The ends of the earth where land meets sea is traditionally a great place to set a story, especially when trouble is brewing. So when Nicola Harrison set out to write her first book, she decided to do just that — and she made sure the location was also a place that was near and dear to her heart.
That place, and the name of the book, is “Montauk,” Harrison’s debut novel, and in a recent interview she shared some of her affection for the hamlet where she once had a summer home.
“During my time there, it wasn’t as cool as it is now,” explained Harrison. “I saw the mom and pop shops were going away. I felt nostalgic about how it used to be and I wanted to capture that.”
On Sunday, December 8, at noon, Harrison will come to The American Hotel in Sag Harbor to talk about “Montauk” in conjunction with The Friends of the John Jermain Memorial Library’s annual Book and Author Luncheon. Though the changes Harrison witnessed during her time in Montauk were fairly recent ones, and centered primarily on the transition of a sleepy fishing community that was quickly becoming a hipster hot spot, Harrison decided to focus her story on a time of change for Montauk that came a bit earlier — in the first half of the 20th century.
“I saw parallels in how it was changing, then and now, and I felt that was interesting to write about,” she said.
Harrison’s novel takes place in the summer of 1938 and it tells the story of Beatrice Bordeaux, a young married woman who is tasked by her businessman husband, Harry, to further his investment portfolio by ingratiating herself with the society wives who have been installed in the Montauk Manor hotel for the season. Meanwhile, Harry stays behind in the city where he’s kept busy pursuing other less wholesome interests of his own.
“But when she gets out there, she feels isolated and is not connecting with these women in the way he wanted her to,” Harrison said. “instead, she’s drawn to the locals. As her life becomes entwined with their lives, it gets more complicated.”
Further complicating the storyline is the great New England hurricane which, as we know, destroyed much of the area as it barreled up the East Coast in early September 1938 – an at event that also figures prominently in Harrison’s book.
“I knew that the storm was going to happen. I thought it was so interesting when I did research to learn that it caught everyone so off-guard,” Harrison said. “Beatrice is staying in the Montauk Manor and that’s where everyone takes refuge from the storm.
“That actually happened — people went up there to wait it out.”
Research played a key role in the plot structure of the book and Harrison learned a great deal about the people of Montauk and their way of life in the 1920s and ‘30s, including Carl Fisher, the famed developer who, in 1926, built the imposing Tudor-style Montauk Manor on the highest hill in the hamlet. Fisher was also the visionary behind the creation of Miami Beach as a resort in the 1920s, and while he had grand plans to turn Montauk into a similar tourist mecca, ultimately, it was not to be. After building roads, cottages, houses, and other buildings, all in the same signature Tudor style, Fisher’s Montauk dream was dashed by a series of unfortunate events. Among them was a hurricane that wiped out Miami Beach in 1926 (taking the income Fisher needed to complete his Montauk development with it), followed by the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression.
While her novel is set in a real place during a very specific period in its history, Harrison notes that while writing “Montauk,” she didn’t want to get bogged down in the absolute truth of it all.
“I read all the local history books at the library there, I went to the lighthouse and met with historian Henry Osmers,” said Harrison, “and he introduced me to Vinny Grimes, a local in Montauk who had lived there his whole life, and they told me what it was like growing up there.
“And then I put all the research aside and started writing,” she said. “The stuff that stuck with me from my research, I put in, and I let it come naturally.”
As the story progresses and Beatrice becomes acquainted with the year-round residents of Montauk who make their living from the sea, she begins to drift away, both from the Manor society wives whom she’s expected to befriend as well as her husband.
And of course, there’s a storm brewing just beyond the horizon, in more ways than one.
Harrison, a native of England who moved to California with her family as a teenager, settled in New York City as an adult. Though she has worked as a fashion journalist, her deep dive into the world of long-form writing began when she enrolled in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Stony Brook University and took classes both in the city and at the Southampton campus.
“I was actually writing a memoir, which I didn’t end up publishing, but I wrote it throughout my MFA time,” she said. “In some ways, I wish I had not been writing that and had been open to taking every type of class available.”
Because she came from a journalistic background, Harrison admits she was initially somewhat reluctant to delve into the world of fiction, but as is often the case when pursuing higher education, as she worked her way through the MFA program, Harrison came to understand more about herself and her interests.
“I thought, this memoir is my thesis, and I finished it, which was good,” she said. “But I didn’t start writing this book until I finished my MFA — then it poured out of me.”
Harrison still visits the East End, but these days, no longer has a house in Montauk so instead, spends time in other towns and villages.
And her next novel?
“The next one will be set in the 1920s in Manhattan and the Adirondacks,” she said, noting that she likes the idea of staying with the general time period. “I’m also thinking about writing books about England. I get nostalgic for these small towns.”
Tickets for The Friends of the John Jermain Memorial Library’s Author’s Luncheon are $60. Call Valerie Cuyjet at 631-725-4147 to reserve. The American Hotel is at 45 Main Street, Sag Harbor.
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