I came across this book last summer: The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) by Terri-Lynn DeFino. The title immediately suggested that it was my kind of story. I'm a sucker for books about books or writers.
I loved every word of this book. It was even better than I'd hoped. The story begins with Cecibel, an orderly in the retirement home. She unexpectedly strikes up a friendship with new resident, Alfonse Carducci, who was a hugely influential and famous author in his day. He also happens to be her all time favorite author. But their relationship doesn't progress the way you may expect and there's a lot more to both of them than meets the eye. (Did I mention just how much I loved this book?) It's so beautifully written. The characters are so rich and deep. The emotion is so powerful. It instantly became one of those books I'll never forget. I will definitely re-read this. So please enjoy this fabulously fun interview with the amazing Terri-Lynn DeFino. I urge you all to do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this book, ASAP.
SJ: I was hooked on your book the second I read the title. Did you have the title all along or did that come later?
TLD: Ah, the title. That’s a story in itself. The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses) started life as Traegar’s Lunatics. (Those who have read the book will get it.) My agent said we needed to retitle, because it said nothing about what the book is actually about. We agreed on a working title of The Pen, a little wordplay, but as we started sending it to editors, the question always came back, “Is it like Orange is the New Black?” Then Rachel Kahan (my editor with William Morrow) made the offer to publish and she agreed—we needed a new title. She preferred something lyrical, a line from the book, and we came up with A Thousand Different Ways. I loved, loved, loved that title. Marketing was iffy on it. When the book was through editing and on to art and cover design, it was agreed by all from designers to buyers that the title was nice, but it didn’t say what the book was about. You think readers judge a book by its cover? Well, they judge it by its title too. Sometimes, all you have is the title on the spine to entice a reader to pick up your book.
We wracked our brains for months. A title that says it all, and in a way that makes readers want to pick it up! It’s harder than you might imagine. Finally, we reached the end of the line and still had no title. Rachel said, “Why don’t we just call it The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Lovers.)” I will admit, I hated it, but it said it all. Having been several years writing in the romance genre, I didn’t want lovers, so I suggested muses instead. Didn’t love it! But it has grown on me, and I can’t tell you how many readers have said the title was the biggest reason they picked up the book to begin with.
SJ: What came to you first with this novel? I love the idea of a retirement home just for writers! Was it the concept? A character? A line of dialogue?
TLD: The concept for Bar Harbor began with the wonderful movie, Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman and starring Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly. The story takes place in the English countryside, in a retirement home for musicians. The old rivalries, old lovers, past triumphs and flops. I thought, what a wonderful notion, to end one’s days among birds of a feather, those who know your passions as intimately as you do. Those who made the same sacrifices, who knew you when you were young and in your prime.
I had to set the idea aside, because I was in the middle of a three-book contract with Kensington Publishing for my Bitterly Suite novels. It never stopped tugging at me, though. When I finished my contract with Kensington, I had to make a decision—continue on in romance? Or take the leap into literary fiction. I leapt.
SJ: I was wrapped up in all the storylines and characters in this book! Everything wove together seamlessly and felt so real and effortless. How long did it take you to write this book? How close is the plot to your first draft?
TLD: This book was one that defied all norms and expectations. I wrote it, got my agent with it, and sold it to William Morrow/HarperCollins in slightly over a year. I could say it’s because it had quite a long time to worm its way into my brain, and it would be mostly true. The rest of that truth is, I work five days a week, eight hours a day. When the story is there and the time is that abundant, a writer can get a lot done. As for the plot, there is one major difference, and only one. My agent disagreed with the way the story within the story ended. “It’s nice. It’s fine. But that’s not the ending. You need the expected unexpected*.” And she was 100% right. Other than that, nothing much changed.
*spoiler: I originally had the story within end with Cecilia and Tressa on the dock waiting for Aldo. My agent said, “For Tressa, it’s always been about Patsy.” Absolutely right. I got chills when she told me, rewrote the scene in about an hour, and even scolded myself for the original—not original at all!—former ending.
SJ: The name Cecibel was unusual, but I really loved it. How did you come up with the character names in this book?
TLD: Cecibel was the name of a nurse in a doctor’s office where I’d taken my son. She looked absolutely nothing like my Cecibel, but that name! I loved it, and decided I’d use the name for a character one day. I’ve done that with quite a few characters over the years.
Cecilia and Aldo’s names sometimes give readers fits. One rule in writing is never make names similar, but it was necessary here, to show when Alfonse first started writing the story, he was starring himself and Cecibel in the lead roles.
Olivia, Switch, Judi, Sal, I couldn’t say why those names. They just fit. As for the Italian crew in Paterson? I knew Dominics and Nickys, Cecilias and Aldos growing up. They were the names of my childhood, and easily grasped.
SJ: The setting is so rich and vivid, do you live near the water?
TLD: I do not, but I wish I did. Bar Harbor, Maine is one of my happy places. The mountains, the woods, the sea. Rugged and lovely and quirky. There’s no place like it.
All my happy places are by the sea—Bermuda; Myrtle Beach, SC; the Jersey Shore; Villefranche, France. By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea. I’m there whenever I can be.
SJ: What first got you interested in writing?
TLD: I’ve just always written. My first book—stapled together and illustrated by my seven-year-old self—was The Fire-Breathing Dragon. Fantasy has held my heart hardest. It’s where I started (three novels with Hadley Rille Books, Finder, A Time Never Lived, Beyond the Gate), and where I always lean. My Bitterly Suite novels all have ghosts in them. Everything I write is at least touched by magic.
SJ: Do you listen to music when you write? Are there any songs that associate with particular characters?
TLD: I like absolute silence when I write. If I listen to anything, it’s musical soundtracks. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. (I told you I was a fantasy nerd!)
SJ: Do you have an agent or did you submit directly to publishers? How long did the whole process take?
TLD: I do have an agent (Janna Bonnikowski with The Knight Agency), though I didn’t with my first six novels. When querying independent presses, a writer doesn’t necessarily need an agent. I knew where I wanted my work to go, and I was in the right place, at the right time both times. When it came to Bar Harbor, I knew I wanted to go bigger, and needed an agent. I queried a few agencies, but at the same time, an editor friend mentioned she knew someone actively looking for what I was writing. I queried her, we went back and forth for a week or so, and I signed with her and The Knight Agency pretty quick. It just felt right. All together, it probably took me a month to land my agent, but—like I said—the experience with Bar Harbor from start to finish was not typical.
SJ: I know you created them all, and it’s like asking to choose amongst your children, but who is your favorite resident of the Bar Harbor Retirement Home?
TLD: My favorite resident is Olivia, and I choose her without qualm.
SJ: Are you working on a new book for us to devour in the near future?
TLD: I am always working on something new. I’ve written three novels since selling The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses.) But none of them have been that—harder than you might think to land—second book. I’m hoping the one I’m working on now is that second book. (Though it would actually be my eighth!) It’s about Death and the mason jar she collects newly departed souls in—like fireflies, but she’s become a bit disillusioned with her job and careless. Three of them have escaped. She has to go back into the world and find these Lost Souls before the day is over, and the powers that be find out she screwed up—again—or pay the consequences.
That sounds amazing! I hope we'll see it on the shelves soon. Thank you so much, Terri-Lynn.