What does it mean to make amends? In Jane Green's latest novel, Summer Secrets, we follow Cat, a London journalist and recovering alcoholic on her journey through the twelve steps, which ultimately leads her to lovely beaches of Nantucket. I spoke with Jane Green about the power need to belong, what it means to be recovered, and the importance of sunscreen.
To get started, I would love to know more about the inception of Summer Secrets. What inspired you to tell Cat's story?
My husband has a cousin who discovered, in his fifties, that the man he thought was his father was actually not, and that he had not only a father he had never met, but brothers. It has changed his life, and I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to discover the entire foundation of your life was built on a lie, how would you reconcile it, what would it be like, how would you fit into your new family, and your old. Around the same time, for health reasons, I gave up sugar, carbohydrates, dairy and alcohol. It lasted a year, and I decided to take myself off to AA meetings, because the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking, and I wanted to stop drinking. I have been around 12-step programs for many years, but never AA, and I found such tremendous wisdom in those meetings. The basic tenets of the program: humility, gratitude, taking responsibility, taking it a day at a time, all of them were profound for me, and after a few months I knew I wanted my protagonist to be an alcoholic, but not perhaps in the typical way so many of us see alcoholics. I wanted her to be just like us, working, socializing, relatable in every way, but for the fact that when alcohol calls, she can't say no.
Cat's troubles seem to echo a distinct pattern around the fear of not belonging. What do you think Summer Secrets says about belonging to your family, your friendship group, or even your city?
I have written about the concept of family of choice for many years. As someone who is displaced - I left London almost fifteen years ago to make Connecticut my home - I am drawn to stories about people who don't belong, whether physically or emotionally, and who find their families of choice in their friends. For as much as Cat finds her family, loses them, then finds them again, or so she thinks, the story is more about her finding peace and happiness with her family of choice.
Cat's journey intricately traces her path through recovery. What do you think it takes to actually be in recovery or to make amends? Do have any words of advice for readers that might see themselves in Cat's self-destruction?
I think the primary motivator in recovery is willingness. Anyone can go to meetings, but actually living in recovery takes an awful lot of work, and the willingness to do that work. Meetings are never enough; you need a sponsor, you need to work the steps, and it can take years to fully understand what living in recovery means. So many people walk into those meetings desperate at being controlled by something that isn't good for them - alcohol, food, sex, etc - and they are volatile, and emotionally-stunted, and at times dishonest, sometimes compensating for huge inadequacy with grandiosity... whatever the issues are, it takes work and commitment to reach a place of humility and rigorous honesty, which is what living in the steps is all about.
Summer Secrets is told with a layered timeline. What process did you use for crafting this novel so uniquely? How did you keep track of the different strands in time?
I write in a linear fashion, and Audrey's story, Cat's mother, was never meant to be a huge part of the story, but as I started to write her she became so vivid, and her story so real, I found I just kept writing. We move forward in a linear fashion, from Audrey's story, to Cat in her twenties, to Cat in her forties, now sober and a single mother. I wrote it as it happened, with little jumping back and forth.
Elin Hilderbrand wrote that "Summer Secrets is the quintessential beach novel, complete with juicy drama and characters you fall madly in love with." I agree with her assessment-both of the genre and your book. What makes a great beach novel to you? What are some of your favorites?
Anything by Elin Hildebrand is a win! I think this works as a beach novel mostly because it's set between London and the gorgeous summery island of Nantucket, although it's probably a little deeper and darker than the quintessential beach read. What I want in a good beach read is sunshine, drama, easy-reading and transportation to another world and other people's problems. My other huge recommendation is always Emma Straub's The Vacationers for just the perfect, perfect summer read.
I wanted to thank you for your opinion piece in Time where you wrote your malignant melanoma diagnosis. Is there any wisdom you want to share to prompt your fellow sun worshippers to be proactive about their health?
Yes! Always! I spent the first Summer after my diagnosis creeping about in giant sun hats and tents, cursing the sun, staying inside as much as possible. Now I am beginning to think the most important thing is educated sun exposure, because the melanomas of today are not caused by today's sunbathing but by our childhoods and early adolescence. However, burning today may cause melanomas later in life, so be sensible: stay out of the sun between the hours of 11 and 3, wear sunblock, and don't sunburn. I don't lie out tanning anymore, but I haven't avoided the sun in the way I first did, and I will always, always stay out of the sun in the middle of the day.