If you’ve ever found yourself craving life in a small New England town, or craving an unhealthy-but-delicious salami sandwich, then put Minus Me by Mameve Medwed high on your TBR list. Medwed captures the feel of small-town life in the fictional Passamaquoddy, Maine and the taste of the “Paul Bunyan” – a sandwich so famous (in real life) that tourists come from miles around to stand in line at (the fictional) Annie’s Samwich Shop – the establishment owned by Annie and Sam, the married couple in the story. An ominous medical diagnosis sets Annie on a path of trying to protect her fragile and hapless husband from the truth. Instead, she begins a survival manual for when she’s gone. When Annie’s overbearing mother Ursula steps in, Annie and Sam’s happy marriage is thrown into disarray. Minus Me is a pleasurable escape into unforgettable settings, an unusual marriage, and an endearing cast of characters you grow to love.
I know you grew up in Maine. Is this your first novel set there?
I’ve had a couple of other ones set in Maine. Part of Mail (Mameve’s first novel) was set in Maine, and my character goes back to Maine. So, it’s sort of like, Maine and Cambridge – those are my two obsessions.
You really captured life in a small town in Maine. Do you have any secret longing to live in a small town like the one in the book?
I lived in Bangor, which was the third largest city, with about 30,000 people. But [for the book] I was thinking of maybe Skowhegan or Waterville, a kind of unlovely place not near the coast. I have absolutely no secret desire to live in a town like that.
Which is more fun for you to write about – Cambridge or Maine?
Probably Cambridge because I’ve been here for so long. And all the town and gown stuff, the academic stuff. It’s a pretty fascinating place.
The novel features the famous Maine sandwich, the Paul Bunyan. Is that a real Maine thing?
It’s the real thing. There was this sandwich shop in Bangor, called the Coffee Pot, and it had this sandwich. I have a photograph of it on my website … It was fantastic. My mother used to come and visit and fill her car with them and they absolutely stank. And they were so un-artisinal – cheap bread, salami, and there was nothing better, oh my God, they were so good!
Did you grow up going to the Coffee Pot and eating them?
Oh yes, and there was always a line, at all hours. And I actually wrote an op-ed for the Globe about the last day of the Coffee Pot.
Do they still make them?
The guy died and somebody took over, but everybody tells me it’s absolutely not the same.
I’ve had the pleasure of being in your home (pre-Covid) and I adore your faux food collection. Do you have an unusual relationship to food? Maybe a secret desire to run a restaurant like the one in your book?
No, absolutely not. But I started the collection because of two things: my favorite store, Joie de Vivre, that’s now closed. I went in there once and they had these coasters that were in the shape of luncheon meat, like bologna and salami, American cheese. And they reminded me of the Coffee Pot, of course, those ingredients, so I bought those. And the other thing is, [my son] Daniel went to Japan, and we went to visit him, and they have all that fake food in the windows of Japanese restaurants and I just fell in love with that stuff and got some of it. And now, as you know since you’ve been in my kitchen, there’s no place to slice an onion, it’s just covered with fake food.
Do you ever mistake the fake food for real food?
People came for the day after Thanksgiving, and I had my coasters out and somebody took some turkey and rubber American cheese and put it on top. I said, “you’d better stop…”
Let’s talk about the mother character in your book, Ursula. I love her. She’s a great character, quite the force. Is she based on anyone, like your own mother?
She’s based on my grandmother, who was a very dramatic woman who had been in Germany and had wanted to be an actress. Max Reinhardt, who had discovered Marlena Dietrich, wanted her to join his company. And her family said that being an actress was horrible, so she wasn’t allowed to. My grandfather went to Europe and met her and brought her home to Bangor, Maine. She’d been living in London at the time, so that was quite a shock. And she had exotic clothes and a black cigarette holder, and I think she was quite shocking to the neighbors. And she was extremely dramatic and very demanding. When I was 18, she took me to Europe, and it was kind of a mixed blessing because she was tough! She was hard, but she was wonderful and kind of exciting, very glamorous.
Did she escape Maine the way Ursula did?
She did. At one point, my grandparents moved to New York, which was a much more suitable place for them. She was much happier there.
Was the upscale New York City lifestyle and the apartment in the book based on theirs?
It wasn’t quite so fancy. They lived in a residential hotel called The Seymour. In fact, she was quite frugal – extravagant and frugal at the same time. The Hotel Seymour had all these sheets and towels with the name on them. My father’s name was Harry Stern and she used to remove the “otel” and the “eymour” and send him these towels and sheets with an “H” over to the left and an “S” over to the right, so we had these monogrammed things. It was very funny.
I couldn’t help thinking of you and Howard when reading about Annie and Sam, the couple in the novel. Like them, you two met in nursery school.
You know, I wrote this way before Howard died, and that wasn’t even on the horizon, so it feels a little prophetic. Howard and I met in nursery school and were together forever, so it was that kind of a marriage. And Howard was also, I wouldn’t say incompetent, but he did go off to work with his coffee on the roof of the car, drove off with it up there. And he did lose his keys all the time, which drove me crazy. So, there are certain parts of him, as there are in all of my characters, in all of my books.
What prompted you to write this book? Were you inspired by anything in particular?
I don’t think so. It’s always the “what if” of a writer. I thought of this couple and they were never apart, and then I thought, how would one cope if the other went off on a trip? And I remembered going off on a trip, on a book tour or whatever, and leaving household instructions and then I thought, well what if somebody were really going off permanently, and that was kind of the idea.
Your writing is so funny and crisp. I love how you write dialogue. Your humor really comes out. Do you work hard at developing a sense of humor in your writing or does it just come naturally?
Thanks. It just comes out that way. I sit down and I’m very serious, I don’t intend to be funny at all and it just comes out that way. I feel as if, people who write humor get a bum rap because they’re always made to sit at the children’s table. I feel that those of us who write humor deal with life, death, marriage, bad politics, tragedy – everything else – the same way the heavy hitters do, just with a bit of a comic twist.
What’s your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I don’t plot anything, and I don’t write an outline and I’m just about two sentences ahead of myself. It just makes it more interesting for me not to know where I’m going.
Did the turn the novel took surprise you?
Yes, it did. At some point. I knew I had to do something, something had to happen. I always knew, because I write romantic comedy, that there would be a happy ending. That, I knew. But other than that, I didn’t know who the other characters were, who was going to come in, what was going to happen.
The ideas just come when you’re writing? Lucky!
Yes, but not easily, as you know, it’s not easy. But it makes it interesting for me because there are surprises along the way. If I knew exactly what I was going to do, I think it would just feel less organic and more mechanical. But everybody has a different method.
This is a difficult time to be publishing a novel. How has the pandemic impacted your journey to publication?
Oh, it’s horrible. One of the things is they were originally going to bring it out in hardbound and then they realized because of the pandemic and everybody was at home, people would not want to spend $27.95. They thought it would be more successful to bring it out in paperback. And I’ve always had book tours and stuff, and this was very, very different. I did a lot of Zooms and interviews. But it was fine. It’s been so hard for all the authors to bring books out now.
Has there been any silver lining, like people could join your Zooms that might not have been able to come to an in-person event?
Yes, people across the country, my old high school friends. That was really fun. And the traveling gets old fast. It’s exhausting and it’s hard to fly to Denver and then there are ten people in a gigantic room. So, it keeps the humiliation at bay, too.
Do you think this might be the wave of the future?
I do, don’t you? I don’t think publishers are going to pay. When I first started out, they sent cars for you. They’d pick you up, you got flowers, you stayed at these great hotels. That even started to change and you had to be responsible to get there on your own. So, I think it probably will change. You don’t have to worry about babysitters or parking, or bad weather. I remember being in, I don’t know, Wisconsin, in a snowstorm in February. This way, I think it’s really good.
Mameve Medwed is the author of seven novels—Mail, Host Family, The End of an Error, How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life (2007 Massachusetts Book Award Honors in Fiction), Of Men and Their Mothers, and Minus Me. Her short stories, essays, and book reviews have appeared in, among others, The New York Times, Gourmet, Yankee, Redbook, Playgirl, The Boston Globe, Ascent, The Missouri Review, Confrontation, The Readerville Journal, Newsday, and The Washington Post. She has taught fiction writing for many years at The Cambridge Center for Adult Education, has been a mentor in the writing program at Lesley University, read papers for the English Department at Simmons College and has taken part in writing festivals across the country, serving on panels and teaching seminars. Born in Bangor, Maine, where she is considered Bangor’s other writer (Stephen King holds the title!), she resides in Cambridge.