Dear Reader

Would You Be Okay Having a Cemetery in Your Backyard?

J. Courtney Sullivan on the house that inspired The Cliffs.

Jul 2, 2024

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I never know what might spark my imagination and provide inspiration for a novel. In the case of The Cliffs, it happened while I was on vacation in Maine ten summers ago. The idea for the book was set in motion by two old houses. The first, an 1880 farmhouse, was for sale. My husband and I, newly married then, briefly considered buying it. We made an offer. At which point, the realtor gave us a map of the property, and we learned that the original owners and their children were buried just beyond the edge of the backyard grass, in a wooded area. Once I knew the gravestones were there, I realized I could see them from the kitchen window.

This became a topic of debate among our friends—would you be okay having a cemetery in your backyard? People felt strongly, one way or the other. To me, it felt like an extreme form of what is always true in New England: The past intersects with the present everywhere you look, whether you see it or not.

Just down the road from the farmhouse, we came across a gorgeous, purple Victorian overlooking the ocean, fully furnished, and mysteriously abandoned. Every August thereafter, we would visit (okay, fine, we would trespass) to check on the place and peer through the windows. I always wondered—Who lived here? Why did they leave? Where did they go?

One year we arrived to find the house was gone, the foundation for a McMansion dug in its place. I was inexplicably crushed. When I got home, I started writing about the house. From there, characters emerged. Jane, the protagonist in The Cliffs, discovers the exact abandoned Victorian I did (down to the furnishings) as a teenager. It becomes her refuge from a difficult home situation and a town where she doesn’t fit in. Twenty years later—her career and marriage in shambles due to a massive mistake she has made—Jane, now an accomplished archivist, returns to Maine and finds the house drastically changed. It comes to play an unexpected role in her adult life when the new owner, fearing the house is haunted, hires Jane to research all its previous residents.

I populated the house with fascinating women. I had so much fun creating them and incorporating the history of various unusual places in Maine into the story—like a summer camp for psychic mediums, and a Shaker Village where the last two living members of that faith still reside.

My primary obsession in fiction is the idea that the moment a woman is born determines so much of who she is allowed to become. We are always in conversation with the people who came before us, even if we don’t know their stories. I see the women in this book, separated by time and many other factors, but united by a house and the land on which it sits, as being in conversation with one another.

Writing this book transported me to Maine, to my favorite place by the sea, and helped me see it in a whole new light. I hope reading the book does the same for you.

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