Note from Estelle: I am not ashamed to call myself a Jennifer E. Smith cheerleader. Since I read through all of her books last year, Jennifer has easily become one of my go-to authors. This year, she released a sweet story called THIS IS WHAT HAPPY LOOKS LIKE about every girl’s dream: falling for and meeting a celebrity. (Even though the main character had no idea her internet pen pal was said celebrity.) She was also the editor of Lauren Graham’s New York Times best-seller, SOMEDAY, SOMEDAY, MAYBE.
At a New York City book event back in March, I was really intrigued when she started talking about the setting of HAPPY. It started as a real place and morphed into a mixture of a few. I’m psyched to say Jennifer was awesome enough to agree to write about how the setting of HAPPY came to be as part of Sweet Summertime Reads. I hope you enjoy all she has to say and check out her great collection of books!
Take it away, Jennifer!
When I first started writing This Is What Happy Looks Like, I knew the story would take place in Maine. Even though I hadn’t been there in years, all those little towns along the coast had left their mark on me, and there’s something about them that has always felt quintessentially summery.
There were two places in particular that came to mind as ideal backdrops for the book: Camden and Marblehead. They both seemed to match up to the images in my head; they were lovely and picturesque and a little bit quaint, but they had wilder sides to them, too, coastlines that were breathtaking and unforgettable.
I did a quick refresher course in the geography of both towns and ended up going with Camden as the setting. But as I began to write, I realized that bits and pieces of Marblehead were creeping in, too: a gift shop, a stretch of beach, a lobster shack; little things that were conspiring to turn a real place into an imaginary one.
In my previous novel, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, much of the action took place in London, a place that’s pretty hard to fictionalize, and even though I’d been there many times, I still ended up spending a lot of time on Google maps to make sure I had the lay of the land. But with this book, it occurred to me that maybe sticking to the facts wasn’t as important as getting the feel of the place right.
In the meantime, I was writing this book from my apartment in New York City, and I was starting to feel like I needed to get to the ocean for a little inspiration. Since I didn’t have time to take a trip to Maine, I ended up hopping a train to Montauk one weekend, another coastal town, but this one in New York, on the very tip of Long Island. And so, of course, that began to work its way into the book, too.
Whenever you write about a place, whether it’s real or fictional, this is what happens. You can’t help but bring your own memories and experiences with you. Even if the ice cream shop is based on someplace real, even if you’ve visited it a thousand times and ordered a thousand cones and can describe the layout with a blindfold on, it’s never going to be just about that particular ice cream shop. Other places will inevitably find their way in, too, and sometimes in the unlikeliest of ways: the memory of a flavor your tried one summer in a different town; a joke you heard once in a candy shop; the person you were with when you dropped your cone that one time, and the way they laughed, how it echoed in the quiet of the shop. Writers are like magpies; we take a piece of string from one branch, a bit of foil from another, a few twigs from the ground, and we use all of these to build our nests.
So in this way, it became clear very early on that I wasn’t just writing about Camden, or Marblehead, or even Montauk. I was also writing about Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, where I spent summers at my best friend’s lake house, and Lake Tahoe in California, where I go with my family every year, and places in Florida and North Carolina and even Scotland, too. And that was a good thing, because it only helped enrich the book, infusing it with not just the experiences of my fictional characters, but also my own memories from all the many seaside towns I’ve visited along the way.
So I finally gave in, and the town became Henley, Maine: entirely fictional, yet somehow as real to me as any place I’ve ever been…
In the wise words of Herman Melville: “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
Huge thanks to Jennifer for taking the time to stop in today!