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A Conversation with Susannah Marren

What inspired you to write Between the Tides

I have long been interested in the female experience in our society – as a mother, a daughter, a wife. I’ve also been intrigued by the dangerous elements in certain female friendships and how they play out. I believe that environment informs our relationships. The idea of city life versus a suburban existence and the pitfalls and rewards inherent in both became a theme of the book. The fact that a wife/mother (Lainie) did not fit in either place was very compelling for me. The question lingers: what is the price of motherhood?

The yin and yang of Lainie and Jess’ friendship and long history of competition was convincing.  Do you have any ‘toxic’ friends? 
For Between the Tides I liked the idea of an ongoing competition -- one that invoked events of those early years at the shore for Lainie and Jess. I carried that competition into adulthood—motherhood, life in Elliot, career (or lack thereof) and marriage. How many of us get to revisit such a friendship and still be in the game? While writing this I thought a great deal about the summer friends of my youth and how the ‘it’ girls—who were toxic -- were not always the ones everyone followed later in life.

In the novel there are triangles everywhere. We have the Lainie, Charles, Matilde triangle; the Lainie, Jess, Charles triangle; and the  Matilde, Claire, Lainie triangle. What are you saying about the nature of threesomes? 

I felt very strongly in writing this book that power shifts even when there is trust within the relationship. For example, Lainie and Charles are never truly secure as a couple despite that they have real feelings for one another.  As a result, Matilde becomes a wedge between them.

In the Lainie, Jess, Charles triangle, we have a marriage that is not whole and thus Jess seeps into the equation. It becomes a messy and tricky triangle because Lainie and Jess share a history of rivalry for the ‘glittering prizes’ from when they were young. The prizes were popularity, beauty and winning the right guy. Jess, as a young woman, wanted whatever Lainie had – she wanted Lainie’s boyfriend Clark, not because she actually liked him but because he was Lainie’s.  When Jess falls for Charles, it’s actually about Charles, not about winning.  This is a departure.

The Matilde, Claire, Lainie triangle is about birth order and Matilde, as the older daughter, is very connected to her mother. This connection keeps Matilde from her own life and her own experiences. Claire, at the age of five, already longs to be a part of Lainie and Matilde’s world. Lainie is vaguely aware of this while Jess is completely conscious of how it occurs. And so we wonder at the end, is Jess actually a better mother figure for a ‘normal’ family?  Is love alone ever enough or do we need other ingredients, such as the ability to survive the challenges of modern life?

The voices of Lainie and Jess are distinctive and both narrators are ‘types’. Why did you tell the story this way? 

I thought that some readers will identify with Jess and others with Lainie and perhaps ask the question, am I a Lainie or a Jess?  I was in both characters’ heads and I felt the friction between them combined with the intensity of their attachment. Someone asked me why Lainie didn’t appreciate her situation while Jess had to cover up a terrible secret—William’s abuse. Lainie wasn’t a fit for the life she had and longed for the shore and freedom. In contrast, Jess embraced the Elliot lifestyle and went to great lengths to sustain her image and position in that world.

Did you find it easy to switch from Lainie sections to Jess sections? 

I found it fluid in terms of Lainie’s point of view and Jess’s point of view. I  thought about both characters for months on end. I have always known how the book would end  -- since the earliest drafts and for that reason, I was able to shift gears as the story unfolded. Jess is tough minded and a survivor – that’s very obvious from the outset. Lainie, in an otherworldly way, is a survivor too.

When Charles announces that he can’t commit to Jess why does she believe she can keep the affair going? 

Jess never loved a man as she loved Charles and it threw her for a loop and changed the nature of love for her. She respected Charles and was drawn to him, For once it wasn’t about getting ahead or being the victor, it was about being in love. These feelings sobered her and gave her a kind of humanity she never had before. Not that she stopped being manipulative or looking out for herself, but that her emotions drove the Charles relationship for her. She almost cannot accept Charles’ situation – his commitment to his wife and family. Jess soldiers on—seeking what she can get from Charles. 

Did you purposely leave the ending of Between the Tides open to interpretation?  What are you asking the reader to consider? 

Yes, I did leave the ending open to the reader’s interpretation. Part of what I’m asking the reader to consider is that not everyone fits into a societally prescribed role. Lainie loves her children but is it possible that Jess is the one who can make Lainie’s family happier– and on some level does Lainie realize this? What constitutes family – what is fictive family? I’m asking if we are able to forgive and understand those who don’t embrace motherhood or wifehood.

Do you consider this a romance novel or women’s fiction?

I consider this novel to be a bit of both. Surely there is a romantic element and it is part of the tale. Yet it’s also a story about mothers and daughters, and female friendships -- and how singular is the search for happiness. 

What sorts of fiction and nonfiction do you read? Who are your favorite writers? 

I am a fan of both novels and nonfiction. As far as fiction goes, I love the classics, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, Jane Austen’s work, the Bronte sisters.  For more current novels, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, The House at Riverton by Kate Morton, The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, BelleFleur and other fiction by Joyce Carol Oates.  When it comes to nonfiction, I love to read about Anne Boleyn, Mary Todd Lincoln, and books about gender roles throughout various cultures.

What is your next project? 

I’m currently writing a new novel. I’m quite excited about it and very involved with the story. Most days it fills my head – and I already know the plot.

About the Book

Lainie Smith Morris is perfectly content with her life in New York City: she has four children, a handsome surgeon husband, and good friends. This life she has built is shattered, however, when her husband Charles announces he has accepted a job in Elliot, New Jersey, and that the family must relocate. Lainie is forced to give up the things she knows and loves.

Though Charles easily adapts to the intricacies of suburban life, even thriving in it, Lainie finds herself increasingly troubled and bored by her new limited responsibilities, and she remains desperate for the inspiration, comfort, and safety of the city she called home. She is hopelessly lost--until, serendipitously, she reconnects with an old friend/rival turned current Elliot resident, Jess. Pleased to demonstrate her social superiority to Lainie, Jess helps her find a footing, even encouraging Lainie to develop as an artist; but what looks like friendship is quickly supplanted by a betrayal with earth-shattering impact, and a move to the suburbs becomes a metaphor for a woman who must search to find a new home ground in the shifting winds of marriage, family, career, and friendship.

Between the Tides is an engrossing, commanding debut from tremendous new talent Susannah Marren.

Buy the Book


Chapter One

The selkies are sea creatures, half woman, half seal. They wiggle out of their seal skins on the rocks to lie in the weak winter  sun. One fisherman watched  with his binoculars from his fishing boat and waited.”

“He loved the prettiest one!” Claire interrupts. “That’s right, darling girl,” I say.

Jack sticks out his tongue. “Who cares about some stupid sealy lady?” he shouts.

I stop the story. “Jack, please sit down.”

Jack returns to the couch beside Tom, his big brother, who is on his iPad. Jack yawns and props his eyes open wide with his fingers. “Boring, Mom!”

“More! More!” Claire screams. She jumps off the chair and starts dancing around the den, waving her hands like flippers in her crazy water dance on land. “More!” she screeches.

Matilde, my solemn child, interrupts, “Mom, are you a selkie?”

I laugh and look out the den window that faces west. It is too dark to see anything. “No, darling girl, I’m not a selkie.”

“But you love the water and you swim every day. When we go to Cape May you lie on the jetties just like the selkies. You never answer us when you’re on the beach . . . it’s  like you’re not  even there. . . . Remember last February when—”

“Matilde, I am not a selkie.”

“Mommy,” Claire cries, “the sealy skin! The fisherman! Finish the story.”

Perhaps Charles is right and I ought to quit this tale. It isn’t Cin- derella or Snow White; there is no prince with whom to live happily ever after.

“Mom?” Matilde is waiting.

“Okay . . . well . . . the beach is empty in December when the fish- erman sees his chance. He sneaks up near the rocks and comes close to the prettiest selkie.”

“He takes her skin, Mommy! The man takes her seal skin!” Claire begins to sob as she always does at this part in the story.

“That’s true, Claire darling. The man takes her seal skin while she is in the icy sea. When she comes back to the shoreline, frantic to find her sealy coat, he is holding  it in his hands. He tells her she has no choice but to go with him, without her coat she will drown. But he promises to love her forever, that they will marry and have a family. That’s the deal.” The “forever” part gets to me.

“And she marries him!” yelps Claire. She begins to dance again. “She marries him and they have babies!” Claire is the cheerful one; she bounces from one side of the room to the other. She passes Tom and Jack, who watch her as if she were an alien creature. I wonder if Jack and Claire will ever share a thought, an interest. Fraternal twins are not a matched pair.

“Until one day . . .” I look up. “Jack, are you listening?”

Jack covers his ears. “I don’t care about seals and babies. It’s gross!”

“A dull story for the boys,” says Charles. He is in the doorway, ap- pearing out of nowhere, as usual. He is so stealthy, Charles, more burglar than surgeon.

The children  race to him and grab at his arms and hands, his legs, anything that is their father. Except Matilde, who stays close to me. “Lainie, how about another story? Something more realistic?

You could read to them from Tom Sawyer.”

Matilde leans in toward my ear. “I know why you like the story. I know you’re a selkie. I saw your sealy skin.” Everyone is waiting.

“What sealy skin? What are you talking about, Matilde?”

“In the hall closet, hanging in a zippered bag. A black, thick coat,” she answers. “Hairy.”

“Oh, that. That’s from my grandmother. You’re right, it is made of seal, a long-dead seal. I wouldn’t wear it. I don’t have the guts to ditch it. I guess I’m sentimental.”

No one else speaks. Claire is frozen in mid-dance. Matilde says, “ The sealy needs her coat to go back to the sea. She has a land family now but she misses the sea.”

“That’s right. That’s how it works,”  I whisper. “The days become flat for her, days without any sun.”

“Until she finds the coat!” says Claire, twirling around in circles. Charles enters the room now, fully present, taking up the oxygen.

His loafers make a clicking sound on the wood floor. “Forget the sealy coat,” he says.

He is tall and strong, buff. He lifts weights, runs through Morn- ingside Park in rain or shine. Sometimes he wakes me predawn and invites me to run with him. “C’mon, Lainie,” he’ll say, “shake up your schedule and run this morning. Forget the pool every day.”

“Okay, Charles, soon.” Although I don’t mean it.

I walk the reservoir, around the track slowly, only to be by a body of water. I want water, any kind, like a vampire wants blood. Matilde is the one in the family who understands. She is only twelve but she realizes that if I didn’t paint pictures of water, I wouldn’t exist. If we didn’t live by the Hudson River or go to the ocean every summer, to my hometown, I’d wither and die.

Charles sits down in “his” green leather chair next to the fireplace and faces my largest and best-known work of art, Trespassing: Drift- wood. The six-by-eight-foot painting has overwhelmed the living room these years, making me proud, sad, regretful, and attached to Charles. His eyes are on the piece as he speaks. “I have big news. Might as well talk now, while we’re together.”

I tilt my head and Matilde sits next to me on the couch. “Claire,” I say, “come here.” Claire pushes between us and I put my lips to her damp and clammy forehead.

“Tom?” says Charles. “Can you settle down with Jack?” Jack slides out of Tom’s reach and runs to Charles’s lap, clapping and yowling. Charles gives me one of his “Can’t you control these children?” looks while he tousles Jack’s hair and hugs him. Who can blame Charles for choosing order; he is a famous surgeon, skilled, popular, a pe- rennial Best of the Best in New York magazine. When he dons his scrubs, patients and nurses swoon. He is booked years in advance. Dr. Morris, Dr. Morris, Dr. Charles Morris. At home with his children, he softens—the only place and only time that he is soft.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” says Charles. “A big surprise.”

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