Louise Miller’s second novel The Late Bloomers’ Club is a welcome return to Guthrie, Vermont, home to the Sugar Maple Inn, fine fiddle music, contra dances, and the apple pies of her debut, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living. People Magazine says “you’ll want to linger” over this great read. Dead Darlings couldn’t agree more and we’re so happy to talk to Louise about this delicious new novel.
In Late Bloomers’, Miller turns her eye to town and The Miss Guthrie Diner, where owner Nora Huckleberry finds herself in a quandary: Local cake lady Peggy Johnson has had a fatal encounter with the oldest oak tree in Guthrie and willed her sizable property to duty-bound Nora and her sister, Kit, a would-be filmmaker in search of elusive funding. The sisters are at odds about what to do with the property—sell now to a big-box chain or hang onto the property in hopes that something more befitting the small town will come along. In the meantime, orders for Peggy’s cakes are stacking up, a charming real estate developer takes a room at the Sugar Maple, Nora begins to suspect there was more to Peggy than she let on, and Peggy’s traumatized border collie mix, Freckles, is on the loose. Louise Miller has an uncanny way of getting to the beating heart of a story—the promise of simple pleasures, how choices are not always clear, the nature of sacrifice, and the draw of a small town.
Louise! I was so excited when I learned that you would be returning to Guthrie, Vermont in your second novel since we loved everything City Baker. I thought you did a wonderful job of visiting with those characters without making them front and center to Nora’s story. Was it difficult to ignore characters like Livvy and Martin?
I am so happy that you were excited to go back to Guthrie—I was too! It’s funny, I thought I would be more tempted to include characters from The City Baker’s Guide in The Late Bloomers’ Club, but I found myself so interested in Nora and Kit, and seeing the town from the inside out (Nora has lived in Guthrie her whole life, vs. Livvy who is new to the town) that I didn’t find myself thinking about the City Baker characters all that much. But of course, it is a small town, so I knew that any of the characters from both books might cross paths at some point, especially since Nora owns the only diner in town. It was fun to figure out where those cameos would organically happen.
I know you have a fondness for old dogs (and goats). Did you know from the start that Freckles would kind of play the Cupid role?
I didn’t! Not until my partner sent me a Boston Globe article about a dog who, after suffering an injury in a car accident, was on the run for 559 days, surviving the worst winter in Vermont recorded history. In Vermont, there is a collection of online community groups called Front Porch Forum, where people shared information about the dog—sightings, how he was looking, their attempts at capturing him. I loved the way the story unfolded, and was excited about using this kind of communication in a book. I was writing the novel during the 2016 presidential campaign, and like many of us, struggling with divisions in the country, and I wanted to write a novel where people work together. What better thing to bring people together than a lost dog? Who doesn’t want to see a lost dog find its way home?
Your protagonist, Nora Huckleberry, is duty-bound to continue running the family business, The Miss Guthrie Diner. She clearly loves her job but she’s sacrificed so much to play that role in town—her art, her love life. Can you talk about that character, and how we all get bogged down by duty or just inertia, and how that can threaten to get in the way of our own dreams?
Something I was thinking a lot about as I started this book was the roles we play in our families, and the way we play those roles out, even as adults. I was particularly interested in the ways that those roles affect how we see ourselves, and the impact they have on the choices we make. It’s where the title The Late Bloomers’ Club comes from. All of the characters in the book are late bloomers in some aspect of their lives, and they each have an opportunity to look at themselves and their lives in a new way.
When Nora first learned that Peggy charged for her cakes, had a thriving cake business in fact, she says she was struck suddenly by how you think you know a person but you don’t know them at all. This seemed like a theme throughout the book—how we make snap judgments about people, decide something about them based on a few interactions. And the book reveals a lot about so many of the characters—hidden secrets, desires, lives even. What’s the message for your readers in this divisive time?
All of those little surprises about people—they are some of the things I love the most about life. I like nothing more than to be completely wrong about something or someone. Every person I have ever met has had something weird and interesting about them just waiting to be discovered. I wanted the book to hold some of the joy of that. If I have a message for readers, for anyone, it is to cultivate your curiosity. Life is a lot more fun if we allow ourselves to be interested in each other, and the world around us.
Like City Baker, Late Bloomers’ is packed with loveable characters. Even Nora’s ex-husband Sean had his charms! Do you use real people as models for your characters or are they just the people you’d most like to spend your days with, crustiness, flightiness, and all?
It’s a funny combination. I’ve never based a whole character on an actual person, but little details about people I know and love do creep into my characters—like the way a person talks, or a little physical quirk—most often it’s just the feeling of a person that influences a character. It’s a little hard to describe. I based Nora on a musician I have long admired. That doesn’t mean she looks or acts like the musician—it’s more like the feeling her music gives me is how I want people to feel as they get to know Nora, if that makes any sense. And of course, there is a little bit of myself in every character as well. Even if I start by loosely basing a character on a real person, the characters always become themselves eventually, and feel totally separate from the original inspiration. It’s important to me to create characters that feel real, crustiness and all, but in the end I believe that most people have a lovable side, even when they are driving you bonkers, and I’m always looking for a chance to show that.
There is something very Cheers-like about The Miss Guthrie Diner. I loved the scene where everyone shows up for breakfast and it turns into something of a town meeting to discuss what’s going to happen with Peggy Johnson’s land. You’re a big-city person, though. Do you have a place where you go where everybody knows your name?
Yes and no. We have places we go to regularly, but the thing about living in the city is that the staff is always changing! We used to go to the same tavern every Friday night for dinner, but ever other month the waitstaff would turn over, and treat us like it was our first time there because they were new and didn’t know us. So, we are regulars with none of the benefits.
You sold City Baker in a two-book deal. Can you tell us a little about that? What are the upsides and downsides?
Selling two books at the same time was thrilling and terrifying. The second book was sold just on an idea—which didn’t end up being the idea I went with for The Late Bloomers’ Club. A two-book deal definitely has its good sides and bad sides, depending on how you work. For me it was a little of both. I am grateful for the opportunity, and it pushed me back into writing after many months of being caught up in the business end of publishing—that was the best part. It was a pleasure to write knowing the team and the process, and getting to work with the same people as on my first book. The downside for me was that I don’t love working under pressure—and it felt like a lot of pressure. I had to find tricks to work around my inhibitions and fears. And the business end of things overlapped with the creative part more, and I found that challenging. But in the end I am just super grateful to have had the opportunity to publish a second book.
Your Twitter and Instagram feeds are full of cheer. Delicious food, gardens, baby goats! You clearly have an artist’s eye because your photographs are so beautiful. And there’s playful art in Late Bloomers’, too. I don’t want to give anything away, but can you talk about your decision to include a secret artist and the role that art plays in your life?
Thank you so much! I try my best to make my little corner of the Internet a cheerful place to visit. I actually studied photography at the Maine College of Art many, many years ago, and drew from my experiences of art school to write parts of The Late Bloomers’ Club. Art has always been an important part of my life, and I draw as much inspiration from the visual arts, film and music as I do from other books. I’m a visual writer—I picture every scene I write first, like a movie, and then record what I see in my imagination. The idea of having a secret artist in the book came from thinking about how easy it was for Kit to claim her role as an artist, and how difficult it was for Nora. I believe everyone is creative in some way. All of the characters in The Late Bloomers’ Club are artists in some form, whether they identify as artists or not.
Of course, we all want to know what’s next! Ready to divulge any secrets?
Ack! I am working on something new—but it’s a tiny seed of a project. I don’t like to talk about a project until it has at least a couple sets of leaves on it, and looks like it has the potential to bear fruit.