Fay is one of the best authors of women’s fiction, and her novels are not to be missed.— Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
After Janie’s husband, Robby, dies suddenly, she gradually emerges from her grief. For instance, as the days progress, she holds it together until 5:30 or 6 in the evening. Then, as she is really improving, she can hold her grief at bay until going to sleep. What gave you this insight into the way we heal?
Even with a live husband, I’m pretty tired by the end of the day. At about six, just before dinner, I have the least amount of patience and my kids are at their least adorable. Jokingly, I’ve often told my husband, “You keep walking in the door at six o’clock and I’ll never leave you.”
I’ve often imagined how hard that time of day must be for a single mother, with no reinforcements on the horizon. It must be especially tough when you’ve come to rely on the reprieve. You can no longer hand off the whiny baby or tell the irritable 5-year-old to “ask Dad” those 52 questions about why he can’t get a cow for a pet. That starkness of no one showing up when you’re at your worst suggested itself as the focal point of Janie’s aloneness.
But humans have an amazing capacity to acclimate ourselves to deprivations, big and small. Slowly, as Father Jake counsels Janie, we adjust. She has to muddle through until her mental alarm clock stops going off at six, and her body gets used to hanging in there for another couple of hours. And because I love her, I gave her occasional reprieves: Cormac, Aunt Jude and even Shelly show up at six o’clock with food from time to time.
The central question for Janie is “Now what?” After her husband dies, she struggles to remember how people normally live. How did you know that too?
“Now what?” is the central question for all of us. If you believe that every moment is a choice—to sit or to stand, to say yes or say no, to shoot or hold your fire—then we’re all answering that question for ourselves all day long. Some answers come easily, subconsciously; some require a substantial effort. Trauma can make the process seem absurd or impossible. “Should I eat the peas or not? My God—who cares! How can that possibly matter in the face of this horrible thing that’s happened? And what are peas, anyway? I can’t even remember if I like them.”
Janie has a terrible time figuring out what to do next, because life as she knows it no longer exists. As she says in one of those first journal entries, she doesn’t know what the rules are anymore, or even what she wants them to be. That’s why Shelly is such an important friend to her—Shelly’s bossiness is a virtue. But eventually, Janie has to start figuring out all the Now Whats for herself.
The title Shelter Me works on several levels—can you talk about that?
There’s the obvious metaphor of the porch being built, of course. But there’s also this sense of sheltering each other emotionally that I wanted to get at. Especially in families, we protect each other, often with the best of intentions, but not always with the best of outcomes. Sometimes we feel like saying, “I know you mean well … but back off!” Other times we feel we’re not being helped or protected enough.
Noreen realizes that she’s spent her whole life sheltering her unusual son, Mike, and finally turns her attention to Janie, but with mixed results. I like the complexity of Janie’s relationship with her mother, who alternately does too much or not enough for Janie.
Janie is excavated from the depths of her misery, not by her mother but by the love and shelter of all those unlikely relationships. And little by little she becomes able and willing to return the favor. She gets better at helping Dylan cope with the loss of his father. She sees that she can’t take people like Father Jake and Heidi and Tug for granted, that they need care and protection too.
Janie starts off not liking the people in her life after her husband dies—her bossy neighbor Shelly, the carpenter Tug who builds the porch, the priest Jake, the bustling Aunt Jude, flashy Heidi (mom of her son’s best friend)—and she picks fights with all of them. Do you think learning how to forgive and how to apologize are at the heart of this novel?
Yes. The story’s precipitating event is a preventable death. Had Robby taken a little extra time to find that bike helmet, he likely wouldn’t have died. This one minor lapse in judgment (and who hasn’t forgotten a helmet, or to fasten their seat belt or to look both ways before crossing a street at some point or another?) causes an avalanche of grief that all but buries Janie and her family. We all do things—inadvertently, carelessly or even purposely—that end up hurting other people. It’s pretty much a given in human relationships.
Janie feels hurt, at various times and to varying degrees, by each person in her life. Her mother abandons her at her darkest hour; Father Jake offers a closeness that isn’t sustainable; even Heidi is careless, sending Janie into a wild panic by bringing Dylan home late. Janie’s response (also very human) is retaliation. In some ways, what Janie learns is the art of de-escalation, both internally and interpersonally. And there’s nothing better than a sincere apology to dial down the temperature—especially when accompanied by baked goods!
What’s the story behind the Pology Cake?
So many people have asked me that, and I wish I had a better answer. I just made it up! Then it took on a life of its own, and demanded to be a recurring theme rather than just a back story. As a writer I love when that happens. You come up with some little detail that ends up being far more significant than you originally imagined. It helped me pull the thread of forgiveness from the beginning to the end of the story. (And I can’t tell you how much my grandmother would love the thought of her struffoli playing a starring role in Janie’s reunion with Tug. Grandma has gone to her reward, but I like to think that she knows.)
Two priests in Shelter Me play a big role; one is sympathetic and smart; the other, cranky and quarrelsome. Were you were raised in the Roman Catholic faith? Is it true that you would like to write sermons? Why does the Catholic Church figure so prominently in Shelter Me? Even Aunt Jude’s name is a play on St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases.
I am an active Catholic, and it’s true, I write homilies in my head all the time. My secret is out! I like the idea that you can take something that was written thousands of years ago and ask, What did this mean to them at the time, and what does it mean in the context of our lives today? How does it continue to challenge us to be better people?
I guess I wouldn’t say that the Catholic Church itself plays such a prominent role, but the two priests do offer a small window into that world, as well as a way to challenge Janie spiritually. Janie herself is not particularly religious, and yet she is able to glean something from the messages that she hears. Father Jake’s final homily on the Magi, about how we are all potential Magi for each other, nudges her toward a profound act of forgiveness.
The elderly Father Gilroy, that cantankerous old badger, unwittingly ignites her acceptance of Tug’s invitation to spend Thanksgiving together. Father Gilroy is my favorite lesser character. As crabby and unappealing as he is, he still has something to offer.
And St. Jude—I never even thought of that, but of course you’re right! I love when people see connections in my writing that I didn’t intend. Novels are a bit of a Rorschach Test (one could make the point that a good portion of life is, as well) and it’s always a delight to know the added value that the reader brings.
You have a gift for keeping the reader engaged and the story moving along, building momentum at every turn. Can you talk about how you approached writing Shelter Me? Any lessons (both in terms of style and in terms of deadlines and schedules) that you learned from writing your first novel?
What seems to work best for me is to have some themes and a general plot trajectory before I do any writing. The first theme for Shelter Me was unlikely sources of support; the theme of forgiveness emerged as I wrote. I had many of the characters in mind before I began, but others just popped in unexpectedly. Shelly, for instance, came out of nowhere. I imagined that a neighbor might drop by, but I never planned for her to be so pivotal. She just showed up, dressed-for-success and demanded a bigger role. What choice did I have in the face of all that bossiness?
I tend to be sort of an orderly, organized kind of person. Part of the challenge for me as a writer is to get out of my own order-imposing way, and let the story flow along, taking unexpected turns. I get a little panicky when I feel like I don’t know where I’m going next, but then I remind myself of E.L. Doctorow’s wonderful quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It calms me down every time.
A former boss once called me “pleasantly compulsive.” I thought it was the nicest thing to say—which tells you a lot about me! I’m not one of those people that start things at the eleventh hour, fueled by the rush of an impending deadline. I work as if the deadline were three days earlier so that I don’t freak out if it takes a little longer than I expected. I also find that when you think you’re done, wait a day and reread it again. You’ll always find a few things to tweak, and you’ll always get a better product.
You are married with four children. In writing about Janie’s five-year-old son, Dylan, and baby girl, Carly, did memories start to multiply—like avoid feeding grapes to a baby or risk extra-smelly diapers? Or a Dylan’s utter fascination with machines, tools.
I’m very lucky as a writer to have potential character traits, word choices, syntax options, idiosyncrasies, activity preferences and especially interpersonal conflicts skittering around the house and demanding my attention on a daily basis! Whenever I’m stuck on some aspect of one of my younger characters, I can rely on my kids to supply an idea. My teenaged daughter is also very helpful with adolescent characters. I recently needed a clearer understanding of the slang term “emo” and she was happy to describe it to me. However, none of my characters are based on my children, or anyone else I know.
What’s the best lesson Janie came away with in the end?
This is such a great question, and hard to answer!
For one thing, we don’t know much about Janie before Robby’s death. But it’s a likely bet that she was a pretty good mother and wife, fairly self-confident, and probably had that particular brand of humor that carried forward into the story in a more caustic form. We also don’t know much about her friends before the accident, only learning that she drove them away with her hatred of that unavoidable question, “How are you?”
She loses all of that. She’s no longer a wife, feels she’s failing her children, her friends have stopped showing up, and she’s lost confidence in her ability to manage even the more basic tasks of family life (like meal preparation). I would argue that she’s better at all of these things by the end of the book because she has a much better understanding of human frailty—her own and others’.
As Janie describes her marriage, we get a picture of two people who don’t have to face much adversity. They meet, fall in love, get married, have kids. Pretty standard stuff. After Robby’s death, the relationships in Janie’s life are hardly smooth sailing. But as a result, she becomes able to share herself on a deeper level, and appreciate her good fortune more than ever.
I believe she’s also a better mother. It’s no easy task to guide a child through heartbreak and loss, but over time, Janie figures out how to give Dylan what he needs. Particularly at the pool, when Dylan expects his father to miraculously appear, she finally understands his need for the goggles, as well as her own need for tears. After months of hiding in the bathroom to cry and getting irritated about the goggles, both means of processing grief become acceptable.
And through her unlikely friendships with Heidi, Father Jake, Tug, Shelly and even Barb, she expands her notion of what friendship is and can be. None of these people are who Janie would pick out of a line-up to be pals with. But it’s been my experience that sometimes you just don’t know who’s going to be there for you when the mud hits the fan. Sometimes it’s the people on the periphery of your circle of relationships who step up in unexpected ways. You think someone isn’t your “type”—whatever you’ve told yourself that is—and then they surprise you.
Finally, I can only think that forgiving someone who has caused you and your family immeasurable pain shows enormous personal growth. I hope I would be capable of it myself, but I don’t know for sure. Janie never seems to feel any pride about it, and I think that’s because she’s arrived at a capacity for forgiveness that makes such an act seem almost unremarkable. Not that Janie is no longer without faults—clearly she has them and they show. But perhaps she’s experienced the grace of forgiveness enough herself by the end of the story to recognize it as the only thing that makes sense.