Jennifer Vido: What inspired your new release, The Edge of Summer?
Viola Shipman: Every novel I write is a piece of my heart and inspired by a deeply personal story. The Edge of Summer is no exception: It’s inspired by my grandma’s buttons and button jars (which I still have), her love of sewing and her love of me. It’s a tribute to the sacrifices of our mothers and grandmothers.
My working poor Ozarks grandma, Viola Shipman (my pen name), stitched overalls at a local factory until she couldn’t stand straight. But even after sewing all day for work, nothing brought her more joy than taking a seat at her Singer. My grandma was like a ballerina at her Singer, her body in motion and in tune with the machine. It was a gorgeous dance to watch. She was also the first “artist” I ever knew, though she would blush at the mere utterance of such a fancy word.
The Edge of Summer is inspired by these memories. It’s also inspired by the thoughts that spun in my head as I watched her sew, or when she would look up at me and smile, especially as I grew older: What was my grandma like before she was my grandma? Did I know everything about her? Where did this love of – and great skill for – sewing and design come from? And, although I knew of her sacrifices, I wondered how much she truly had to sacrifice – and maybe even hide – in order to get here, right now, happy and sewing in a home with her grandchild watching her work? I can still picture her face, and the memory makes me both want to weep and work even harder to honor her.
“Look at this beautiful button,” Sutton’s mother says to her, just as my grandma said to me. “So many buttons in this jar. All forgotten. All with a story. All from someone and somewhere. People don’t give a whit about buttons anymore, but I do. They hold value, these things that just get tossed aside. Lots of beauty and secrets in buttons, and people, if you just look long and hard enough.”
Jen: Why did you choose to set the story in the Ozarks and the shores of Lake Michigan?
Viola: Recently, I’ve been fascinated with exploring dual locations in my novels, largely to explore what I call the “ghosts on characters’ shoulders.” Environment plays such a big role in determining how we all become the people we are. Moreover, setting is as big a character as any of the people in my novels. My settings live and breathe, and they impact my characters profoundly. I spend much time researching and choosing the right location to fit the story and characters. I live in Michigan, and every novel I write is set in a different Michigan resort town filled with beauty, quirks and fascinating histories.
I actually live in (and love!) the stunningly beautiful resort towns of Saugatuck-Douglas, Michigan, where the novel is set. It’s akin to Nantucket or the Hamptons with gorgeous beaches, dramatic dunes, blue, unsalted Lake Michigan and a rich history of being a mecca to artists (it’s known as the Art Coast of Michigan). All of that drew me here to live and create, and it does the same for the novel’s protagonist, Sutton, who follows what she believes are clues in the buttons and sewing notions her mother left behind to these towns. Art and creativity play a huge role in the novel, and the town’s incredible arts scene (including historic Ox-Bow, an artist retreat affiliated with the Chicago Art Institute) changes Sutton.
And I was born and raised in the Ozarks, whose beauty and isolation impacted me greatly, along with the working poor grandparents who raised me. Like Sutton in THE EDGE OF SUMMER, both places have made me who I am. The history and beauty of these locations has also changed me profoundly. In THE EDGE OF SUMMER, I explore the Ozarks and its rural beauty, the rushing creeks, the log cabins, the bluffs, the small town squares, five-and-dimes where I had lunch with my grandma and mom, and the flower boxes that made the local businesses so pretty.
I also explore the beauty and quirk of a Michigan resort town, the majesty of Lake Michigan, the dunes, the glorious gardens, the galleries and art, the beaches and sunsets.
Moreover, the novel includes the real and fascinating history surrounding the pearl button industry in the United States, one of the largest employers in the U.S. at the turn of the century, much of which took place in and along the rivers in the Midwest and Great Lakes from Iowa and Indiana to Missouri and Michigan (this is truly the “story behind the story” in my new novel). The stories of the clammers (the men who would pollywog and rake rivers for the clams), how button cutters created the blanks from the mussel’s pearly shells, and how women sanded those on emery wheels to turn them into beautiful buttons before bringing them home to sew onto cards, earning one cent for every five cards they made fill the pages, shape the characters’ back stories and inform us of our past and future. It all came together here!
Creek to lake ... bluff to dune ... the setting defines us, changes us, follows us ...
Jen: What happens in Sutton Douglas’ life that sends her on an adventure?
Viola: When fashion designer Sutton loses her mother – a working poor seamstress called Miss Mabel who’s always been overly protective of her daughter and very secretive about her past – the only things left behind to her are her mom’s buttons, button jars and sewing notions. In these simple heirlooms, Sutton begins to stitch together a history of who she believes her mother might have been. She makes the impulsive decision to pack up and head north to the Michigan resort town where she believes she’ll find answers to the lifelong questions she’s had about not only her mother’s past but also her own place in the world.
Jen: What role does Bonnie Lyons play in Sutton’s quest for the truth?
Viola: Awww! The “Widow Lyons” may be the most intriguing character I’ve ever written. Bonnie is the imposing, mysterious, magical matriarch of the lakeside community Sutton heads to in search of answers. Recalling Miss Mabel’s sewing notions that were her childhood toys, Sutton buys a collection of buttons at an estate sale from Bonnie. Propelled by a handful of trinkets left behind by her mother and glimpses into the history of the magical lakeshore town, Sutton becomes tantalized by the possibility that Bonnie is the grandmother she never knew. But is she? As Sutton cautiously befriends Bonnie and is taken into her confidence – Bonnie hires Sutton to design her summer gowns for the resort town’s galas – she begins to uncover the secrets about her family that Miss Mabel so carefully hid, and about the role that Sutton herself unwittingly played in it all. Bonnie is strong, weak, loving, cruel, nurturing and stand-offish, rich yet haunted, and the puppet master of the entire town. A woman haunted by her past, Bonnie will captivate, frustrate and fascinate readers from start to finish.
Jen: Why did you choose to incorporate sewing, and more specifically buttons and button jars, into the story?
Viola: All of my novels are deeply personal and inspired by an heirloom of grandma’s, objects we tend to overlook these days that tell the histories of women and our families.
My Grandma Shipman stitched overalls at a local factory until she couldn’t stand straight. She never finished high school. She never learned to drive. She rarely had two nickels to scratch together, and yet she was the richest woman I’ve ever known. Why? She understood what mattered most in this life. But even after sewing long hours all day for work, nothing brought my grandma more joy than finding the perfect McCall's pattern or creating her own design and taking a seat at her Singer.
My grandma had a Singer sewing machine, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world: Black with a beautiful gold inlay pattern atop the original, old treadle oak cabinet, glowing with a rich patina. My grandma was like a ballerina at her Singer. It was a gorgeous dance to watch..
But there is one seminal memory that remains: No matter how tired she was, my Grandma Shipman would always look up at me from her Singer, and her weary face would break into a smile. Not just smile even, but a beam of light that shone as brightly as the sun on the cover of this book. As I got older, I began to wonder, “How did she get from there to here? What did she overcome in her life? What did she tell me and what did she keep secret? How did she remain so strong? What did it take for her to reach this exact moment, to be sitting behind her Singer in her own sewing room with her grandson watching her and be so content? I still bawl like a baby at that memory. And it is that memory that served as the foundation for THE EDGE OF SUMMER. In the novel, Sutton wonders the same thing: How did my mom survive? How did she learn to be so happy?.
This book is an ode to our elders, the people whose lives, stories and sacrifices we too often overlook and take for granted. I do not. And I never will. The Edge of Summer is also an ode to sewing. My grandma taught me to sew when I was young. I can still stitch a button, and I remember the sewing terms she used to this day:
Do you know what these mean?
Each chapter in THE EDGE OF SUMMER is centered around a sewing term and, more deeply, how they relate to Sutton as well to our own lives. Language, like sewing, is fascinating, filled with beauty, history and fascinating roots
Jen: What do you hope readers will gain from reading The Edge of Summer?
Viola: I wrote this novel to remind readers that true value and worth lie within, and before us, if we just open our eyes and hearts enough to see it. I also wrote this story to remind readers that families are not perfect. They never will be. But – if we were blessed to be loved by our families, as flawed as it may have been, and even if our parents were not who we wished they had been or the love they gave was not as much or as demonstrative as we would have liked – we were still blessed to be loved. At its heart, this novel seeks to ask if we should be thankful for those sacrifices and if maybe, just maybe, that love is enough for us to stitch together a beautiful life and a future.
Jen: Let’s talk about your promotional plans. What’s the best way for readers to stay connected with you?
Viola: I will be all over the country with this novel, from the South to the North. Readers can check out my website for appearances and all the latest news on my books, as well as catching me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.
Jen: Please share with us a sneak peek into your work in progress.
Viola: There’s actually two WIPs! The first is my upcoming Christmas novel entitled A WISH FOR WINTER (November 15). It’s about a 40-year-old bookseller in northern Michigan whose mother and grandmother both met their future husbands while each was dressed as Santa Claus, and she feels it’s her destiny (and curse) to do the same.
My other work in progress is next summer’s novel is tentatively titled The Cherry Pit Spittin’ Champion of Good Hart (though that will certainly change). It follows an octogenarian who won said championship as a young girl, setting the Guinness Book of Records for a distance that has remained for sixty-five years.
Jen: What books are you most excited to read this summer?
Viola: I have the summer releases by Nancy Thayer and Mary Kay Andrews ready to go on tour with me, and I’m reading Pamela Kelley’s new novel, THE BEACHSIDE BOOKSHOP, to blurb.
Jen: Thank you for stopping by to chat about The Edge of Summer. Best of luck with your fabulous new release!
Viola: Thank you! I’m a BIG fan of Fresh Fiction, and it was an honor to be with you. XOXO!
Devastated by the sudden death of her mother—a quiet, loving and intensely private Southern seamstress called Miss Mabel, who overflowed with pearls of Ozarks wisdom but never spoke of her own family—Sutton Douglas makes the impulsive decision to pack up and head north to the Michigan resort town where she believes she’ll find answers to the lifelong questions she’s had about not only her mother’s past but also her own place in the world.
Recalling Miss Mabel’s sewing notions that were her childhood toys, Sutton buys a collection of buttons at an estate sale from Bonnie Lyons, the imposing matriarch of the lakeside community. Propelled by a handful of trinkets left behind by her mother and glimpses into the history of the magical lakeshore town, Sutton becomes tantalized by the possibility that Bonnie is the grandmother she never knew. But is she? As Sutton cautiously befriends Bonnie and is taken into her confidence, she begins to uncover the secrets about her family that Miss Mabel so carefully hid, and about the role that Sutton herself unwittingly played in it all.
Fiction Family Life | Small Town [Graydon House, On Sale: July 12, 2022, Trade Size / e-Book, ISBN: 9781525811425 / eISBN: 9780369702135]
VIOLA SHIPMAN writes regularly for People, Entertainment Weekly, and Coastal Living, among other places, and is a regular contributor to All Things Considered.
Jennifer Vido is best known for her nationally syndicated Jen's Jewels author interview column. A savvy book blogger she dishes the scoop on the latest happenings in the publishing business. As a national spokesperson for the Arthritis Foundation, she has been featured by Lifetime Television, Redbook, Health Monitor, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, Healthguru.com, and Arthritis Today. She is the author of the Piper O’Donnell Mystery series. Currently, she lives in the Baltimore area with her husband and two sons.
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