Caitlin Shetterly, PETE AND ALICE IN MAINE

Caitlin Shetterly, PETE AND ALICE IN MAINE

Zibby interviews Caitlin Shetterly about her gripping, tender, big-hearted debut novel, PETE AND ALICE IN MAINE. The story, inspired by the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, intimately explores a fractured marriage and the struggles of modern parenthood. Caitlin shares her writing process, which was influenced by her observations of the pandemic and the complexities of human relationships during crises. She also discusses juggling writing with motherhood and homeschooling her children, offering insights into her creative approach, which includes jotting down ideas in notebooks and writing in short, spontaneous sessions.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Caitlin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Pete and Alice in Maine.

Caitlin Shetterly: Thank you for having me so much. Moms also don’t have time to promote books, it turns out. I’m coming from a sweaty run. It’s so nice to be on here. It’s so nice to meet you in person. I love the thoughtful things you said about my book, but also just about all books. It means so much to me to read the things you say because I can tell you really care. That doesn’t happen that much in the world these days.

Zibby: Thank you. I do care, probably too much. I’m like, what am I even doing with myself? I don’t know.

Caitlin: You’re reading a ton.

Zibby: I am reading a ton. I know, but I love it. This happens to have been one book that I carried with me on every trip for so long just meting it out. I didn’t want it to end. Little bits. Sometimes I read in one fell swoop, but this, I read over time. I feel like I’ve really gotten to know your characters so well like I’m friends with them. I root for them. Pete and Alice are my buds. Why don’t you tell listeners what your book is about?

Caitlin: It’s about a couple that comes to their second house in Maine just as COVID descends on New York City. They are the kind of people who are lucky enough to have a second house to retreat to. They come. All is not necessarily well in their marriage and in their family. They’re suddenly thrown back together again. They’re stuck in the house. The neighbors in Maine are not exactly pleased that these New Yorkers have come, perhaps carrying COVID, right there in March of 2020. I’m born and raised in Maine. I don’t have a second house anywhere. I wrote it because there were all these license plates coming in at the beginning of COVID that we’d see when we were outside going for a run or a walk or whatever, with Massachusetts plates or New York plates or New Jersey plates. At first, it was upsetting to those of us who are Mainers. We’re actually a poor state if you take the whole state into account, not just the coast, which is more affluent. We don’t have a lot of hospital beds. At that point, we didn’t have very many ventilators. Many of us were really concerned. We didn’t have enough toilet paper. They were meting it out at the grocery store down the road. They were meting it out at the back of the grocery store. Two rolls to a family. You had to sign. It was one of those moments where I think many of us thought, how is this ever going to work to have this influx of people?

Then this voice came to me in April of 2020. My husband was asleep. I was down at the fridge. I was getting vitamins, as we all were taking copious fistfuls of vitamins at that point in time. This voice came out, and it was Alice. Literally, the first two or three pages of the book just fell out. I thought, this is extremely inconvenient right now. I’m homeschooling my children. Everybody’s on top of each other. I am working on another book, or I was supposed to be. I thought, this just isn’t going to work. I came up, and I wrote down everything she said. I went to sleep. The next morning, the next page came out. I thought, oh, my god. I said to my husband, “I’ve been visited by this character. She’s talking to me.” He said, “Just write it down,” so I did. What it really became was an exercise in empathy. We might see these cars come in with license plates that aren’t ours. This is an experience of difference. How do we be tolerant? How do we have empathy? We don’t know what’s behind those tinted glass windows, necessarily. We don’t know what’s going in those lives. I wanted to know, beyond COVID, what was making somebody want to come to Maine to find refuge? What were they running from? I feel like so many things were happening in the world at that time. We had COVID. We had Trump as our president, the environmental disaster that’s ongoing. What tips the scales? What makes, actually, the COVID situation an exit hatch? That’s where the book began and why I wrote it. I loved writing it. Like you, those characters became friends for me. My friend Selena and I would go on walks, and we would talk about Pete and Alice like they lived up the road or something. I still talk about them. Last night at dinner, I was saying, “Pete and Alice are now…” My older son is like, “Oh, god.” They aren’t real, but we feel like they’re real.

Zibby: Do you still hear their voices? What are they doing now? Do you know?

Caitlin: I’m trying to figure that out. You know, I realized I wasn’t quite done with them. As you know, the book ends on sort of a cliffhanger. I wasn’t done. I felt like they were still in my head. I had to get through all the book stuff, all that crazy time when you’re writing essays and doing all these other things. It feels very discombobulating. This fall when I sat down to write again, they came back out. I realized there was more I wanted to discover with them. Also, I wanted to go back to those girls. They have two daughters. I have sons. Of course, I was a daughter. I have lots of female friends. I know daughters. For me, this was kind of special because I almost got to create daughters and get to know them a little bit. I really wanted to go back to those girls, especially Sophie as she’s entering her teenage years. I wanted to follow that along a little bit and see what happens. That’s where I am now.

Zibby: So you’re writing a conclusion, essentially. Part two.

Caitlin: Part two. I love Elizabeth Strout’s work that picks up with different characters, and John Updike, who was one of my mentors and somebody whose writing I just adore. He wrote the Rabbit, Run books, of course, and The Maples Stories. Richard Ford’s novels. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to write other things. Oh, my gosh, there are so many other things I want to write, but I could still hear these characters talking to me and fighting with each other in my head. I had to get them out first. Then maybe I can go onto the next thing.

Zibby: I love that. I love when characters have second lives, like All in the Family goes over to Different Strokes or something, like in the eighties, how you have guest appearances. You get to see them in different contexts. That’s also really neat.

Caitlin: I think we all do. I think it’s because that’s how our lives work. A book is a snapshot of a time, usually, and an event. There’s usually some sort of crescendo. Truthfully, lives go on. I think the quotidian, the normalization of a life going on is very comforting for readers. It is for me, anyway. I love it when I read Elizabeth Strout and I realize, oh, gosh, that’s Lucy. Oh, that’s that guy from that other book. I just find that so exciting.

Zibby: A recognition, familiarity. Talk about when you were writing and all the things that were going on and how — you said it was so inconvenient. How did you actually fit this in? We can all imagine what that time was like in our various lives and being home and stressed. Talk about when you found the time and how you managed to carve it out and what even the act of writing did for you emotionally during that time.

Caitlin: That’s a great, great question. Like so many mothers, parents, it’s so hard to find the time to do anything for yourself, even that ten-minute run or do a few sit-ups, whatever it is, make a separate dinner that isn’t the same mac and cheese for the fourth night in a row or whatever. During that time, COVID gave me this unusual break, Zibby. It wasn’t a break, but it strangely was. One of the things that beleaguers my life is how much driving I do. That was suddenly wiped away, taken out of my life. I find that driving is the biggest energy zap of my existence. There was a period last year where I said to my husband, “If I have to drive down 295 one more time, I am going to be so spiritually bankrupt by the first of June. I may have to just lie down for three weeks.” It just felt like it was sucking my life blood. I think that those of us who drive or ferry our kids to activities and want to give them these rich lives, maybe even richer lives than we had, there’s this great responsibility to ferry them lots of places and to be there with a water bottle and this and that. Immediately, some time was made that way. My husband also was really excited about this story. I wrote the first chapter thinking it would be a short story that I would send out to the five magazines that still take short fiction. They would all say no. We would all be relieved and be able to move on.

I wrote it. I read it to my husband one night. It was midnight. He said, “Oh, my god, what’s happening now?” I said, “No, I think you’ve misunderstood. This is done. That was a period. I’m over with this. That was a short story.” He said, “No, no, no, I need to know what happens next. You got to write this for me.” He went downstairs, and he got us each a glass of wine. We had four oysters that somebody had dropped off for us. We never ate oysters. He found this David Tanis recipe and fried them up and let me eat them. We sat on the couch, and we talked about it. He just gave me this pitch that was basically like, “I really think these characters — these are all the things that are going on and why I want to hear more.” I sat down to write the next thing thinking, okay, this will be a long short story, parts one and two of a short story. I’ve seen short stories do that. Then it was like, well, what happens after that? I just kept going. One thing that COVID gave us, though I was homeschooling my kids — it was kind of funny because my kids did not do online school. They took one look and were like, no way, that is not for us. I had one in preschool at the time. The other one was in fifth grade. Part of the reason they did that is that — in late February when COVID was breaking out in China and other places, I had this feeling, sneaking suspicion that — you know, globalization — that it would come here. Like everybody, I thought it was going to be a flu, and it was going to be two weeks.

I asked my kids casually one night, “What would you want to do during those two weeks, say, if we all got the flu and got sick? Is there anything? You might have to not go to school for a couple weeks.” My older one said French and French culture. My younger one said Egypt and mummies. I went to the library. Between three of us — we all had library cards. I got out 150 books on everything to do with Egypt, France, French culture, language, whatever. I hid them under a blanket in my office. When COVID happened, I was sort of like, ta-da! We had this readymade curriculum that we built together in the next few days, the kids and Dan and I. Then when the online thing started, they just thought, this is more interesting. Dan and I really threw ourselves into it. What that meant was that we weren’t on anyone else’s schedule. I got to carve out little bits of time while he took them out in the woods or whatever. It was really special because we got to put down so much of the busyness and so much that’s about, as mothers, carving our lives around the schedules of other people. I didn’t have to do that anymore. I didn’t have to heed by everyone else’s rules. I could just exist in a very slow way. In some ways, I was really scared that I wasn’t going to be able to start writing again this fall. I thought, what if I need a plague in order to write? What if I can’t do it otherwise? I’m noticing that it’s a little different. I’m hectic, but I try to sit down. I’m a person who, as a writer, never looks back. I write the next. I never go back. I always write the next bit. I try to leave a little bit for myself to — a sentence that’s not quite finished, a thought that isn’t quite finished. I just write forward. I write for twenty minutes, thirty minutes, an hour, whatever I can do. Then it’s done. I don’t do it every day because I can’t. That’s what I try to do.

Zibby: I love that. As you were talking, I was thinking about when I was a stay-at-home mom before I started any of this stuff. I realized one day with all the calendars and drop-offs and pickups, I was like — I had this color-coded — as I still do. I didn’t even have a calendar for me. I didn’t have a calendar. My calendar was their calendar. I was like, how could I have my own calendar? There’s no room in the schedule for my own calendar.

Caitlin: That’s how we all feel. I can’t even imagine having a calendar for me.

Zibby: First of all, I haven’t heard of anybody who had the creativity to get a curriculum sort of hidden. That’s so smart of you. How extraordinary for your kids to have their interests met and that you devoted your life to just fostering their interests. That’s just the coolest. That’s really awesome.

Caitlin: We had an awesome time. We studied eels. Then we made math problems out of eels. We studied running as part of — we measured and did math with how far we were running. We just made everything into a learning thing. That was great. We did French Fridays where we cooked together. We made some sort of thing from Julia Child or The Times or whatever and tried to learn how to cook a French dish. That was really enjoyable. We’ve had lots of mistakes. We had great times. We’d light candles and eat it. I remember one time we took these — they’re called pan bagnat, which is a tuna fish sandwich that’s soaked with olive oil and vinegar and stuff, and olives. We took these to the beach. My husband and my sons — not me; I was far down the beach — exhumed an entire rotting seal corpse and pieced it back together to figure out how it worked. I’ll forever not be able to eat those sandwiches ever again. We did these unusual things that we would never have done on a Tuesday in September at any other point in our lives.

Zibby: That is the craziness of this time, that families got so much time together, for good or for bad. That’s amazing. Did your husband have any issues with Pete? He does some reprehensible things. I feel like the reader is sympathetic to Pete when we understand him more as well. How does he feel about it?

Caitlin: That’s a great question. There were some people who were worried or might have thought that Pete was my husband Dan. They couldn’t be more different. Actually, he really was touched by how I understood a lot of the male psyche. I remember him saying to me at one point, “Wow, I don’t know how you do that.” I’ve known a lot of men. I’ve known guys like Pete. I didn’t marry a guy like Pete. My husband’s the most loyal. He’ll do anything for me and the kids. He’s so devoted to us. I’ve known lots of Petes. Any strife in any marriage, of course, you can take your own experience and just overlay it on a larger problem to look at culture and gender and gen X. There’s so much that I related to about Alice, which is being overburdened, not having time to write. That’s one of her problems. She’s a mom. Does not have time to write. She writes little notes and puts them in notebooks. Then they end up in vinyl bins under her bed. She can never quite get back there because he’s got the big, fancy job. She desperately wants the time taking care of her kids. She doesn’t want a nanny, but she also resents it. She’s one of these gen X women that I feel like I was and lots of women I know are. She’s been told she can do it all. Truthfully, there aren’t enough pieces of her body to do it all, to have the successful career, to be the kind of mom, to stay home and make cookies, to be at every PTA meeting, to be the kind of wife, to go out to dinner with her husband, to look good. She always sort of feels like a schlub because she just can’t muster it. They drift apart. Any difficulty with the kids or anything makes them drift farther apart. In answer to your question, I think that Dan really felt that I was making a very real portrait of a marriage and a family, but I don’t think he ever felt like it was us. It’s amazing how you can make up stuff.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s amazing.

Caitlin: It’s amazing that you can. You don’t have to write a novel about yourself.

Zibby: I know. It’s wild. Fiction, it’s amazing. I want to talk about you as a writer and how you went down this path. I just wanted to read this one sentence. I don’t know why. It embodies your skill of writing. “Finding Alice was like making some sort of grave rubbing with a thick charcoal pencil on thin, translucent paper. The more of those dark scratches he made on the sheet, the more interesting the little blobs of light and texture appeared and the most invested he became as she came into focus.” That’s just beautiful. You don’t really think about applying that imagery to the — I just was like, wow, that’s a beautiful sentence. How did you become a writer? I know you went to Brown because I’m working with Sam , who I love.

Caitlin: I love Sam.

Zibby: Tell me how you got from Maine to there and when writing became a thing and just the quick-and-dirty of your life.

Caitlin: I think I was always a writer. I think those of us who are storytellers, we just are. You write your thoughts down. My mother’s a writer. My dad’s an artist. I grew up in a family with lots of books and poetry and writing around me. I also felt very isolated in some ways in my family for reasons I won’t go into. The thing is that I found writing to be a refuge for myself. It was a place I could close the bathroom door or lock it, sit on the toilet seat, and just write down in my journal or a story or whatever, what was going on for myself. I was really profoundly moved by books. I loved books. I would spend hours reading. I was just a voracious reader. I was very touched by the world. Everything would coalesce in my brain as thoughts, imagery, words. I grew up in a small town in Maine. I went to visit colleges. I went to Brown and thought it seemed great and got in and loved it. I just absolutely loved it. I had a blast. I wish I could go back. Anyone out there who is listening or watching who’s about to go to college, savor it because it’s gone before you know it. I took a year off and went to France for a year. I had visited France. I just felt like the pressure of trying to get into college and all that was something I needed to unravel a bit from. Then I went to school, so I was a little more mature at that point.

That’s it. Then I started writing. I actually really wanted to be an actress. I still do. That’s one of those dreams. It just never happened. I was writing all the time. I just kept writing. Being an actress seemed complicated and hard. My family didn’t understand why I would ever want to be an actress. The path of least resistance, in a lot of ways, that was, in some ways, less threatening and challenging and less brave was being a writer because I had a road map for that. What’s been cool about that and about — I went to acting school in New York. I love to think in the voices of other people. I had this acting teacher one time who really talked about falling in love with even your worst character. If you’re playing Iago, you have to love Iago. You have to really connect with what Iago is struggling with. To go back to Pete and to get into the mentality of Pete, of somebody who’s hurting his family, I had to fall in love with him and care about him and want to protect him just as much as I did Alice, and his truth. That’s something you really have to do to be a good actor.

Zibby: It’s this deep sensitivity that enables all of the things, listening and feeling like you’re someone else. I remember saying this. I went to some career development class in business school. I was like, I’m really good at being in other people’s brains. I can imagine. I can put myself in other people’s shoes. They’re like, congratulations, how about marketing? I’m like, what do I do with this? This is such a random thing. I can’t even explain it. Turns out it’s writing, so there you go. Any words of advice for other writers, people who are drawn to this crazy world of wanting to create and listen to the voices in their head and all of that? What advice would you give?

Caitlin: The things I try to say to people are, one, always carry a little notebook. I carry lots of these little things like that. I’ve got tons and tons of them. Some of them are just the little Mead spiral notebooks. I keep them in my back pocket, in my car, in my apron down in the kitchen, next to the phone, just everywhere because ideas strike anytime. Most of us don’t have time to actually go sit down and conjure the genius. We have to piece it together later. Though you may have many, many, many notebooks and you don’t do anything with them, at least you’ve validated that idea, that spark. You may come back to it. The other thing is I would throw out the window this idea that you have to write for two hours every day. I find that ridiculous, absurd, and punishing. I think that’s for men whose wives are doing everything. They can conjure the genius and sit in their study for two hours while the mother makes breakfast and ferries everybody everywhere. I don’t know how you do that two to four hours a day or something. I write for twenty minutes sometimes, fifteen minutes. Andre Dubus III, who wrote House of Sand Fog, he was working on a construction crew. He would write for fifteen minutes in his truck. You can put a story together. The third, most important thing, is to never really end a thought. End it while you’re feeling like you’re chugging along. Leave the sentence dangling or the thought dangling. Then come back to it so you’ve got somewhere to jump in. I think that’s really important. Don’t look back. Don’t reread your writing from the day before. That’s just the surest way to shoot yourself in the foot. You need pages, not criticism from your inner critic.

Zibby: I feel like I always forget. I’m like, what happened? Who was this person? What did they look like? I feel like every time I go back, I have to start from the beginning. Okay, fine, here I am.

Caitlin: Maybe just go back a sentence or two. If you get it wrong — what I do is I keep a notebook open, and I write down, Iris and Sophie, when were their birthdays? How old are they? That’s what I did the other day. It doesn’t matter because they’re about this age. For what I’m writing, I’ll be okay. I’ll fix that later. Some of it, you just have to say, I’m going to fix this later. It’s fixable. Anything is fixable in a rewrite.

Zibby: True. It’s great advice. Caitlin, this was so fun. I hope I get to meet you in real life at some point.

Caitlin: I love it. It’s so great to meet you. I hope we get to meet in real life, yes. It would be so great. Thank you so much for your deep empathy that you bring to all this book . It’s really special. Love it.

Zibby: Thank you. Congratulations. So awesome.

Caitlin: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: Of course. My pleasure.

Caitlin: Take care.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Caitlin: Bye.

Caitlin Shetterly, PETE AND ALICE IN MAINE

PETE AND ALICE IN MAINE by Caitlin Shetterly

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