BENNINGTON - Author Susan Merrell stopped in Bennington on Monday to read from and sign copies of her new novel, "Shirley." The receptive mood quickly turned more dramatic, however, when the real-life son of the novel's namesake, Shirley Jackson, accused Merrell of "savaging" his mother's reputation.
Merrell was invited to speak at Oldcastle Theatre by Ellen and Rick Havlak, owners of the Bennington Bookshop. This is the second time the two businesses have teamed up. When the theater company was putting on a performance of "Around the World in 80 Days," the Havlaks invited Matthew Goodman, author of the novel "80 Days" to come speak at the theater.
The novel tells the story of fictional character Rose Nemser, who, with her new husband, moves into the North Bennington home of famous author Shirley Jackson in the fall of 1964. Nemser increasingly comes to view herself as a protagonist in one of Jackson's horror novels, and begins to lose her grasp on reality, at one point believing that Jackson was responsible for the disappearance of real-life Bennington College sophomore Paula Welden in 1946.
Merrell said the purpose of her writing was to create a story that was "completely implausible in the real world, but plausible within the story." She had first read Jackson's writing during her own time at Bennington College. She went on to read all of her letters and journals, and was considering writing a biography. Then, one day, said Merrell, "I was walking my dog in the woods, when suddenly I saw this person, Rose. I saw her completely."
While there were certain biographical elements within the story, Merrell knew that she wanted it to first and foremost being a piece of fiction. "Never in the history of publication have the words, 'A Novel,' been larger. We wanted it to be very clear exactly what this was."
Her characterization of Rose was based loosely on a character from Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey," who sees mystery all around her, despite her relatively benign surroundings. "I've never met any of the people, both the good and the bad came from my imagination."
During the question-and-answer session after the reading, one gentleman raised his hand and introduced himself as Barry Hyman, Jackson's son. He accused Merrell of writing "nasty" things about his family, including calling his mother a murderer. "It appears to me that you've tried to ride my mother's considerable coattails to market your book."
Hyman, of North Bennington, also took to the Bennington Bookshop's Facebook page to criticize Merrell, writing, "Merrell appears to believe that she has written an homage to my mother, the late Shirley Jackson, but my siblings and I feel that the book is incredibly offensive, presumptuous, and gratuitously nasty. Merrell tries to make her fictional alter-ego look good by insulting my parents and other famous writers such as Bernard Malamud and J.D. Salinger, but the end result is merely pathetic, in my opinion. Merrell appears to have no way of marketing her otherwise unremarkable and rather adolescent novel other than trying to ride on the coattails of Shirley Jackson. It is a dreadful first novel [sic, "Shirley" is actually Merrell's second novel, and third book], not worth reading, and I find it particularly annoying that she is coming to Bennington to sell copies. I have read it and can save you the trouble; it's not worth buying."
Merrell apologized to Hyman, and suggested that he should have approached her personally with his grievances. He responded that his lawyers have already contacted her publisher.
"I suspect that there's nothing I can say that will change your opinion of the book, and for that I'm sorry," said Merrell, "But I haven't done anything that hasn't been done over and over again."
She reminded Hyman that, "Things really only have to be true in the story that they're in." Hyman disagreed, saying that people will read the novel and assume that it is fact, which will severely damage his mother's reputation.
Ellen Havlak spoke up at this point, saying that she had in fact seen the opposite effect, that for every customer that bought a copy of Merrell's book, many returned interested in Jackson's writing. An audience member further defended Merrell, saying, "As the daughter of a famous author myself, I know where you're coming from. However, they're public figures, and this is a work of fiction."
When tensions had calmed, the question-and-answer session continued, with one audience member asking Merrell what she was going to write about next. "Well," she said, "I'm pretty interested in something that happened in my home town [New Haven, Conn.] involving a cult, but then again, I write fiction, so I could just make something up!"
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB