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Jun 12, 2018 11:32 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Novelist Susan Scarf Merrell's 'Shirley' Will Be Made Into A Movie Starring Elisabeth Moss

Jun 12, 2018 11:49 AM

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a short story that many read in high school English class—and it’s one that sticks. Short but sinister, the piece was first published in The New Yorker 70 years ago this month. It is set in a small New England town on the day of the annual “reaping,” in which (spoiler alert!) one member of the community is selected to be sacrificed by stoning.

It’s a haunting piece of fiction that reflects Jackson’s ability as a writer to offer up images of idyllic Americana values set against a background of pure horror, and it’s what the author became known for over the course of her career.

Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Hyman, are also the subjects of “Shirley,” a 2014 novel by Sag Harbor’s Susan Scarf Merrell. Though it uses the real-life couple as its basis, the novel is a psychological thriller that dives into the realm of the mysterious—something Jackson herself did in her own writing—through a series of fictional characters, twists and turns created by Ms. Merrell.

Now, “Shirley” is set to become a feature film starring Elisabeth Moss (from Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and AMC’s “Mad Men”) in the title role, with Michael Stuhlbarg (from “Call Me By Your Name” and “The Shape of Water”) as Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman.

Produced by Los Angeles Media Fund, Killer Films and Annapurna Pictures, the independent feature is slated to be shot later this summer.

In an odd coincidence, Killer Films’ founder, Christine Vachon, is the artistic director of the MFA in film program at Stony Brook Southampton—where Ms. Merrell is a faculty member in the writing program.

“Weirdly, I don’t think I ever met her here,” Ms. Merrell said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t know how that connection was made.”

As most authors are aware, books can be optioned for years and never make it to production, so Ms. Merrell didn’t give it much thought when “Shirley” was optioned a few years back by Sue Naegle at HBO. When Ms. Naegle left HBO for Annapurna Pictures, she took the option for “Shirley” with her—and now, it’s been given the green light for production.

This is a happy surprise for Ms. Merrell, who is content to stay on the sidelines with this project.

“My understanding is that they’ll shoot in August and have a cut in the new year,” she said. “It’s kind of a relief. I know certain things, but I don’t have anything to do with it. … I do think Elisabeth Moss is so perfect for Shirley.”

Also perfect for the film are the intriguing plot twists that Ms. Merrell has built into “Shirley,” which is set in 1964 in the small town of Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson and Hyman lived after he became an English professor at Bennington College in 1945.

Ms. Merrell’s fictional characters in “Shirley” are Fred and Rose Nemser, a young graduate student and his pregnant wife, who move into the Jackson and Hyman home. That’s when the “Bennington Triangle” comes into play.

“It’s this triangle in the mountains outside of the town where quite a few people disappeared under weird circumstances,” Ms. Merrell explained.

Among those who went missing in the “triangle” between 1945 and 1950 was 18-year-old Paula Welden, a sophomore at Bennington College who went for a hike in December 1946 and was never seen again.

“Other people also disappeared around that time,” Ms. Merrell said. “They went up into the mountains, and that would be that.”

In the book, Rose begins to suspect that Stanley Hyman may have been involved in Welden’s disappearance, which occurred not long after Hyman and Jackson arrived in Bennington. It’s an idea that came to Ms. Merrell while she was researching Jackson and her husband.

“I was at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and I found a letter where someone makes a joke about Paula Welden disappearing and blames it on this science fiction character,” she said. “The Hymans and their friends started joking, asking, would Stanley be responsible?

“It stuck with me. My character, Rose, believes Stanley is responsible for Paula Welden’s disappearance,” she added. “It’s completely fictional and the result is of this missing girl.”

Ms. Merrell noted that Jackson wrote a number of short stories about missing girls, probably inspired by Welden and the others who disappeared from Bennington around that time.

In another strange coincidence surrounding “Shirley,” it turns out that Ms. Merrell, who has long been interested in Jackson’s work, was at Bennington College as a graduate student from 2007 to 2009, and initially had no idea that Jackson once lived there.

“I went there having published a couple of books already. As sometimes happens, you just feel like you want to know what more people think about this craft, and that’s how I ended up in grad school,” Ms. Merrell said. “The Jackson thing is pretty weird. My mentor in the first semester, Rachel Pastan, didn’t know Shirley was there either.”

But another mentor at the college did, and when she saw that Ms. Merrell was reading Jackson’s work, told her the author had, indeed, lived in Bennington.

While the psychological twists in “Shirley” will no doubt make for great cinema, Ms. Merrell’s book also is an exploration of the deeper persona of Jackson. She obviously possessed a high intellect and level of creative curiosity that didn’t always sit well in postwar America, where women’s roles as wives and mothers were clearly defined.

“I think Shirley was a really unusual person, but aspects of her story feel universal—the sense of not being quite part of the world and functioning at a high level of intuition,” Ms. Merrell said. “She resonates and articulates a lot of crazy thoughts we don’t articulate.”

Though Jackson was a housewife and raised her children in the expected manner, as a successful author she also was the primary breadwinner for the family, and Ms. Merrell believes that she took ownership of her life in a way many women did not in the era.

“I think there are many ways she didn’t have a feminist’s life, but she represented a shift in that role,” Ms. Merrell said. “Stanley was a communist, and though they probably didn’t stay part of the party, they were radical in their thinking. In the mid- and late 1940s, they were talking about open relationships and free love, embracing things that upper-middle-class upbringing did not represent.”

And Ms. Merrell noted that Jackson also had an innate understanding of the darker side of what it meant to be a woman, as well as a good person, all the while validating the bad girl that lives deep inside every good girl.

“Consequences are really different for women, and she paid the price for it. She was called insane, while he was clever and marvelous—though, in essence, they were swimming down the same part of the river,” Ms. Merrell said of Jackson and Hyman.

In the biographies of Shirley Jackson that she read, Ms. Merrell found evidence that though she and Hyman had a wide circle of friends and an active social life, she realized that Jackson had an uneasy relationship with many of the people of Bennington.

“In my fantasy of what will be in the movie is this uniquely, iconoclastically feminist kind of person,” Ms. Merrell said. “A feminist without any kind of rubric of feminism. Now that I remember it, Betty Friedan, in her breakout book, said something about Jackson that was quite derogatory—she kind of put her down as one of those people deceptively acting like a housewife, but, look at her, she’s writing books.

“Ten years after Jackson wrote ‘Life Among the Savages,’ Betty Friedan said she was betraying readers with this pernicious myth of the 'happy housewife,'” Ms. Merrell added, reading from a 2015 New York Times essay about Jackson’s book. “She didn’t get it. Shirley was so subversive, she was saying, look, it’s all nice, but there’s that devious feeling, that undercurrent.

“Jackson was nailing that and saying it’s okay.”

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