Female Friendship, Literature and Obsession in “Shirley”

Posted on 18 June 2014

By Tessa Raebeck

Author Susan Scarf Merrell will read from "Shirley" June 21 at BookHampton in Southampton.

Author Susan Scarf Merrell will read from “Shirley” June 21 at BookHampton in Southampton.

While writing “Shirley,” Susan Scarf Merrell worried for her protagonist, Rose. Rose is caught between the world in her own head and the real one outside of it in the novel, which examines themes of obsession, creativity and womanhood in the 1960s.

Shirley,” which Ms. Merrell will read from at BookHampton in Southampton Saturday, centers on the relationships that evolve when pregnant Rose and her husband Fred move in with celebrated writer Shirley Jackson and her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. With dark twists and multilayered characters, the historical fiction novel celebrates literature while delving into its underbelly.

“Reading both Shirley and Stanley’s letters, journal entries, essays and books, I began to hear the voice of Rose developing in my mind,” Ms. Scarf Merrell said in a press release. “The shift from researching a non-fiction work to beginning a novel was quite abrupt.”

“One sudden moment of realization (I was out in the woods walking my dog, and started taking notes using the voice recorder on my cell phone), and the project took on an entirely different form. But I think one of Shirley Jackson’s many gifts was an ability to massage real life events into fiction; in some ways, this was an inevitable turn of events for me,” she added.

“Jackson has always been one of the more intriguing and misunderstood writers of her generation, a woman writer at the cusp of feminism’s second wave who nevertheless was erroneously dismissed for writing mere ‘domestic fiction,’” Booklist said in a review of “Shirley.” “Merrell brings this complicated and compelling woman to life through the kind of taut and intimate thriller Jackson herself would have been proud to call her own.”

Susan Scarf Merrell will read from “Shirley” Saturday, June 21, at 5 p.m. at BookHampton, located at 16 Hampton Road in Southampton. For more information, call (631) 283-0270.

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