When asked what brings them to the Hamptons, many artists invoke the area’s atmospheric light. Author Susan Scarf Merrell, who wrote the novels Shirley, 2014, and A Member of the Family, 2011, moved to the Hamptons in 1989, and while she might appreciate the light and the inspiration it gives others, she says she stays for the literary community. As co-director of the Southampton Writers Conference and co-founder and co-director, with Meg Wolitzer, of the BookEnds novel-incubator program, Merrell ensures that the literary legacy of the Hamptons is shared with new generations. “Even as we struggle with development and crowding, influxes of new people, and outfluxes of old,” she says, “what makes the East End special seems to run underneath all the grumbling, like a vein of unprospected gold.” Here, Merrell paints a picture of the East End literary community’s past, present, and future.
CULTURED: Describe the literary community out East.
Susan Scarf Merrell: There have been novelists living in the Hamptons since James Fenimore Cooper wrote here in the early 1800s. [James] Salter, [E.L.] Doctorow, Betty Friedan, and Kurt Vonnegut were all here when I arrived. This is a particularly rich moment with such a range of talented people in the area: A.M. Homes, Colson Whitehead, Jay McInerney, Amy Hempel, Zachary Lazar, Amanda M. Fairbanks, Alafair Burke, Steven Gaines, Robert Caro...
CULTURED: What's the best spot for reading and writing?
Merrell: I wrote much of my first book, The Accidental Bond, 1995, in the John Steinbeck Writers Room at what is now the Stony Brook Southampton campus and my second, A Member of the Family, on the third floor of the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor. I think my favorite reading spot is Gibson Beach in Sagaponack, but any beach will do!
CULTURED: The Southampton Writers Conference returns for its 48th edition on July 12. The location is one that people don't usually associate with scholarship: the beach. What is it about the Hamptons that facilitates this?
Merrell: All of our writers love to spend time both in the water and on the beach. There’s no place more beautiful to sit and think or to hang out with new and old friends. The Hamptons draws so many artists to visit and live—that light the painters love lures artists of all kinds.
CULTURED: What piece of advice have you heard from a great literary mind that has stuck with you over the years?
Merrell: My favorite piece of advice came from the sorely missed Melissa Bank. The simplest, truest directive ever: “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” She had me write it down and place it on the cork wall near one of my favorite writing spots in my house. I smile at it every day.
CULTURED: Can you describe the role of community in BookEnds, the year-long novel incubator program that you co-direct?
Merrell: I like to say we become a holding environment for each book, a play on the work of the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. There are layers of support: first, the four separate pods of three writers; then the fellowship of all 12 writers; then the mentorship by me, Meg, and our associate director, Jennifer Solheim; and finally the ultimate support, which is the one-on-one mentorship with an established writer that begins halfway through the fellowship year.