Zibby interviews author Julie Gerstenblatt about Daughters of Nantucket, a sweeping and emotional novel about Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846, and the three women whose personal dramas, secrets, and jealousies intersected as the fire hit town. Julie explains how a lifetime of summers on Nantucket inspired this story and then shares all the details of her unexpected agent break-up, several title iterations, fascinating character development and book research, and next two novels!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Daughters of Nantucket.

Julie Gerstenblatt: I am thrilled to be here.

Zibby: I need to know what fun events you’re doing in Nantucket to celebrate this book because I want to come to something.

Julie: Yay! Because the book came out in March — March is not a thing on Nantucket, as you know, which I explained to HarperCollins. The plan is for Daffodil weekend to be the Nantucket launch for the book. I will be there signing books at Mitchell’s on Main Street during the part of the parade where the cars are parked in town. All the antique cars are covered in daffodils. Everybody strolls through town in the morning and shops and comes and has books signed at Mitchell’s. Then there’s an antique car parade out to Sconset and picnics and tailgating out there. I mentioned it to my friends, and twenty people are coming with me just for fun for the weekend. Some people have their child’s junior prom on Friday night, so they’re coming early Saturday. Some are coming for the whole thing. My Boston writing group is coming. My mother’s making daffodil headbands for everybody.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so fun. I knew you would be doing something fun. When is Daffodil weekend?

Julie: Daffodil weekend is the last weekend of April, so it coincides with Independent Bookstore Day too.

Zibby: Perfect. I’ll be in Charleston for our retreat. Oh, well.

Julie: There’s more. There’s the Nantucket Book Festival in June, which is June 15th to 18th, Thursday to Sunday. My husband and I are going for the whole thing. When they were like, “Can you arrive early?” I was like, “Yes.” They’re like, “Can you stay late through Cisco Brewers on Sunday?” “Yes.” Then I’ll be there for two weeks for family vacation at the end of July and through the first week of August. There will be things then too, but they haven’t been planned yet.

Zibby: Okay, I can’t come — not that this is about my schedule. I can’t come in June, but I would love to come. I would love to get to Nantucket. I haven’t been in so long, since my friend got married. That must have been fifteen, twenty years. I don’t even know. Keep me posted. I’m on your list. I know I follow you. Now back to the book. Now that I’ve learned all about Nantucket from your book, I feel more of a vested interest in the whole community anyway. Daughters of Nantucket. Julie, can you please tell us what your book is about?

Julie: My novel is about three women whose lives intersect in the days leading up to and immediately following Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846. What I like to say is that these women’s personal dramas, their secrets, their jealousies, and all of their climatic moments hit just as the fire hits town.

Zibby: Did you read yet, Rachel Beanland’s book, Like A House on Fire?

Julie: No.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you two have to do an event together.

Julie: I know. I tried. She approached us to be interviewed by Mighty Blaze. I was like, I’m the perfect person to do it, but I will be on book tour when she’s on book tour. We are both so busy separately, but we will plan something. Yes, two fires are better than one.

Zibby: It would be a good conversation. I should moderate it or something.

Julie: Yes, you should. That sounds good.

Zibby: We could try to figure something out. If I could convince you both to go to the store in LA, you could do an event there.

Julie: I’m coming.

Zibby: Oh, yeah. You are coming.

Julie: I wonder if we could get her to come when I’m going to be there. It’s kind of a weird time, though. You’re not going to be there.

Zibby: That’s true.

Julie: My son’s out there, so I’m happy to go back another time.

Zibby: I’ll loop her in. We’ll figure something else out. What drew you to this fire? Why did you decide to write a novel? Where did this come from in your own —

Julie: — I’ve been going to Nantucket since I was eight years old. The summer of 1978, my family packed up our car from New York. Nantucket wasn’t a thing to New Yorkers in the seventies; Hamptons, Jersey Shore, whatever. My aunt lived in Wellesley, Massachusetts, heard about it from her neighbors, convinced us all, including my grandparents, to come. We went to Nantucket, and I fell in love with it and have been going back ever since. I did not know about the Great Fire, however, until I stumbled across it in a history of the island written by Nathaniel Philbrick. There are two paragraphs about the fire on page eleven, and that’s it. I was hooked. I was like, give me more, Nat. I want to know about this fire. It really started with this curiosity. I was not a historical fiction writer at all. I wrote funny, contemporary stories about women, like, the one about the woman in her thirties who…, the woman in her forties who… I had agents. I wrote three or four novels. Nothing sold. My agent at the time said, “This historical one, when you talk about it, you sound excited. I know you don’t think of yourself as a writer of historical fiction, but this is set on Nantucket. That makes it different. That has the hook for you. Maybe you should explore it.” That’s how that came to be.

Zibby: It’s so cool.

Julie: Then the agent broke up with me.

Zibby: What?

Julie: Yeah. I wrote the first hundred. I workshopped it in Boston with my class. They were all into it, really feeling strongly about it. My agent, in a very long letter in email, said something like, “I’m not saying I hate it, but…” I don’t remember the rest of that sentence. After she failed to sell one novel, told me she didn’t like another contemporary one I was working on, and then convinced me to do this one and didn’t like it, I got on the phone with her. We talked it out. I had an angry cry. I was like, “I’m not sad. I’m mad at you.” It was really bad. She said she’s here for me. No worries. She’s sticking with me. Then the next day, emailed me to break up.

Zibby: You know what? It sounds like that was not a match made in heaven to begin with. It wasn’t meant to be. At least this book came out of it. Now maybe you can go back to all those other books.

Julie: You know, I wondered about that. Somebody has asked me about that. I feel now like I’m in this historical fiction thing for a little while. I have two other books in the series planned. They’re standalones, kind of like Alka Joshi or Natalie Jenner where characters come back, but it’s a few years ahead. I’m psyched about them. Then after that, maybe I’ll return to the funny contemporary.

Zibby: You’ve found your groove. This is exciting. I want to hear about the other ones. Then we’ll come back to this one.

Julie: The second one will take place five years after this one ends. As a writer, you know the phrase “to kill your darlings.” Sometimes something’s not working, a character. You have a mother and an older neighbor who are both giving the main character advice. You have to consolidate them into one and kill one off. I had to do that with a friend to Eliza Macy who was not a point-of-view character and was competing with Maria for attention on the page. I loved her. Her name is Nell Starbuck. There’s a sentence in the book now where Nell Starbuck is off with her merchant husband sailing the seas and traveling the globe to bring back wares to New England.

Zibby: You mention that at the very beginning. I remember reading Starbuck and thinking, I wonder if that’s related to Starbucks.

Julie: It is. The Macys are the Macys of Macy’s department store. The Starbucks are the Starbucks of the coffee brand. Two of the ten original families to find Nantucket. Not find it, but to claim it for the Europeans. Now is the second book. It starts on Nantucket while she’s packing. You see some of the people you missed at the end of the first and get some answers. Then you go on a clipper ship, which is the fastest ship that sailed the seas, a clipper ship to San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush and then on to China where calamity ensues.

Zibby: That’s a long boat ride. Oh, my gosh.

Julie: I know. I’m going to try to not boat. I think it was eighty days, something like that.

Zibby: Wow. Around the World in Eighty Days. Then what’s the one after that? Do you have a title yet?

Julie: I don’t because I come up with terrible titles. My title for the first one was A Great Fire. I called it that forever until I wrote the prologue with my agent. That was an addition later. The last sentence of the prologue says, “Every great fire begins with a tiny spark, and now all Nantucket needs is for someone to light the fuse.” She’s like, “Let’s call it A Tiny Spark.” We sold it with that. Jenna Blum, who is my writing teacher and friend, said, “You can’t say tiny in your title. You want this book to be big. It’s a fire. It’s got to be big.” Apparently, everybody agreed and changed the title to what I now know is a good system of, tell them who and where. Daughters of Nantucket. Witches of Eastwick. The Paris Librarian. The Lost Girls of Paris. It helps somebody very quickly decide, “Yes, I like this,” because they feel a connection with the character or the setting. There’s a term for a woman who was a merchant. It’s she-merchant. I don’t know if The She-Merchant of Nantucket works, but that’s kind of my working title. It’s going to be the daughter who really steps up and takes over for Peter now after said calamity. The third one is two sisters after the Civil War who go to Europe for their European tour, kind of like A Room with a View. For men, it was much less about sitting in museums and having culture and much more about adventures, sexual and otherwise. I feel like these women have to have a little bit more fun in Europe.

Zibby: Interesting. Maybe you should call the second one Nantucket Travels.

Julie: Yes. Travels is great. That’s a good idea.

Zibby: That’s really what it is. They started in Nantucket, but then they go other places. Nantucket Travels.

Julie: I think that’s good. I wonder if it sounds more nonfiction-y, but I can work with that. I like travel.

Zibby: Travels from Nantucket.

Julie: Something like that.

Zibby: I love coming up with titles.

Julie: Good. You have time, I was going to say. I’ve only written three pages before I think about it all summer and all fall.

Zibby: With the books we’re publishing, I’m like, oh, no, I’m not going to change this one. I was like, but what about… That’s awesome. How did you do the research on the fire and everything? Were you in historical, musty societies with creaky boards and attics and all of that? That’s how I picture it.

Julie: I spent two hours at the Nantucket Historical Association. They presented me with original documents in handwriting I couldn’t read. I realized I was in trouble. I planned a three-day trip to Nantucket to do research. My husband and I went right before Memorial Day just before the high season. Things were open. The weather was great. He went off for a bike ride to the other side of the island. I was whispering to myself. I don’t know what to do. I was raising my hand like a student in class. Can anybody — they were like, no, we can’t help you. You’re here to do your research. Luckily, that was only a little bit of it. I interviewed a former head of the Nantucket Historical Association, Betsy Tyler, who is a great researcher and has written several books about prominent Nantucket women. She actually is interviewing me at the book festival. I spoke to her one day. I went to the Maria Mitchell Association and spoke to Jascin Finger, the head of that. I was really busy. It was just those bad two hours. The good thing about what I found on the fire was someone had self-published an entire history of the fire and had done all of that first-person accounting and read newspaper articles and gone through archives and placed everybody in town at different points in the fire. I could use all of that and did not have to do very much old, musty, creaky research.

Zibby: Interesting. For people who aren’t familiar with the fire, can you give the basics of it?

Julie: I don’t want to ruin it too much, but I will say that what I do in the book is a countdown to the fire, which was an idea that someone in my class —

Zibby: — I loved that, by the way. That was very cool. One week to the fire. You’re building suspense.

Julie: Exactly. I like stories like that. I watched Titanic again. I made my daughter. My daughter was like, “I’m never getting on a boat.” The Perfect Storm, all the disaster films. The dramatic irony is we as viewers or readers know this event is coming, and the people in the story do not. I love that tension and highlighted that. At some point, a week after the book opens, a fire breaks out in town. Because of several things that happen, it spreads quickly. It goes in directions that they could not have predicted. They tried all the things they tried earlier. There were two other great fires, neither one as great as this one. They tried things like blowing up a house between two others. The idea was if there’s nothing for the fire to catch onto, then it will stop. It will die out. It was called a fire break. That was done, I believe, also in Boston. That was kind of the technology at the time. Let’s blow up a house to save the rest of the block. That didn’t really work. It’s many hours of people running through town and trying to save the people and the things that they care about the most. Then you’ll see what happens, also, after the fire.

Zibby: Love it. This is going to sound like such a privileged conversation, but I’ve been going to the Hamptons since 1979. You’ve been going to Nantucket since 1978. I’ve seen a bazillion changes to the community and the commerce and just so much from when I used to go when it was potato fields all around the houses and all that stuff. What have you seen shift in all of your time going to Nantucket? What are you happy about or not so happy about? What has that been like to have a first-person view of that shifting tide, if you will?

Julie: I will say that my parents — in ’78, we started going. In ’83, my parents — we came back from camp, my brother and I. We were getting ready for our trip to Nantucket. My parents said — actually, you and I need to talk about this at some point. My parents said, “We’re getting divorced.” I know your family from reading your memoir. your childhood story too. “We’re getting divorced, but we’re still going to Nantucket as a family because we will always be a family. That is where we will always be a family.” Very interesting. They never, then, bought anything. They divorced. My aunt and uncle divorced. The family just kept reconfiguring. While I’ve gone there every summer — I just have to get back there for a weekend or a week or with my kids and with grandparents, but different houses where I’m walking back and forth across the street from one rental house to the other and still feeling like a child of divorce.

The changes I’ve seen have been in terms of, really, how many people come to the island now, and in particular, post-COVID because people were not going farther away. They weren’t going to Europe. They were like, Nantucket’s exotic. I’ve never been there. Suddenly, everybody showed up. Now it’s very hard to get reservations at restaurants. I cannot get my car on the ferry the past two years even though I’m up at five AM to press the buttons. The system shuts down. It’s a mess. For me, I find that it’s still about going to beaches, packing lunches in the morning, peanut butter and jelly on a warm Portuguese roll that I got that morning at the Nantucket Bake Shop, packing up sandwiches — who likes chunky peanut butter with this kind of jelly and this kind of that? — packing up the car and spending the day on the beach. I try to keep it as simple and pristine and like the old days as possible because I’m only there for a week or two. It’s certainly big yachts, big houses, lots of influx of money and people. I try to stay away from that as much as possible.

Zibby: Influx of people, for sure, in the Hamptons as well. I feel like Nantucket has maintained so much of its charm and some of those independent stores more so than East Hampton, which has now become a lot of chain stores and an outdoor mall, which is such a shame.

Julie: That’s a good point. Nantucket, in the late eighties or early nineties, came up with this idea of the Historical Preservation Society to maintain the look and feel of the homes and to decide who could come and open a shop. Besides from a Veronica Beard and a Ralph Lauren store, there are no — there’s no traffic lights. There’s no McDonald’s. There’s no big commercial stores or chain stores. All the homes outside of town are gray shingled with white trim. You only can have ten different colors. You could paint your front door. There are historic Nantucket colors. You can get them at Marine Home. Also, the land preservation trust buys up land. If you buy an acre, they buy an acre. The island will never get overgrown. People are knocking small things down and putting up big things but still need to make sure they look a certain way and pass certain rules. They’re trying as much as possible to keep that old feeling.

Zibby: Do they have height requirements too? It can’t be a certain height and all that?

Julie: Yeah.

Zibby: In LA, there’s this neighborhood where somebody has built a secret third floor. It’s the talk of the town because it’s just a little too high. The people haven’t moved in. I’m like, how can these people even move in? Everyone hates them already.

Julie: I read the Nantucket Current, which is the newsletter that comes three times a week in email, like some people read The New York Times. I’m so into it. There’s a story about the back of someone’s house having a much more modern — very contemporary from the back. It’s not visible to anybody but the family. Then there were people who were saying there is a path. I do pass by it. I am upset by what it’s doing when I’m on the path. Then they had to take pictures.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness, that is so funny. That’s just crazy. When you were creating these characters, and obviously, based on — how did you pick which families to spotlight, which characters within the family? How did you dive in?

Julie: I knew once I had the fire and I watched Titanic a million times, I was like, nobody cares unless they care about the people. Who am I populating this with? The first person I came up with was a whaler’s wife because that was what was known to me having done little research. I created Eliza Macy first. I picked one of those ten founding names and just attached Eliza as an old-fashioned-y-sounding name. Meanwhile, I got a call the other day from a guy who was like, “Hi, I found your number on the internet.” I was like, this is not going to be good. I’m listening. He said, “I’m a descendant of Eliza Macy. My family and I are wondering if your Eliza Macy is our Eliza Macy.” I laughed. I said, “No, I just pulled a name.” He said, “We thought so based on what’s happening in your book. Our Eliza had a son who did found Macy’s department store.” My Eliza Macy has only daughters. Then other Macys are coming out of the woodwork too. There’s a woman who invited me to Minnesota to see her genealogical tree of Macys. I’m going to put them in touch.

Eliza was first. She’s like a desperate housewife. She’s alone most of the time. Let’s say, of her twenty-year marriage, she’s ever been on land with her husband for two or three years, total. Then she gets a letter from him saying that he’s not coming back to Nantucket as planned, so she’s also angry with him. She’s out of money. She’s lonely. She’s not her best self when we first meet her. Then I thought, who would be a good balance to that, a good counter? I thought of Maria Mitchell, who is a real person. She’s my only main character who is based on a historically accurate person. That is hard because it’s M-A-R-I-A, and so I know people are going to read it as Maria. I tried to que that someone calls to her and says, in an old Boston accent, “Mariah.” You can hear it. Maria Mitchell was the first female librarian in American. It could only have happened on Nantucket because I think a man would’ve taken that job anywhere else in the country. Many men were away. She’s very bright. She studied science. She became an astronomer. She taught at Vassar, where there’s an observatory in her name. There’s an observatory in her name on Nantucket. She’s a woman of science. She’s independent. She never married. She makes her own money. I thought that was a good balance to Maria. I mean to Eliza. Now I’m getting all of them confused. The thing about Maria was, growing up, I would walk into the library and see this painting of her on the wall, and she did not look fun and friendly. I needed to shake off that perception of her as this matron librarian who would get mad at you for whispering or bending the page of a book and make her more interesting and make her my own. Once I did that, I was really happy with her.

Then I read about this entire freeborn Black community that was prospering on Nantucket at the same time living sort of parallel to the white community. The most integrated place in America were whaling ships. They did not care what the color of your skin was, where you were from, anything about you, except if you could pull your weight on a vessel. If you could work hard and make them money, they loved you. It was possible for people of color to do really well at whaling. Black captains of color would come back wealthy and set up businesses and shops and schools and educate their kids. I based Meg on one or two of those women from history who took the entrance exam for the high school but did not pass. I mean, did pass, but could not be allowed into the high school because it was only for white kids. She now has a child of her own and one on the way and wants something better for her children as well as her own business with her husband. That’s how I came up with the three of them.

Zibby: It’s so interesting, so cool. This literally inspired me to be like, I wonder what the backstory of such-and-such a person in that portrait — it’s so easy to walk past all of the history or all the benches in Central Park. All of those are stories with so much rich history. I’m like, if I could do a historical novel, what ? I don’t know.

Julie: It was interesting. Also, there is something that we know about Maria that happened during that time that left us with very little about her, which gave me as a novelist the chance to make it up. That was really fun. It wasn’t just doing the research. You forget that there are all of these things that happened before and that people are complicated and mean and angry and all of that, not just do-gooders with a name on a bench.

Zibby: Forty months of a husband traveling back then is sort of like how I feel about my husband being away for two weeks. I’m like, really? Two weeks? They’re like, forty months? Okay. Oh, my gosh.

Julie: My husband is always in one of my novels. In the last one, it starts with this woman whose husband dies suddenly. Brett was like, “I guess in this one, at least the husband is alive, even if he’s off at sea all the time and she’s mad at him. He’s not dead.” Brett moved to Rhode Island. He got a job here. We were still in New York. We were in Scarsdale. He was looking for a job for two years. It was at the point where people were talking about us and told me after, “How can you stay in Scarsdale? Your husband hasn’t worked for two years.” I was like, “It’s pretty hard. We’re doing what we can.” He got a job in Rhode Island, which is where he’s from. A friend reached out about a job at CVS. I said, “Okay, go interview.” Of course, he got the job. I got a job in New York teaching at the same time. For a year, we lived separately. I worked full time. I had a third and sixth grader and no childcare lined up. I was out of the house before they got on the bus. Things got complicated. I did feel lonely. I did feel sort of like I was in this marriage with a person who was doing something to help us but wasn’t physically present when I needed him to be in the room doing this or that. That helped me create Eliza.

Zibby: I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that. Julie, congratulations. So exciting. Daughters of Nantucket. So many fun events coming up. I’m sure they’re all on your website or Instagram, right?

Julie: Absolutely.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on. Congratulations.

Julie: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care. Bye.


DAUGHTERS OF NANTUCKET by Julie Gerstenblatt

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