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Take Five: Sarah McCoy and MUSTIQUE ISLAND


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We’re thrilled to bring you a Take Five interview with New York Times, USA Today, and internationally bestselling novelist Sarah McCoy (Marilla of Green Gables; The Mapmaker’s Children; The Baker’s Daughter) about her latest novel, out this past week: MUSTIQUE ISLAND.  

“It’s the early 1970s, and it’s perfectly acceptable to name-drop visiting royalty, whether rock (Mick Jagger) or Windsor (Princess Margaret)… sun-drenched and frequently frothy, McCoy’s underlying tale of women-in-crisis who claw their way back to strength carries sobering messages about the importance of family loyalty and resiliency.”
— Booklist

One bookseller called Mustique Island a “literary rainbow.” Curious to learn more? Let’s talk with Sarah.

Q: What’s the premise of your new book?

SM: The book opens in January 1972 when a Texan divorcee Willy May Michael docks her boat on Mustique Island, an exclusive enclave in the Caribbean. Guests and residents included royals like Princess Margaret and celebrities from across the globe like Mick and Bianca Jagger, Vogue fashion models, actors, famous architects, even gangsters on the run. Really anyone with money, glamor, and a touch of scandal.

Into this luxurious setting arrive three outsiders, Willy May and her grown daughters Hilly and Joanne. Publicly, it appears that they’ve come for an island escape but privately, they’re each seeking a personal breakthrough. During the height of 1970s glitz when image, lineage, and fame reigned supreme, each of them is desperate to be seen, heard, and fully known as a person, a woman, and ultimately, a unique herstory in the world.

Throughout the writing of this family saga, I found myself asking: What does it mean to be of significance, beyond all the qualifiers society attempts to make our definition: pedigree, title, celebrity, money. In the end, is that what leaves a mark on history? Or is something more human.

When Willy May’s daughters arrive, they discover that beneath its veneer of luxury, Mustique has a dark side. As they navigate the beauty and the chaos together, their mother-daughter relationship shifts and forever changes.

Q: What sparked your story interest in 1970s Mustique Island?

SM: This book was catalyzed by three of my obsessions:

✪ British royals
✪ Islands
✪ Complex family dynamics—siblings in particular

As I shared previously, the spark of inspiration came through a PBS documentary on Princess Margaret. The docufilm showed a scene of Margaret’s wedding and mentioned that one of the Queen’s Ladies-in-waiting (Anne Tennant) and her noble husband (Colin Tennant) gave the newlyweds property on their privately-owned island, Mustique.

I had never heard of it. I’m Puerto Rican and during the writing of my first novel, I did a lot of research on Caribbean culture—the original Taino and Arawak people who then were colonized by the Spanish and French and the British. Each colonizing nation claimed ownership over an island here or there, often right next to each other. Creating a truly unique socio-economic environment. That being a part of my lineage, I thought I was familiar with all the islands. But no, I’d never heard of this Mustique.

So, I did what any historical novelist does, I searched for every document related, scoured the internet for books and ordered many from England. One source was particularly intriguing: Colin Tennant’s autobiography. In it, there was a snippet about a Texas beauty queen who received a fortune in a divorce settlement from her British ex-husband but had no place to land herself having been ex-communicated from ranking society. And suddenly, I saw her, I heard her Texas twang, I knew this woman’s desperate desire to belong somewhere. Colin went on to explain that he sold her a plot, she built a gorgeous house on it, and her grown adult daughters came over. The story had seeded. A woman named Willy May, her daughters Hilly and Joanne, an island called Mustique, royals, colonial privilege, celebrity excess… it was all there waiting for me.

“Historical fiction lovers will luxuriate in a trip to Mustique Island, Sarah McCoy’s latest novel about a 1970s enclave, and a mother and her daughters who find their new beginnings there. McCoy’s created a big-hearted, enchanting gem.”
— Laura Dave, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Last Thing He Told Me

Q: From that, you wrote the novel. Were there any unique challenges?

SM: Actually, from that, I had the puzzle pieces of the novel, but no guiding image of what the final picture. So that was a unique challenge. Usually, when writing historical fiction, you have some kind of factual outline to follow. But all the accounts (memoirs and autobiographies to TV footage and photographs) told conflicting stories. Not even the timelines were the same! The harder I tried to write this in the conventional way, the more the narrative fought me.

Finally, in the third draft, I had my come-to-Jesus with the story. I realized that the island’s glitz and sparkle had me starstruck and fooled, too. This book wasn’t about all that. That’s the costume. It took me four years and four complete start-to-finish rewrites to dig out the heart of this story. The family and people—that’s Mustique Island. Opening its exclusive, secretive shores was only half the challenge; opening its heart to readers was the real goal.

Q: To your point about historical novels traditionally following a documented outline. This book weaves fact and fiction. So, was it inspired by fact or fiction or both?

SM: I’m drawn to marginalized voices, particularly women who don’t fit traditional social molds. My protagonist Willy May Michael is loosely inspired by a woman named Billy Ray who, on paper, appeared to be the ideal. An American beauty queen, wife to a British brewery baron, mother of glamorous daughters, rich and living in circles of the world’s elite class… quite nearly a fairy tale. And yet, there were all these shadowy parts. For every laurel in her story, there was a catch. Her beauty queen title was from a small, rural town in Texas. For decades, she was married to a British brewery baron, but then divorced him, lawyered up, won a large civil settlement from his family, and subsequently fled England. So scandalous, which made me so curious! Why did she leave the noble circle she was already established within? Where were her Texan kin—her daughters? So many questions with nothing on record. Answering those in fiction became my goal for this novel.

Q: What’s one of the messages you hope readers take away?

SM: That perfection does not exist. It’s an illusion. Every relationship on earth is deeply complicated. Love doesn’t require our perfection. For some reason, we have a hard time accepting that hard truth. That’s part of the beauty of this novel, Mustique Island.

No matter how luxurious or mundane, royal or common, outlandish or conventional the world without is, our inner worlds are much the same. Being alive means that we will grapple with fear, insecurity, yearning, hope, bittersweet joy, etc. Because at all our cores is the longing to be fully known, fully loved, and fully accepted. So much of existence is a journey to grow something new while remaining rooted to the old. That, too, is a paradoxical state. That’s what makes humanity uniquely multifaceted and beautiful… and perfectly imperfect.

A generous bookseller called Mustique Island a literary rainbow. I love that description. Rainbows usually appear after summer storms. In the aftermath of the pandemic, I think we’ve earned a literary rainbow read. I hope readers come for the island escapade and leave with a heart treasure of what it means to be worthy of love and family and all the riches that can’t be bought.

You can learn more about Mustique Island on Sarah’s website, and by following her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!

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About

Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~50 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. In 2014, the first Writer Unboxed UnConference (part UNtraditional conference, part intensive craft event, part networking affair) was held in Salem, MA. Learn more about our 2019 event, ESCAPE TO WuNDERLAND, on Eventbrite. In 2016, the Writer Unboxed team published a book with Writer's Digest. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published has been well-received by readers who seek help in overcoming the hurdles faced at every step of the novel-writing process--from setting goals, researching, and drafting to giving and receiving critiques, polishing prose, and seeking publication. James Scott Bell has said of the guide, "Nourishment for the writer's soul and motivation for the writer's heart." You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter, and join our thriving Facebook community.

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