little clappy emojis.
Nicola: I wanted to say I love your podcast. It’s so good, not just for readers but for writers also. The reason I like it is because when I'm on my way to go for a writing day at The Writers Room, I like to put it on when I'm on the subway and listen to a podcast and hear other writers talk about their process and their inspiration and their challenges. I like it because it gets me pumped up for my writing day. It helps me relate to other people. That doesn't make any sense.
Zibby: It makes sense. That's great.
Nicola: It helps me. Okay, they're having trouble with that as well. They're having trouble with that plot point. It helps me relate to them, gets me pumped up for my writing day.
Zibby: That's awesome. And you're going to make everybody take naps?
Nicola: Yeah, as well. [laughs] I would like one myself.
Zibby: Thanks for coming on the show.
Nicola: Thank you so much.