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Caitlin Shetterly on her novel 'Pete and Alice in Maine'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Some people kind of like the pandemic - not illness, worry and feeling trapped, but having your children close by and everything from bread, radicchio, milk, or oat milk, to toothpicks delivered - people like Pete and Alice, a married New York City couple. Pete is in finance; Alice, a playwright whose career has been delayed by caring for their two children, Sophie and Iris. Their marriage is rocked by Pete's cheating and then COVID. They repaired their second home in Maine to feel safer from COVID, but they take along all their resentments, challenges and love.

Caitlin Shetterly is the author of the new novel "Pete And Alice In Maine." Her work may be familiar from This American Life. She's also editor in chief of Frenchly, the online site for French cultural news, and joins us from Freeport, Maine. Thanks so much for being with us.

CAITLIN SHETTERLY: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so thrilled to talk to you.

SIMON: You say in an author's note that in April 2020, a voice came to you. So we'll cue the spooky music while you tell us what happened.

SHETTERLY: My character of Alice came to me in April of 2020. For a little bit there, I'd go out running, and I'd see Massachusetts and New York and New Jersey license plates in my home state of Maine. And I was born and raised here. And Maine is a poor and aging state, and we don't have many hospital beds. We didn't have enough ventilators, so we were really paying attention to this influx of people whom we perceived to have more privilege than many of us here in Maine have but who were nonetheless fleeing. What - I was interested in what about their lives prompted them to want to find refuge here in Maine.

And then all of a sudden, I'm standing at the fridge, and this voice came to me, and it was undeniably not mine. And the entire first page of the book downloaded into my head, and I trundled upstairs in the dark and went into my office and sat down with a pad of paper and just wrote down everything she had said. And then I woke up the next morning, and she was in my head telling me the next page. And I thought, oh, my God, Alice. So we've all, in our house, been living with Pete and Alice for quite a bit.

SIMON: You know, you can see someone about that now.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Or you can write a novel. And, of course, without giving away too much, at the heart of the story is the fact that this is a marriage that is in many ways coming apart, and then Pete and Alice have to go off together with their children. And there's no way of leaving those problems behind in Manhattan.

SHETTERLY: I've always been preoccupied by divorce and marriages that fall apart. And I think the pandemic hastened a real reckoning with that question, honestly. I felt like I was aware of friends who were struggling or feeling imprisoned or feeling like I need this over. And in our family, it was actually a time of knitting back together, and that really interested me. That was the thing, like, this question of, will this marriage make it? And what happens when you're stuck together, and it's COVID, and you retire to your unwinterized summer house, and your marriage is on the rocks?

SIMON: Pete keeps asking Alice for - to forgive him for his affair. Alice is suspicious of what we call forgiveness, isn't she?

SHETTERLY: Yeah, she is. I mean, that was another thing I wanted to explore. I don't know what you think, Scott, but what is forgiveness, really?

SIMON: I had not thought about it in depth until I read this book. I mean, I thought I knew what forgiveness entailed, and then I was wrong.

SHETTERLY: Exactly. Yeah. That's the thing, and me too. As I started to think about it, and with him asking her to forgive him, I started to wonder, well, what does it feel like? And do you ever really forgive someone, or do you just kind of move on?

And there's one night where she thinks she has forgiven him, and she feels this warm rush go through her body, but she doesn't tell him. She says, I'll tell him in the morning. And then in the morning she wakes up, and she's not sure she forgives him anymore.

And I think that kind of mercurial quality of forgiveness - to me, I think that's really honest. I think forgiveness is hard, and I think many of us turn to faith and friends, therapists, whatever, to help guide us to a more solid feeling of forgiveness.

SIMON: As you say in the afterword, 2020 was a tough year for your family, wasn't it?

SHETTERLY: It was a difficult year. My husband lost his job. We went on unemployment, and then I got sick. I had a very intense illness called an autoimmune storm that started with shingles in my eye. And then I got - my immune system attacked my thyroid and then my pancreas. And by January, I was diagnosed with autoimmune Type 1 diabetes. So I took about a three-month break from writing this book. But if anything, it made me want to write it more. The characters of Pete and Alice and their world became a refuge for me, too, from what was going on.

SIMON: In what ways do you think the novel is different because you wrote it at this point contending with so much? I wonder if it opened you up to understanding the characters in a different way.

SHETTERLY: I think you're right. I think it made me search for empathy, and it made me stop judging people and just want to know what their story was - not that I wasn't like that before. I was, of course. But I wanted to know what was beyond the fancier car with the New Jersey plate. I wanted to know what people needed and wanted, what they were struggling with. And I really wanted to write a bracingly honest book about marriage and being a Gen X woman and kids and daughters. And I wanted to write about girls and mothers and dads and everything else I could think of.

SIMON: Your novel more or less ends with a question.

SHETTERLY: Yeah.

SIMON: Now, don't tell us the answer, but can you tell us, do you know the answer?

SHETTERLY: No. I'm not sure I do. I might have to write some more to figure it out.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, that's what makes it dangle so artfully at the end, isn't it?

SHETTERLY: Yeah. I mean, that seemed like the natural place to end it. I just felt like leaving us with a question mark about what Alice is going to do next was where it needed to stay. And now I also need to think about what happens next. I've had people who read advance copies write me entire pages about what they think happens next (laughter) and email them to me. And I love that.

SIMON: Fan fiction, I guess. Yeah.

SHETTERLY: Well, no, it's friends even saying, well, here's what I think happens next. And I love it that people are telling me. It's cool.

SIMON: Caitlin Shetterly's new novel, "Pete And Alice In Maine." Thank you so much for being with us.

SHETTERLY: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA'S "SHIN RAMYUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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