Editor’s note: This is the first in a monthly column about books and authors with ties to Connecticut.
They say to write what you know.
This is probably why the first story I wrote for the one fiction writing class I took in college took place in Allston, a neighborhood of Boston also known as “Rat City.” Many of my friends had their first apartments there and, at the time, I thought there was simply nothing cooler than taking a 40-minute subway ride out there for a party in someone’s living room that was inevitably decorated with secondhand furniture and Christmas lights.
Mary Simses, a Darien native and author of two books, takes the same approach of writing what you know.
Back in September, I was reading Simses’ second novel, “The Rules of Love and Grammar,” which takes place in the fictional Connecticut town of Dorsett. I realized I recognized the diner in the book, “The Sugar Bowl,” as sharing a name with a popular luncheonette in downtown Darien.
I looked up Simses and found that sure enough she was a native of the town and the resemblance was not a coincidence. The book is even dedicated to her childhood friend, Rebecca Tucker Holliman, who lived by her on Camp Avenue as a kid and whose childhood games inspired the main character and her best friend. The book is also dedicated to John Sutton, Simses’ ninth-grade English teacher who encouraged her writing.
Recognizing pieces of a town I know well in a novel was exciting and comforting. Since moving to Connecticut last year, I only knew Fairfield County was portrayed in the less-than-flattering “Stepford Wives” and potentially in “The Carrie Diaries.” (No? Just me?)
The feeling of excitement of seeing a place I know in a book turns out to be part of the reason why Simses set her second book there. While the main characters in both her novels start out in Manhattan, they both end up in small towns where the rest of their stories unfold.
“I grew up in small town,” Simses said. “It’s what I’m used to. I find it warm and fuzzy to read books about small-town life.”
Simses grew up in Darien and attended the public schools there before studying journalism at the University of Bridgeport. She went on to work in magazine publishing and as a corporate lawyer while living in Stamford. It was then she began taking a weekly three-hour fiction writing course at Fairfield University.
“I really missed creative writing,” she said. “I’d done it as a kid. I’d done it most of my life. It was the best decision I ever made in terms of changing my life and starting what would ultimately become my third career.”
Simses moved down to Florida 21 years ago, but her Connecticut upbringing is still evident in her writing. One of her early short stories that she got published in a literary magazine, “The Orchard,” took place in Connecticut and was inspired by the old apple trees she had in her yard growing up.
Fairfield County residents reading Simses’ second book, “The Rules of Love and Grammar,” might recognize Rowayton Harbor, the village green in Fairfield and the Sugar Bowl. The book’s Dorset Playhouse where main character Grace and her friends frequented is a play off the Darien Playhouse, which was in town while Simses was growing up, and Grieb’s Pharmacy was the insporation for Woodside Pharmacy in the book.
While Simses said she changed certain elements to make her fictional diner different from the Darien luncheonette, she choose the Sugar Bowl as the model for her diner as a nod back to her favorite hangout spot as a teenager.
“When I was a teenager, that was the place where all the kids hung out,” she said of the Boston Post Road eatery. “We’d go after school and get cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, Diet Coke, things like that. I changed a bit about the way it looked, because I wanted it to be my own place, but it was definitely inspired by the real Sugar Bowl.”
All of Simses’ work has taken place in the northeast, but her third novel, which is currently in the works, also takes place in Connecticut. She said she plans to continue this as she keeps writing, as there are just some places constantly on your mind.
“Connecticut is really home with a capital ‘H,’” she said. “It’s where I grew up. It’s where I spent not only my childhood, but most of my life and I love it. So when I think about writing, I imagine myself back there. It’s picturesque, it’s old, it has history, it has hills and woods with stone walls running through them that’s been there for dozens of years. To me, it's just a little gem of a state.”