Return to Green Gables: A Conversation with Sarah McCoy
I first met Sarah McCoy in 2013 when we did an event together in Rhode Island. Sarah had just released her historical novel, The Baker’s Daughter, and I was on the road for my novel Family Pictures. To use a term germane to today’s discussion—it was a meeting of “kindred spirits,” and we’ve remained close friends ever since. Sarah is one of the most thoughtful people I know—it’s not unusual for beautiful little packets to arrive in the mail containing delicious teas and Jane Austen-themed gifts. So it is with great delight (and some disappointment that it’s not face-to-face), that I sit down for a virtual cup of tea to talk with her about her new release Marilla of Green Gables.
As an Anne of Green Gables fan, like most, it feels as though we have been unconsciously awaiting Marilla Cuthbert’s story for most of our lives. At the 110-year anniversary of the original book’s publication, the timing feels rather providential for a next chapter—or rather, a first chapter of this series’ of mighty female heroines. Set in rural Prince Edward Island nearly forty years prior to Anne Shirley’s arrival, the novel unravels the enigmatic past and life of adoptive mother Marilla Cuthbert. Sarah tenderly and masterfully brings us rich characters, cultural complexities, and lush island beauty that we only thought we knew from the original books. Many early reviewers have already declared Marilla of Green Gables a seamless addition to the series and a triumphant return to Avonlea.
Sarah McCoy is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of five previous works of historical fiction. She taught writing at the University of Texas at El Paso and at Old Dominion University, where she obtained her MFA in creative writing. She’s actively on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and that is where we often find ourselves conversing day-to-day. This being a special occasion, I initially invited Sarah to my home for a Facebook Live interview, but she’s currently on her Canadian and US book tour. Thankfully, by the power of The Rumpus, we are able to rendezvous on the e-couch for a chat.
The Rumpus: How did you come to write Marilla Cuthbert’s story? Was it an idea you’d had for a long time?
Sarah McCoy: I actually hadn’t thought to write Marilla until about two years ago. At the time, I had just completed another novel called Pride and Providence, which sold internationally. I was in the process of changing North American publishing houses. While getting to know potential new publishers, the executive editor at William Morrow/HarperCollins gave me a call. She basically asked me to share a book idea that excited me to write next. No strings attached. Door wide open. Just what makes your heart sing to write? I’d never had an editor take an active role in the brainstorming part of a book’s development. It was entirely refreshing.
So I followed her instructions and the first idea that came to mind was… Marilla Cuthbert. I’d always been fascinated by her as a prominent yet only partially known character in my beloved Anne of Green Gables series. I grew up with the books and was obsessed with everything related. Marilla of Green Gables was a novel that somewhat terrified me to write. Green Gables is sacred, after all. But my love for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s legacy usurped my fears. So I went into the writing with the goal to honor that and give Marilla the spotlight that I felt Montgomery would approve.
Rumpus: Indeed, you accomplished that goal! So were you always an Anne of Green Gables fan and if so, when do you first remember reading the story?
McCoy: I have a vivid memory of my mother with the book on her lap reading the novel to me when I was about four or five years old. We were a military family stationed in Germany. My mother is Puerto Rican so there was a coalescence of languages: German, Spanish, and English. She read a lot to me in the early years to help delineate between. She is also an Anne of Green Gables devotee. Then later, my Titi (auntie) Gloria gifted me a bible-sized, three-book volume of the series. I remember my seven-year-old self thinking that I would never be able to read it all. So many words! But I was determined. I was an introverted child, so while my mom and I talked about Green Gables and the characters, I yearned to participate in that literary world independently. Within a year, I had read all three books and craved more.
Fate provided. The 1985–1987 miniseries Anne of Green Gables premiered on PBS/BBC, starring Megan Follows and Colleen Dewhurst. I was obsessed. My mom threw me an Anne of Green Gables-themed birthday party, and we sewed a blue, puffed-sleeved dress for Christmas, just like the one in the movie. I was in love with Montgomery’s fictional universe. It fed my spirit in a way very few other books did.
Rumpus: So, like many of us, you adored all things Anne of Green Gables, but Anne Shirley and Marilla Cuthbert are vastly different personalities. Why Marilla?
McCoy: Do you think so? See now, and maybe I’ve come to this opinion through the writing of the novel, but I think they are far more alike than we give them, or their author, credit. Lucy Maud Montgomery gave us a complicated yet profoundly lovable character in Marilla Cuthbert. There’s an excellent breadcrumb trail, and I considered it a joy to follow it backwards to discover Marilla’s younger self.
During Marilla’s childhood in the 1830s, so much was happening in Canada, Prince Edward Island, North America, and the greater world. All of those influences shaped her into the woman we meet at Green Gables in 1876.
Montgomery wrote tiny, wonderful details that give a glimpse into Marilla’s past. I spent a good amount of time re-reading the original texts in which Marilla is featured, noting every description, emotional response, commented and hidden opinion, every habit, routine, and preference. Then I placed them into the historical context to ascertain the connections.
One of the most standout, juicy details, in my opinion, is in Chapter 37 of Anne of Green Gables:
“What a nice-looking fellow he is,” said Marilla absently. “I saw him in church last Sunday and he seemed so tall and manly. He looks a lot like his father did at the same age. John Blythe was a nice boy. We used to be real good friends, he and I. People called him my beau.”
Anne looked up with swift interest.
“Oh, Marilla—and what happened?
I never forgot that question: “Oh, Marilla, what happened?” What Green Gables devotee hasn’t stopped on that page and thought, “hmm… do tell?”
Marilla of Green Gables is my answer. It’s the story of Green Gables’s foundation and what led us to the start of Anne’s legacy there. It’s the story of Marilla Cuthbert’s becoming. It’s a story that I think many of us can relate to despite the difference in time, place, and culture.
Rumpus: As writers and readers, our inclination is to take the side of a novel’s foremost protagonist. We empathize with their plight without thinking too much about the stories behind the minor protagonists around them. That’s what makes the concept of this book so unique: it speaks directly to your own curiosity about the people who aren’t in the spotlight but are equally significant.
McCoy: As I mentioned earlier, I’m an introvert and suffered from severe, almost debilitating, shyness as a child. So inside, I felt like I had this lush, secret garden in my imagination—cultivated by the books I read. That place never made me feel awkward or unwelcome. It didn’t shift like the ever-changing military posts my family moved to. The people in my books were as real and influential in my upbringing as any in my reality. So I paid close attention to them—all of them. The major and the minor characters. They were part of my literary family. Sort of like the distant aunt or cousin that you may not see on a daily basis, but a family reunion would not be the same without them. They bring their own shades of light and shadow.
Marilla might appear to be a minor protagonist or even the antagonist to Anne Shirley, but there’s so much to admire about her. She’s wiry and witty. She’s stable and honorable. She’s a champion of family, faith, hope, and second chances. She may be “plain Marilla” without the whimsical, starry-eyed glamour of Anne Shirley, but there is greatness in a simple truth. There is incomparable beauty in the unadorned. Those are attributes to be celebrated and I thought it about time they be given the spotlight they deserve.
I joke with my family that I was a reticent version of Anne Shirley as a girl, but with each passing year, I grow more and more into an outspoken Marilla. I hope this book helps people understand that being a “Marilla” can be a really lovely thing.
Rumpus: What do you think accounts for the ongoing interest in Green Gables?
McCoy: If we look objectively at our modern society, one of the current most popular forms of entertainment is streaming media. So for many, including my own husband, their first introduction to Green Gables was via the Netflix series Anne with an E. It has absolutely sparked a flame in the younger generations. The show is inspired by the original texts but not adherent to them. The writer (Moira Walley-Beckett) has gone off the books and written a modernist’s alternative universe for Anne Shirley and the Cuthberts of Green Gables. It’s marvelously inventive and entirely its own creation. I believe watchers can enjoy the TV series but then pick up the books to understand the literary territory from which the series derived.
Similarly, I believe readers who have or haven’t read Anne of Green Gables, can pick up Marilla of Green Gables and enjoy the experience of this evocative place and people. There can never been too much Green Gables in the world. That’s my mantra.
Rumpus: What do you feel Marilla has to say to contemporary readers?
McCoy: As we discussed earlier, I think we live in a distinctive time that glorifies big glitz, loud voices, and projected images. The channels to broadcast those are available to all. It can be simultaneously empowering and enslaving. The more information that’s put out, the farther we get from intimate knowledge. I think that’s because deep down, we all know that there’s so much more behind the Twitter handle, the Facebook wall, the Instagram feed. There are people—real, flesh and blood, living and dying, hurting and loving people. We consume these social medias stories not because of the reasons we think (entertainment) but because we yearn to connect. We’re yearning to really know each other and to really be known. The quiet, raw, plain us that doesn’t get one hundred-plus likes.
That’s what Marilla of Green Gables is—an authentic connection with one of the “plain” but true kindred spirits of the literary universe. She’s a reminder that nobody and nothing should make us feel like a minor character in this world. Our stories matter. We are each the major protagonists of our lives. History may not record our voice immediately, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hear us. Lucy Maud Montgomery may not have written Marilla’s story on the page, but we heard the whispers in Anne of Green Gables and now, we’ll hear it fully. That’s an exemplary gift, I believe, for women—young and old.
Rumpus: That’s a point I definitely want to bring up. Do you see Marilla as a feminist character?
McCoy: I’ve thought about this a lot while writing the novel and long after. What do you call a feminist character that was written into existence before the term ‘feminist’ was coined? Surely, the Victorian-era Lucy Maud Montgomery didn’t sit down to write feminist characters. Nonetheless, Marilla is a feminist. What I do believe is that Montgomery was an advocate of gender equality. She recognized the paradox of power in the world in 1908. Men were given the authority in name even if they didn’t earn or execute that authority. Women were the subjugated sex no matter what the true familial dynamics might’ve been.
Looking at the very first chapter of Anne of Green Gables: it is Marilla who sends her older brother Matthew to the train depot to collect an orphan, and it is only by Marilla’s authority that the child, Anne Shirley, is allowed to stay on at Green Gables.
Also, it’s essential to note the overly emphasized issue of Anne not being the boy orphan they desired. I read this as Montgomery’s way of indirectly discussing the significance (or perceived insignificance) of women, and girls who would one day become women. Art, education, politics, religion, nature, fashion, food, family, and farm life: all of these are celebrated in Montgomery’s novels as being distinctly under the feminine thumb. Montgomery was sister-less, as were Anne Shirley and Marilla, as am I. From this alchemy of females, real and fictional, a collective literary sisterhood was formed. Rachel Lynde, Diana Barry, Minnie May, Ruby Gillis, Izzy Johnson, Clara Cuthbert, and female readers today and from the past century are all part.
That’s why I believe this book continues to thrive. It’s about women overcoming adversity and fearlessly sharing the message: “You can, too.” Unlike many of the louder messages being shouted at us from TV, radio, the Internet, etc., this one is shared between the reader and the page. Only there does it have a chance to seed itself in each woman’s heart. I know its capacity. I experienced it the first time I read Anne of Green Gables. It influenced who I grew to be as an adult, a writer, and a feminist.
Rumpus: You mentioned Montgomery being sister-less. I know she has family still on Prince Edward Island, correct? Did you have any communication with them and if so, how are they responding to the addition to Montgomery’s legacy?
McCoy: Yes, one of the first things my publisher and I checked was the copyright law regarding Anne of Green Gables. It being one hundred and ten years after publication and seventy-six years after Montgomery’s death, all of the characters are now public domain. That said, this was a project with deep heart ties. So it was essential for me to reach out to Montgomery’s family relations living on PEI.
In October 2017, I went to PEI and met George and Pamela Campbell, brother and sister. They own and operate the Anne of Green Gables Museum at Silver Bush. That’s one of the three farms that served as the inspiration for Montgomery’s Green Gables. There was her grandparents’s farm where she mostly lived, her MacNeill cousins next door, and her favorite Aunt Annie (Anne with an ie) Campbell’s down the road. From what I’ve been told, she had rooms in all three places and as a virtual orphan (her mother was deceased and her father remarried and moved west), she grew up being collectively raised by her maternal family.
It’s funny, because I emailed with George and Pamela for months prior to my visit last year. When I was finally in Cavendish, George didn’t think he could meet me because he had a massive group of cruise ship guests arriving by busloads. He was giving tours of the farm with the Lake of Shining Waters that day. I came and met Pamela, who answered my research questions with insight and wry humor. She instructed me to stay in the kitchen by the warmth of the old fire stove while she conducted business with museum patrons. Suddenly, a silver-haired, handsome man who was the vision of Matthew Cuthbert skirted in and out of the kitchen, keeping his head low. He did a double take at me by the family stove, but left before I could explain that Pamela had sat me there.
Ten minutes later he returned and introduced himself with a sheepish grin, “I’m George Campbell.” He’d been scoping me out! After hellos, he took me from the kitchen over to a quiet spot on the farmhouse porch for raspberry cordial and cookies. We talked about my writing and research, Maud and Green Gables, the island, life… It was a meeting of kindred spirits, to be certain. That was the beginning of our friendship. From that meeting day forward, Pamela and George have treated me like family. I sent them copies of Marilla of Green Gables in its earliest form, and they enthusiastically supported it, as do the rest of the family, including the heirs living in Toronto. Their blessing on Marilla means everything.
I like to imagine it is a companion novel that introduces new readers to the Green Gables series or rekindles the old flame for those who read it as children, like I did. This is one of those few storylines that transcends generations, cultures, and locations. There’s so much to share.
Rumpus: It’s book club gold. Clearly, we could sit here chatting for ages—or gigabytes, as is the case for our online Rumpus readers, but I want to ask one last question. Are you planning any more Green Gables-inspired books?
McCoy: Being a fellow author, you know I can’t give secrets away until my publisher and editor say so. But us being such dear, old friends, I’ll tell you in secret that I may just have more Green Gables in mind. Of course, I need to discuss it with my William Morrow/HarperCollins editor first—yes, the very one who reopened the road to Avonlea for me. She’s an Anne of Green Gables devotee and a kindred spirit of the highest order. As soon as we decide, I promise to share.
Rumpus: I think I can safely speak for all when I say that we will be eagerly look forward to it.
Featured image © Emily Martin.