While we all wish we were not living in a state of semi-quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic, the time spent at home has been good to a certain group of people: Writers.
“The pandemic also turned out to be kind of a plus,” says author Kat Szmit, whose first novel “The Sugar House” (Wicked Whale Publishing, 2020) has just been released. Working her day job from home, Szmit found she had more time on her hands to write, and “it just sort of tumbled out.”
Szmit is well-known to Chronicle readers as a member of the editorial department covering sports and general assignments since 2016. She also works as a freelance book editor.
Szmit sets “The Sugar House” in territory familiar to her — a fictional town in New Hampshire called Walton, which is a lot like the small town in the same state where she grew up, Walpole. Szmit says that when she was growing up, Walpole was a town of about just 1,500. It was the kind of place with old stone walls and open fields, where kids played tag on the village green. Szmit has fond memories of helping classmates and their families make maple syrup in their sugar houses. Yet, of course, a town like this, at least in fiction, must have a dark underbelly. And Walton, if not Walpole, surely does.
At the beginning of “The Sugar House,” Penny McAllister, now known as PJ, is returning to her late parents’ house in Walton. Her father, Ned, died six months ago, and it is PJ’s sad task to ready the family home for sale. We know that something unusual is afoot because although it’s a cold and snowy November night, PJ sits out in the car in the driveway for one hour.
We wonder, too, why PJ is shunning “the prying eyes of nosy neighbors,” and why she is loath to go upstairs in the house. In fact, she won’t go into her old bedroom at all. And then there’s the sugar house, the scene of something traumatic that we can’t yet understand. Yet contrasting with these fearful places is the kitchen, where PJ has happy memories of baking bread and cooking with her mother, Alma.
PJ is, in a word, conflicted.
The story moves forward when PJ meets a talented local teenager who has been using the sugar house as her private “hangout” where she reads, writes in her journal and even sleeps. PJ offers to teach the girl, Mickey, to cook and bake. Mickey is the only daughter of PJ’s high school flame, Ethan, but PJ doesn’t know that. When Ethan learns who is teaching Mickey to cook, the tension ratchets up. It seems PJ and Ethan share a horrible secret that revolves around Ethan’s late brother Dennis and, you guessed it, the sugar house.
Without spoiling the plot, we can say that as the story progresses, it becomes clear it is in part a tale of overcoming extreme trauma. In fact, Szmit dedicates the book to “all the survivors.” Under this umbrella Szmit includes survivors of childhood sexual abuse, domestic abuse and “any traumatic situation they rose above.”
“It’s important they’re acknowledged for surviving and coming out strong,” she says. “For many it’s hard to recover and move forward. I wanted people to know it’s possible to grow and heal.”
Szmit herself survived a marriage she describes as “volatile.” While she has had friends who survived sexual assaults, she says it’s still a “very tough subject for people to discuss nowadays.” She wanted PJ to come across as a survivor who worked through her trauma with a therapist and will probably always remain in therapy. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she says.
About a quarter of the way through the novel PJ does step into the sugar house. “PJ was grateful to the years of counseling for helping her muddle through the trauma one painstaking step at a time, each session, each lesson, leading to this moment in which PJ stood strong, not surrendering to her fear-filled desire to flee.” Meanwhile, as PJ painstakingly pores through her parents’ possessions, she comes to grip with her own past.
As we mentioned, the kitchen is PJ’s happy place, and cooking, baking and food hold a prominent place in “The Sugar House.” PJ and her mother had cooked together and that bonding carries over to PJ and Mickey.
“I love to cook,” Szmit says, adding that she often cooked with her son Ryan Wilder, now 27. The culinary aspect of the plot “just sort of evolved.”
Szmit began her writing career very young, when her father presented her with a manual typewriter. On it, she wrote stories and newspaper articles about what was going on in her household. From an early age she knew “I want to be a writer, that’s what I want to do.” She graduated from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, and began her career as a reporter on the Cape.
And as for Szmit’s next work? She says she has some ideas she’s still bouncing around.
Szmit will sign copies of “The Sugar House” on Saturday, Oct. 10 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham. For more information, call the store at 508-945-0144.