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Interview: June 23, 2017

Mary McNear is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Butternut Lake series, the latest installment of which, THE LIGHT IN SUMMER, is now available. In this interview, conducted by’s Megan Elliott, McNear explains what inspired her to make a single parent the main character in this fifth installment of the series, and why secrets --- those we keep and those we eventually choose (or are forced) to reveal --- are such rich terrain for writers. She also talks about the challenges of writing several chapters from the perspective of a teenage boy (her protagonist’s son) and gives us a sneak peek at the sixth (and, she believes, final) Butternut Lake novel. This isn’t your first trip to Butternut Lake as an author, and a few characters from your earlier novels even make an appearance in THE LIGHT IN SUMMER. What keeps you coming back to this particular setting?

Mary McNear: Having spent most of my life living in cities (Chicago, New York, San Francisco), I’ve always harbored a love of and fascination for small town life. Partly this comes from spending summers at the cabin in northwestern Wisconsin my great-grandfather built during the Depression. It’s on a beautiful lake, a couple of miles from a small town, and we still congregate there for a few weeks every summer to pick strawberries at local farms, gather for the 4th of July parade, go to the weekly fish fries, putter around the lake in a motor boat, and sit on the dock in the evenings listening to the loons calling. Although Butternut is a fictional town, and lake, it’s informed by my own very real experiences and memories of a real town and lake.

BRC: Billy had her son, Luke, when she was still a teenager, and his dad isn’t in the picture at all. What inspired you to make a single parent the main character in your latest book?

MM: There are over 13 million single parents living in American today --- many of them trying to balance work and family. Raising and caring for children is a huge job. How do we teach children to be self-confident, compassionate, hard-working and moral? It’s no easy feat. And doing it alone, sometimes under very difficult circumstances, requires patience, discipline, a sense of humor and, of course, love. For me, Billy represents the complexities of this struggle. She’s a good person, who has flaws and has made some mistakes, but she’s determined to be a good parent to Luke.

BRC: Secrets play a big role in this book. One of Billy’s dilemmas is if and when she should tell Luke what she knows about his father, while Luke is also keeping some secrets. Why do you think secrets, both those we keep and those we eventually choose (or are forced) to reveal, are such rich terrain for writers?

MM: We all understand what it means to have a secret. In many ways, secrets are the manifestation of the conflict between a person’s private self and their social world. We know or do things that we are determined to hide from others; this could be for reasons of shame, guilt or even security, to name a few. The problem is that secrets often entail lies or, at the very least, lies of omission. So, right away, a secret sets up a conflict, both within the self and between the self and the world. And since conflict is at the heart of any good fiction, secrets are always going to be fertile territory for writers.

BRC: Several chapters in the book are from Luke’s point of view. Was it challenging to adopt the perspective of a teenage boy when you were writing?

MM: Yes, this was very challenging. I was Luke’s age in 1978, an altogether different time to be a teenager. And although some things never change (having crushes, declaring independence from parents, grappling with identity), social media, computers and the internet have changed the day-to-day experience of being a teen. However, I’ve raised two children; one is now 22 and the other is 19. So I do have some experience listening to and watching a younger generation. I also read voraciously, and that includes Young Adult books, which keeps me up on the language and preoccupations of today’s teens.

BRC: THE LIGHT IN SUMMER has plenty of romance and humor, but it also tackles some pretty weighty topics, like Billy’s struggles as a mom. As an author, how do you balance those more serious themes with the more lighthearted aspects of your story?

MM: It’s difficult to balance what I think of as the light and dark parts of a story. But, in my mind, it’s essential. Even if something terrible has happened to a character, I never want to overwhelm the story with too much darkness. And one way to do that is through humor and romance --- two things that lighten our lives. I do believe that love and a strong dose of humor can often get us through even the darkest things. And, as a writer, I am a strong advocate of the happy ending!

BRC: One of the things I really enjoyed about THE LIGHT IN SUMMER was all the colorful townspeople, like the feisty Mrs. Streeter (who’s still holding a candle for Cary Grant), and Mara, the eager young library patron who gets her book recommendations from Billy. Do you imagine characters in advance and then find a story for them, or are they developed as you write?

MM: I think secondary characters --- like Mara and Mrs. Streeter --- are hugely important to any work of fiction. They illustrate the diversity of people in the world, give texture to a story, allow for flashes of light and dark, and sometimes provide a foil for the main character. Almost always these secondary characters are organic to the story I’m writing. Billy is a librarian, which makes me imagine what her patrons are like. My main characters are a little different. I imagined Billy --- a young single mom, grappling with the death of her father and the complexities of raising a teenage son alone --- and then I found a story for her.

BRC: You live in California, but your books are set in Minnesota. Do you think a “Butternut Lake” could exist on the West Coast, or is there something uniquely Midwestern about the place?

MM: Yes and no! Yes, a place like “Butternut Lake” could exist on the west coast --- a small town community that is beautiful but also filled with all the problems and conflicts found in any contemporary community. After all, in the end, most of us wrestle with --- regardless of where we live --- issues of love, work, family and loss.  But there are some things about Butternut --- the climate and a certain Midwestern ethos --- that are distinct to that part of the country. Having lived on the west and east coasts, I’d have to say that Midwesterners have a tendency to be polite, modest, friendly and humorous in a way that is unique to them.

BRC: Billy often turns to Jane Austen’s novels for comfort. From this, may we assume that you also are an Austen fan? If so, which is your favorite book of hers? Has her work influenced your writing in any way?

MM: Yes, I’m a big Jane Austen fan. At the end of THE LIGHT IN SUMMER, I wrote an essay about why I love Jane Austen and why I read her books. Three things stand out: Jane Austen is a master at writing dialogue; her books are filled with wit and humor; and she has a strong moral compass. Those are things I emulate. I’d have to say my favorite book is PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Who can resist the perfection of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy?

BRC: You’ve written five Butternut Lake novels so far, plus a novella, since your first book was released in 2014. Was the plan all along for this to be a multi-book series, or did that come about more organically?

MM: Based on my first novel, UP AT BUTTERNUT LAKE, HarperCollins gave me a contract to write two more books: BUTTERNUT SUMMER and MOONLIGHT ON BUTTERNUT LAKE. This would become the Butternut Lake Trilogy. And although all three books can stand alone, they all share the same setting and some of the same characters. Due to the success of the trilogy, HarperCollins gave me a contract for three more Butternut Lake books. The fourth book, THE SPACE BETWEEN SISTERS, was published last summer. And as you know, the fifth book, THE LIGHT IN SUMMER, is now available.

BRC: What are you working on now? Can readers expect another return to Butternut Lake in your next book, or will you be moving on to something (or somewhere) new?

MM: Right now I’m working hard on my sixth and, I believe, final Butternut Lake novel. It’s about a young woman who returns to her hometown after 10 years away. She left at the end of her senior year in high school, three months after a devastating tragedy that rocked her high school class and the town. She makes some shocking discoveries while back in Butternut, uncovers some long-held secrets, and realizes that sometimes it is more difficult to forgive oneself than it is to forgive others.