Nancy Thayer -June 2008
Always looking for inspiration for another story waiting to be told
by: Joshua B. Gray
On a cold and windswept afternoon on the last day of March, Nancy Thayer, best-selling author and new grandmother, spoke from the library of her historic Nantucket home of her life and career as she prepared for the publication of her 18th novel, “Moon Shell Beach.”
The shelves of the library in the home she shares with Charlie Walters, her husband of 24 years, are lined with her many successful novels, some spines showed the names of her books translated into the languages of her fans around the world, alongside the works of authors whom she respects and in whose pages she finds enjoyment.
The mother of two spoke with a certain pride of her children. Both from a previous marriage, Josh the eldest, said Thayer, works with computers and lives in New Hampshire; her daughter Sam is lives in Belchertown, Mass. with her husband, Neil, a teacher at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Sam is in the process of publishing her first book, one on motherhood called “This Little Mommy Stayed Home,” and now pregnant with the couple’s second child. Their first, Ellias, is the greatest of joys to Thayer.
“It’s like being a teenager and having a crush! I think about him all the time. It’s a crazy infatuation,” Thayer said.
A native of Kansas, a place she said she has no desire to return to because of the intense summer heat, Thayer said she found her love for writing even as a young girl when she began to write short stories and read them in her grade school classroom.
She received both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in English literature at The University of Missouri-Kansas City and for a time taught at her alma mater, as well as North Adams State College in Wisconsin. She married for the first time at the age of 20 and as her husband was several years older and previously married, she became a stepmother at the same time.
This experience led to the inspiration for her first novel “Stepping,” 14 years down the road, in 1980. It dealt with her experiences and the relationship of a young mother with the stepchildren that suddenly became part of her life.
“ ‘Stepping’ was vaguely feminist, I think. It was about wanting to be a mother and also having a career,” Thayer said.
Before her first book was published, Thayer for many years went through the motions of writing short stories and essays, sending them to university reviews or literary magazines, sometimes seeing rejection and other times being published. At the time, this process was the way an aspiring author went about getting noticed, she said.
Though her marriage had already ended, her first book was well-received, including favorable commentary inThe New York Times Book Review. This began her career and bestowed on her the rare status of being a popular author of literary fiction.
Shortly after publishing her third novel, Thayer took her first trip to Nantucket to visit with some friends who lived on-island. While here she did an interview for a small public-access television station (Channel 3). The program was called “Arts View” and the host was her future husband.
Walters, an island resident for many years, had just purchased the island’s record shop, Musicall, a business that he ran faithfully until last year when he closed the store and retired. At the time he also hosted “Arts View” on a weekly basis, interviewing island arts figures, and when he heard Thayer was coming for a visit through mutual friends, he invited her on his program.
When asked of his first meeting with his future wife, he simply chuckled and said he immediately knew there was a spark between them. Now retired, he has entered the world of writing himself, working on his first book chronicling a two-month journey he took last year across the length of U.S. Route 20 which runs from Boston to Oregon. When finished, the book will detail the adventures and friendships he experienced along the way.
“We hit it right off,” Thayer said of the couple’s meeting. “After the show he came to my friend’s house and we talked all night.” Three weeks later she returned to Nantucket and Charlie began to show her around the island, starting with a drive in the moors. They continued to see each other taking turns traveling to one another’s homes, hers in Williamstown, Mass. in the northwest corner of the state, and he on Nantucket. Two years later to the day that they met, they were married.
Her books since that time have dealt with a range of emotions and a multitude of situations, many detailing the triumphs and agonies associated with love and friendship. Most have received acclaim from a variety of critics and offer insight into the relationships and experiences common to most women’s lives.
Her experiences and life, said Thayer, are what have inspired her only series and some of her most popular books. “The Hot Flash Club” is a group of four books written in the past decade, the first of which spent considerable time on The New York Times bestseller list.
Of her 18 novels, Thayer said that maybe 10 have been set on Nantucket.
“I find inspiration in two real sources for my books based on Nantucket,” she said. “The land. It is an abiding, inescapable and magic place, and that is always here. Then there is the community that is inspiring, but in a different sort of way. Because we are an island, we are more aware of our place in the community. We are moved and touched by both the good and the bad around us. There is more of a sense of belonging to a human group, and I don’t think this is quantifiable. When the person behind the counter at the post office says, ‘Hi Nancy!’ that means something, or if there is a tragedy it affects us all. It is more real.”
This sentiment is evident in her latest work of fiction, “Moon Shell Beach.” The name of the book is that of a fictional beach on Nantucket where exactly, Thayer said, she can’t quite decide, but it may be a place that could be found on the harbor near Monomoy or The Creeks. It is a quiet, idyllic location not often frequented by many people.
After focusing her attentions on the four books in the “Hot Flash” series, three of which are set in Boston, Thayer said wanted to get back to the island.
Childhood best friends, both raised on Nantucket, her main characters Lexi and Clare share the triumphs and trials of their lives with each other, discovering much along the way in “Moon Shell Beach.”
“This is a story of second and third chances,” Thayer said. “I have seen so many people who are surprised that life doesn’t go in a straight line. For most people there are a lot of blind alleys and making mistakes and forgiving each other, not to mention forgiving ourselves, is a big part of it.”
The book has already started receiving national attention, even before it hit the shelves. Redbook Magazinehas named “Moon Shell Beach” their “Hot Summer Read” and will serialize the work in their July, August and September issues available on newsstands nationwide.
Thayer credits her long-time agent and Nantucket native Meg Ruley with sharpening her focus and helping her to work out the ideas for many of her stories.
Ruley, whose first job in the world of books was at the Nantucket Atheneum, said she was an ardent fan of Thayer’s early novels. Now a resident of a small town on the Hudson River, Ruley commutes each day to New York City where she has worked as a literary agent since 1980.
She met Thayer through another client and friend, author Laura Simon. Having known each other socially for some time, Thayer, while looking for new representation, contacted her and gave her a manuscript of the first book in the “Hot Flash” series.
“The instant Nancy said the title, I was laughing,” Ruley said. “She sent me the manuscript to read and I was totally hooked on her characters.”
Now having worked together for almost six years, Ruley described Thayer as a consummate professional with an amazing work ethic and focus.
According to the two, they have a strong working relationship in which Thayer is always open to suggestions and revision ideas from her editor, and Ruley, said Thayer, has a phenomenal energy and a wonderful laugh that continually encourages her in the writing process.
“I have a really good editor,” she said.
Of the Redbook serialization, Ruley said this commitment by the magazine is a great coup for her client, as major magazines rarely serialize long-form fiction anymore.
Thayer writes from what she called a “beautifully messy” third-floor office that overlooks from a moon-shaped window Nantucket Harbor, as well as the Town Pier, the wharves and the hustle and bustle that accompany them. Inspiration is found in those sights as well, she said. Every morning after getting her coffee she sits down to work on her current project, a ritual that she said began many years ago.
“This started when my kids were in kindergarten. The time I had to write was in the morning when they were at school,” she said, adding that she has continued with the same ritual to this day, to the point of it becoming obsessively compulsive.
With both she and her husband now spending their days “wandering around the house, muttering” their thoughts and ideas to themselves, Thayer said that she enjoys having Charlie home and they manage to stay out of each other’s hair by each keeping to their own writing schedules, as Charlie tends to write in the afternoon and into the evening.
Nantucket is fortunate to have a large group of summer visitors and residents who are very literate, Thayer said, and she has been even more fortunate to have received the response from her readers over the years that she has. She said she enjoys communicating and commiserating with her readers through e-mail, hearing their stories and how they have identified with her books and the characters in them.
As this book hits the shelves she is already well underway with number 19, another story set on Nantucket called “Summer Garden,” about three generations of a family with strong ties to the island. This, another venture into the complexities of human emotion and relationships, will be in bookstores sometime in 2009.
“I love mysteries,” said Thayer of her favorite genre when it comes to her personal reading indulgences. She added she especially enjoys the mysteries of several female British writers, and has thought about delving into that style of writing herself at some point in the future.
Thayer said she almost daily enjoys a walk along the Town Pier, among the wharfs and fishing boats of the harbor where there is always inspiration for another story waiting to be told.