“Don’t put definitions or parameters on what you think the world should be like because it’s going to blow your mind.” Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling novelist Sarah McCoy to talk about her latest novel, Mustique Island, which was just named an Amazon Best Book of Literature and Fiction for May. The two discuss how Sarah stumbled upon Mustique’s scandalous history, the drama that unfolded when she scheduled a trip to the island in March 2020 (as well as which famous writer offered her encouraging advice afterward), and what she included in the story to pay homage to her Puerto Rican and Caribbean heritage.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mustique Island: A Novel.

Sarah McCoy: I’m so happy to be here. This is sort of a celebrity dream come true for an author to get on and be able to talk to you and to all your readers. It’s been such a safe haven, actually, for readers and authors to be able to come during the pandemic and listen to your podcast. I listen to your podcasts all the time. I was like, there’s my friend. There’s Chris Bohjalian. Oh, they’re alive. We’re alive in this together. Thank god. Thank you for continuing to do those and doing so many of those during the pandemic.

Zibby: It was my pleasure. We were chatting before. I was like, I feel like we’ve been Instagram friends for so long. It just feels like a while. Maybe it wasn’t that long. I don’t know. It’s nice. It’s just nice to meet even over Zoom. I was so excited to see you were picked — what was it? The Amazon Best Literature/Fiction of the month. What was it? It was so great.

Sarah: I was surprised. They don’t lead you into this. My team at HarperCollins just sends you an email and says, “Oh, by the way, Amazon picked you as a Best Book of Literature and Fiction for the month.” On we go. It sort of jolts you because I wasn’t expecting it. I was thrilled. I’m so happy that the book is getting out to readers and that it was chosen.

Zibby: So exciting. Why don’t you tell listeners about what Mustique Island’s about and how you set it here, how this whole thing came about, inspiration, all that good stuff.

Sarah: The book opens in 1972 when a Texan divorcée named Willy Mae docks her boats on Mustique Island. It’s this exclusive enclave of celebrities and royal residents. Mick Jagger continues to have a place there. At the time, it was Mick Jagger and Bianca who were there. Princess Margaret, she is one of the most notable and famed residents. She was given as a gift — don’t we all get this as a wedding gift? She was given as a wedding gift, a piece of land by the owners, Colin and Anne Tennant, who own the island. That’s a whole nother component of the book, is purchasing an entire island of everything, land, people, industry, everything. In the 1960s, he bought it. It just seems too ancient time. Does that make sense? Do people still buy islands with people living on them? That’s crazy. They gave a piece of that to Princess Margaret as a wedding gift. Then she built her own mini palace, really, where she could do what she pleased. That’s another resident that’s there. It was full of fashion models and gangsters. Really, it was anyone — it’s fascinating to me to write about — anyone that Colin Tennant decided was beautiful enough. He was the master ceremony ringleader of who — he was the gatekeeper of who was allowed to come onto his island because they registered as most beautiful for him. You had to be beautiful. You had to have money and a touch of scandal, usually. That was the island.

Then into that came these outsiders. It’s Willy May. She’s the first one. She’s the mother. She comes to this island and is wooed there by Colin and Anne looking for a place to settle after she has been blackballed from good English society by divorcing her brewery husband who then subsequently dies. She has no place to go. She goes to Mustique. She’s an ex-beauty queen, so they say, you’re beautiful. You’ve got the money now that you’ve taken quite a bit from your divorce settlement and your husband is gone. You’re kind of scandalous, so come on over and set up shop. She does. She invites her two daughters, Hilly, who is a Vogue fashion model, and Joanne, who is a young musical prodigy student. They’re equally lost in the world trying to find their way. It’s the early seventies when that definitely mirrored women’s movement at the time. They were trying to find their footing as empowered new women but not quite sure what that meant or where that was. All of that, for me, really echoed this whole island climate. Each person is their own solitary floating island trying to find where they belong. Then you’ve got this one place where we’re all now deserted on an island together. One of my writing teachers, she said the best thing you can do for your characters is put them in a room by themselves. Lock them up. Make them all just figure it out in there. An island is a natural sort of room that you lock your characters up in. That’s exactly what this is. It’s like lighting a flame in a box. It all just goes on fire in a little mini bonfire. It was a lot of fun for me to write, especially since it was grounded in — it’s historical fiction, so it’s grounded in real facts. Zibby, people think I make this up. I did not.

Oh, my goodness, you asked about inspiration. I got inspired by this story during an, actually, really rough time for me because I didn’t know what I was going to write next. I had just written my book Marilla of Green Gables, which is a very different island, Prince Edward Island, Avonlea, this very G-rated, lovely, beautiful place. They said, what are you going to write next? I didn’t have an answer. I know you know, you’re an author, that is terrifying. I broke out a little in a sweat right now talking about it because I’m like, oh, my gosh. I didn’t know what I was going to write next. When I get like that, I tend to go to other sources that make me happy, creative sources. One of them is, I have a real issue with binging film biographies, so anything that’s a documentary on someone’s life, how they started as this tiny thing, and that tiny thing bloomed into some big idea that just took over the world and changed — I love that stuff. I will watch that every day nonstop, so that’s what I did. I started just watching documentaries. I watched everything on HBO, everything on Netflix. I cleaned it out. I have a PBS subscription because that has the best documentaries. I literally didn’t read very much, even. I was just watching. I listened to audiobooks. That’s another of my big things. I love listening to a memoir, a celebrity memoir, a historical person memoir where I get to hear that story coming through. I’m telling you this because these are all the things that are already influencing how I’m hearing the story coming to me, is through these sort of historical and memoirs. I picked up this. I know, I’m so old. Who has DVDs anymore?

Zibby: I have a whole cabinet behind my couch full of DVDs. I don’t know what to do with them. I am equally old. I am far older than you, I am sure.

Sarah: I absolutely love them. I got this DVD. I was watching it. It’s about Princess Margaret and her being a rebel. There was a tiny, little snippet about how she was given this island as a wedding gift. I am Puerto Rican. My mother’s Puerto Rican. I wrote my first book, called The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico, it was set in 1960s Puerto Rico. It was about similar kind of — the island, figuring things out. Do they want to be an independent, or do they want to go and be part of the United States? That was a real struggle at the time. During the writing of that, I thought I had researched everything there was to know about the Caribbean. I was a little pompous, even. Pride is right there. I should’ve known I was going to find something that I didn’t know. I was like, I know everything. I’ve researched this whole — these are my people, the Taíno Indians. I went deep with this. Then when I saw on the documentary that there was an island in the Caribbean, privately owned, called Mustique, I had never heard of it, and I just thought, no. I’ve never heard of this. What is this? No. I am very type A. I had to google everything on the planet that had this name in it and find out more about it. That’s what started me down the journey of researching it. Then once I did, the stuff that the internet gave me, it was beyond fiction. It was crazy, the stuff that Colin Tennant did. Further googling — speaking of Amazon, thank you, Amazon. Amazon also partners with very small bookstores across the globe. On there, I found one copy of Colin — look at this cover.

Zibby: Wow, I love it. Oh, my god, can you believe? It’s so dated.

Sarah: Yes. How could this ever have been? One copy of this through a tiny bookseller in Somerset in the UK. It took three weeks to get to me. I got it. I went through and started reading it. Zibby, have you looked up anything about this island?

Zibby: I have not. I’d heard of Mustique, but I had not read anything about it.

Sarah: Just scandalous, things that not just make my mama blush, they make me blush. I’m a modern person who has watched Fifty Shades of Grey. The things that he just so openly wrote about there and wrote them as facts — I think this was what was interesting to me. It made me realize that history is written by the authority, whoever is an authority. It is whatever they decide is what they want the world to remember about them and about what they’ve built or created. I actually think this is probably way more fiction than anything I wrote. Some of it’s just absolutely insane. I couldn’t write some of the stuff. I did. I tried to write some of the scenes. My editor was like, “Not sure that’s going to fly. We can’t put that out there.” That is where a lot of the content and the scandal came from. I realized, though, that again, this was coming through a male colonizing white person’s perspective, all of this. I just, to be honest, didn’t believe him. I just didn’t believe him.

I thought, this is my opportunity as Puerto Rican woman from the Caribbean to write not just from a female perspective, but also to give the islanders a voice. That’s one of the greatest joys I found in writing this book, is with supposedly minor characters. The minority of this book were so powerful. There’s a character called Titus, who is basically Colin’s righthand man and the overseer of all the business side and trying to help this crazy person navigate this island and keep everyone, staff, paid and working and surviving. I loved writing him. He’s from the islands. He is educated and bright. He was based on so many of my uncles, my tíos, and my grandfather and cousins in Puerto Rico who are bright, brilliant people, educated. Yet because of the color of their skin, they are often seen as maybe they aren’t as educated as some of the other people on the island who are of the majority. That was really fun. Then of course, the mother-daughter stories, I love a good family saga. That speaks to my heart when I read them. I write about them. I love that interaction between family members. I’m fascinated by siblings. Birth order, don’t even get me started. We could do a whole podcast on birth order.

Zibby: Me too. I’m always like, what number are you? You’re an only child, aren’t you? Aren’t you a second child?

Sarah: What are you? A first?

Zibby: First.

Sarah: First, so am I. Yep, firstborn. I would sort of guess that about you. I loved that insider insight. What’s interesting is that we’re so unique in our sibling dynamic, wherever you fall on that. We all share the exact same personality experiences. That’s where, as a collective reader and nation, we can come together. I write a lot about siblings and about family dynamics. Women relationships are really fascinating to me because they’re so different from — I have two brothers. I’m the eldest. Then I have two brothers. I don’t have any sisters. I think that is absolutely part of why I write a lot about sisters, because I live vicariously through my characters. I’m also trying to figure that dynamic out. My mother is the youngest of three girls. I’m very close with my titis, my aunts. I grew up being able to objectively sit in the room with my mom and my titis. They would be fighting one minute and loving the next minute. I always found that so interesting to be a little girl just sitting there listening to them. It’s different with my brothers. It’s different with boys in general. I write a lot about sisters. That was certainly in this book in the mother-daughter dynamic. I am just rambling. You aren’t even getting to ask any questions.

Zibby: That was great. Thank you. It’s amazing.

Sarah: I hope I made I easy for you, not just —

Zibby: — You made it great. It’s perfect. It’s totally perfect. I loved it. First of all, did you get to visit Mustique? Did you go?

Sarah: Oh, man, this is a fun one. I planned. It took me a year to plan it, a trip to Mustique, because it’s not so easy to get there. I knew it would be difficult. I have gone to every location that I’ve ever written about in all my books. I think that was where the writing muses taught me a lesson. I started to think that that was the trick, that I needed to do that, that that was essential. Otherwise, how would I do it? I planned this trip to Mustique. I would have to go from where I live to Miami, from Miami to Saint Lucia. That was on a United States flight. Then you get off in Saint Lucia. You have to charter your own plane, private plane, to Saint Vincent. Saint Vincent, you get off, and you get on the ferry. Then you take the ferry. If you’re a normal person, you don’t have a private plane that takes you straight to Mustique, which some people do. That is probably the best way to go. Then I would have to get off in Saint Vincent and take the ferry to Mustique. Then once you get to Mustique, you aren’t allowed on unless you have a host. That can be a hotel. The Cotton House hotel is there. The Firefly that I wrote about was there, but it’s no longer. Through the pandemic, it didn’t make it. I had done all that planning and booked a week at the Firefly, which is the setting in the book too. I was going to leave, Zibby — ready for this? The fun part, so fun. Life is so fun.

Zibby: March 2020?

Sarah: I was going to leave March 30th, 2020, was my ticket.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Sarah: It’s been a couple years. The pain, the ripping of my heart out, it’s healed back up again. I didn’t get to go, obviously, because everything got locked down. I got vouchers back for the US, but everything else just went into wherever everything went during the pandemic. The people at the Firefly at the time said, “We’ll give you a year to use it.” Of course, we all know, the year came and went, and everything was locked down. Then right after that, I saw that they had closed their hotel. It didn’t make it. They moved everything over to another island. You know what? I’m okay with it, though. Actually, Zibby, if I can be honest with you — I haven’t said this anywhere else. There was so much pressure then, though. You wrote a book about it. You paid all this money. Are you just going to lose all the money? You have to find a time and a way to go. You have to. You have to. I just felt like, I’ve written the book. It’s already getting published. I have to go on book tour. You know this, you’re an author. Right after this, I’m going to start getting what I got right after Marilla. What’s next? To then plan a trip to Mustique just because I have this balance hanging over me, I thought, you know what? If I went — another person who actually gave me the best advice and sort of freed me from my guilt was George Saunders, who I mention because he is the great and almighty. When I found out that I wasn’t going and I had to cancel everything, I was talking to him in an email and just whining, basically. He wrote me back a very George Saunders loving but stern email. He said, “Sarah, you’re a fiction writer. Just google it.”

I thought, you know what? If someone of his stature and respect is telling me, just google what you need, I think I’m going to do that. That worked out great. I had the background of the Caribbean, being Puerto Rican. To be honest, that whole island area, the breezes coming off Puerto Rico, they’re going right by Mustique, so I definitely used all of my childhood background for that. I didn’t get to go, my first book I haven’t gotten to go. I’m at peace with it now. I feel like this is the way. I think you understand. This is the way sometimes a book will take the author on a journey just as much as it is a journey for readers or to write or whatever. It took me on a journey. I realized that there is no pattern for how you should write anything. There is no pattern to how a reader should read anything. That’s what I also learned through the pandemic. Don’t put definitions or parameters on what you think the world should be like because it’s going to blow your mind. That’s better. It’s better if you just go with the flow through the good and the bad because it’s going to be good and bad. It’s going to be real bad sometimes. It’s going to be real good sometimes. I think we all learned that lesson. I think that’s in this book too. I rewrote it four times. I rewrote it three times during the pandemic. I had to. You get this. I had to because the world wasn’t the same world that I wrote the first draft in. I knew that if I put it out the way it was, the first draft before the pandemic, it was sort of a hollow bell. It didn’t have what was needed. Then I wrote it during the lockdown again. That was just very dark. Let me tell you, that was a very tragic, dark, different book. Then I wrote it twice more afterwards when we were all just trying to figure it out. Again, it took me on a very different journey than any of my other books have ever taken me. I’m grateful. I actually am grateful. Do I want to do it again? Like the pandemic, hell no, I don’t, but I’m grateful.

Zibby: That’s amazing. We’re onto our last question, which is, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Sarah: Wow. I just got up on a soapbox a second ago about, break open your own boxes. Do your own thing. Another thing for aspiring authors, I think you just have to — two things. You have to be tenacious. You have to persevere. Writing is not easy. It is not glamorous. It is heartbreaking and hard and days when you don’t look — I have — I’ll just show you. This is my robe. I have it on my lap. It’s this fuzzy — there are days you don’t get out of your robe. You feel like a monster, and gross. You stink. You just have to be like, that’s it. That’s the job. That’s the actual writing job. You have to love that part of it more than you like what I’m doing now, talking and being out there and being a show-person. I think that’s really, really important, is to love the actual work. Next — I’m still learning this. You have to enjoy your own journey, that qualifier there, your own journey. We all tend to look, especially with Instagram and social media these days — even if you’re not in the publishing realm, if you’re just a normal person, we all tend to look at other people’s feeds and their journey and say, look how great that looks. They aren’t going through all the problems that I have. They’re getting all these opportunities that I’m not getting. Why is that? What can I do that’s like them? I suffer from that terribly, terribly. I’m now coming to see that my own contentment and my own happiness resides in the smallness of being grateful for my journey and every day in that journey. There is a beautiful piece in that that I am just getting now in forties that I definitely didn’t have any time before. Those are my advice. Enjoy your journey. While you’re enjoying that journey, though, just keep pushing away and working and doing your thing.

Zibby: Love it. Sarah, thank you. I’ve been so excited to talk to you. I just want you to know I read The Baker’s Daughter with a book group a long time ago when it came out and just adored it. It’s very full circle-y for me to be here talking to you now about Mustique Island. Congratulations on another successful book. I know it will continue to just keep taking off and taking off. It was so nice to hear your story.

Sarah: Thank you so much for having me. This has really made my entire day, my month.

Zibby: Oh, stop.

Sarah: I really have been wanting to meet you. This was wonderful. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I hope we meet in person soon. That would be good.

Sarah: Yes, absolutely.

Zibby: Bye, Sarah. Have a great day.

Sarah: You too.



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