In The Good House, author Ann Leary takes us into the world of Hildy Good, an eccentric "townie" and gossip queen from a small, close-knit city on New England's North Shore.

By Marisa Spyker
November 07, 2013
Photo: Scott M. Lacey

After gaining notoriety for her poignant memoir, An Innocent, A Broad, about unexpectedly going into labor with her son overseas, Ann Leary—that’s actor Denis Leary’s wife—returns with a fictional tale of a middle-aged real estate agent struggling to cope with troubled family relationships, gossiping neighbors, alcoholism, and self-doubt. Released earlier this year, The Good House has already earned a spot on the New York Times Best Seller list, and a film adaptation of the book—starring legendary duo Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro—is currently in the works. We asked Ann to dish on her inspirations behind the book, its eccentric main character, and its charming North Shore setting.   .  

What inspired you to write The Good House?

AL: I really wanted to try to write a book about an alcoholic from the point of view of an alcoholic in denial. We have quite a lot of alcoholism in our family, going back generations. In my family, it is particularly present among the women. The female alcoholic is very different than the male alcoholic, as there is still a special stigma about female drunks, and women are also more vulnerable when they are drunk in public places, so many women drink alone at home. I wanted to write about the loneliness particular to the type of woman who is a wonderful mother and volunteer or employee by day, but who drinks herself to drunkenness all alone each night. It’s a sad way of life, though when one is in it, one believes that it’s normal and an enjoyable way to live. I wanted to have the reader understand the mindset of the alcoholic woman in denial. The way that she can be so adept at distorting the realities of her world in order to make her behavior appear rational (if only to her).

The subplot of my book is about an affair between a psychiatrist and his patient. A few years ago, I read that it is against the law for a therapist or a psychiatrist to have a sexual relationship with a patient. In many states, a therapist can go to jail for this. I was shocked to learn that in our free society there is actually a law preventing two consenting adults to have a relationship, and I wanted to explore what would happen if a patient and shrink crossed that boundary.

The main character, Hildy Good, is described as a townie who knows pretty much everything about everyone. Have you known a Hildy Good in your own life? Did any one person inspire the character in the book?

AL: Hildy is not based on any one person, but I have known a few Hildys in my life. If you live in New England it’s likely that you do, too. Hildy is a New England Yankee, in the best sense of the word. She’s not easily swayed by the opinions of others. She’s quite private, cool, unemotional (at least when she’s sober), determined, and opinionated. She actually has a big heart and will always help a neighbor in need, but doesn’t want anybody to know that about her. 

Originally, the book wasn’t going to be about Hildy at all. But I found that whenever I wrote scenes that involved Hildy, the writing was easy, and slowly she started taking over. In a way, she hijacked the book. This harsh, critical, often funny but somehow endearing middle-aged woman with an apparent drinking problem kept butting in with her stories about her hometown and her childhood and all sorts of defensive explanations about her drinking, and wouldn’t stop until finally I made her not just the narrator but actually the main character. The novel is really about Hildy’s relationship with her community, her family, her very loyal boyfriend, Frank … but mostly it’s about Hildy’s relationship with the truth.

Why did you choose to set the book in a small town on the coast of Massachusetts? 

AL: I knew I wanted the novel to be set in a small New England town, because I just love small New England towns. When I was 14, we ended up moving from Wisconsin to Marblehead, Massachusetts, and I was immediately fascinated by the fact that Marblehead had its own personality, which was just a little different than the towns surrounding it, which each had their own distinct personalities. Marblehead—at least when I was living there—had a few wonderful eccentrics. On the North Shore of Boston, there are still many who claim to descend from the witches who were hanged in Salem, and I have always felt that the particular way that female alcoholics are stigmatized and the way that they withdraw from their communities is very much like the women who were accused of witchcraft in the 17th century. Also, the practice of “interventions” - confronting a person about their alcoholism, usually feels, to the alcoholic, like they are being persecuted. It feels like an inquisition and is very frightening. Just like it’s hard to prove you’re not a witch, it’s hard to prove that you’re not an alcoholic.

Is the fictional town of Wendover modeled after any real-life town in particular?

AL: The town of Wendover is not based on any one town in particular. It’s on the water and it’s horsey, so I had the towns of Ipswich and Essex in my mind while I was writing the book.

How was writing this novel different from writing your previous two novels, Outtakes from a Marriage and the memoir An Innocent, a Broad?

AL: An Innocent, A Broad is a memoir.  It’s about how my husband and I traveled to London when I was six months pregnant with our first child. We were very young, completely broke and, well, I went into labor when we got there and though we had packed for two nights, we stayed for six months. Our son was a preemie, but thanks to the excellent care he received at a London NHS hospital, he’s a healthy 23-year-old today. But the book is a sort of fish-out-of-water story about how I became a mother in a strange land. The easy thing about writing a memoir is that you know the plot. It has a beginning, middle and end. And for me, that’s the hard part about writing fiction—coming up with a compelling plot. On the other hand, the great thing about writing fiction is that you can almost be more honest about people and situations. I meet people and hear amazing stories every day, just stopping at out local post office. But, I always want to make the stories more interesting and, of course, alter the characters so that they’re more fascinating than the person or people that inspired them. That’s what I love about writing fiction. I get to lie and embellish for a living.

Living in Connecticut, what are your favorite towns on the New England coast to escape to for a vacation with your family? 

AL: My mother and sister still live in Marblehead, so I visit there frequently. I love the Cape, the Vineyard, Nantucket. I recently did a book signing at Jabberwocky Books in Newburyport and I just fell in love with that town. I hadn’t been there in years. They’ve done a lovely job of restoring the downtown area. I guess I’m just a North Shore girl. I pride myself on still being able to run barefoot on a rocky beach and dive into ice-cold water.