|Sarah McCoy, photo by Emily Martin|
Sarah McCoy is the author of the new novel Marilla of Green Gables, which looks at the character Marilla from the classic Anne of Green Gables series. McCoy's other books include The Mapmaker's Children and The Baker's Daughter, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Real Simple and The Millions. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Q: How did you end up writing this novel about Marilla Cuthbert, the character from the famous book Anne of Green Gables?
A: 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 asked me, “What do you really want to write next, Sarah? What’s something that you’d only dared dream about but really excites you?”
I’d never had an editor take an active role in the brainstorming part of book development. It was wholly refreshing.
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.
Marilla of Green Gables was a novel that somewhat terrified me to write. Green Gables is sacred territory. 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.
Q: What did you see as the right balance between the original Marilla and Matthew and your own creations, which show them as younger people?
A: Lucy Maud Montgomery has given us two very complicated yet deeply loveable characters in Marilla and Matthew. She left an excellent literary breadcrumb trail. I considered it a joy to follow it backwards and discover their younger selves. During their childhoods, so much was happening in Canada, Prince Edward Island, North America, and the greater world. All of those influences shape characters.
And again, Montgomery had written into the original texts so many tiny, wonderful details that gave 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 noting every description, emotional response, every commented opinion, every habit, routine, and preference. Then I placed them into the historical context to find the connections.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?
A: I love history and learning unknown truths about the past. A majority of the work on this novel was research. It was an intensive course on Canadian history.
I was in touch with Canadian author Susanna Kearsley, who graciously answered many of my questions about the attitudes within Canadian politics.
Susanna sent me copious links to archived documents related to the differing opinions of the 19th century Canadians regarding the sovereignty of England, independence, slavery, and runaway slaves from America (pre-American Civil War). I learned there was far more conflict in Canada than we (Americans) ever knew.
It was utterly fascinating and eye opening to see similar cycles of bitter division between citizens. I wrote this book curing our own conservative-versus-liberal struggle in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The historical mirrors were undeniable.
Q: What do you think accounts for the ongoing interest in Anne of Green Gables, and were you always a fan?
A: Yes, I’ve been an Anne of Green Gables devotee since my mother first read me the book before I could read myself. Currently, the Netflix series Anne with an E has sparked a new flame in the younger generations. The show is inspired by the original texts but not adherent to them.
The writer (Moira Walley-Beckett) has gone off the books and written a modernist’s alternative universe for Anne Shirley and the Cuthberts of Green Gables. It’s marvelously inventive and entirely its own creation. I believe watchers can enjoy the TV series but then pick up the books to understand the deep, rich territory from which the series grew.
Similarly, I believe readers who have or haven’t read Anne of Green Gables can pick up Marilla of Green Gables and enjoy the experience of this evocative place and people. There can never be too much Green Gables in the world—that’s my mantra.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: You know, I’m sort of on a pause button. I have a handful of ideas in mind for my next historical fiction project and will be discussing those with my William Morrow editor.
Yes, it’s the same editor who asked me to dare to dream and who is, indeed, a kindred [spirit]. I know that whatever we work on together will be imbued with spirit and a journey to territories of the heart.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I implore all the Anne with an E Netflix devotees to pick up the original Montgomery books. Parents, please give them to your children and read along. They are wondrous and replete with historical, emotional, and intellectual truths.
I wrote Marilla of Green Gables to be an independent prequel to those venerated originals. So if you like, you can start there.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sarah McCoy.