Suzanne Berne gradually replaces the charms of suburbia with darkness and disorder in her new novel, The Dogs of Littlefield. Celebrating its U.S. release today, the book explores the secrets behind the façade of manicured lawns and PTA meetings in the seemingly idyllic town of Littlefield, Massachusetts. But despite boasting the highest rate of psychologists per capita and a top-10 ranking in the best places to live in America, Littlefield’s illusion of peace is threatened when someone begins poisoning the town’s dogs.
Paste caught up with the Orange Prize-winning author to discuss the 19th-century novel that inspired her book, the challenge of creating an unheroic heroine and what she’s writing next.
Paste: What sparked your imagination to write The Dogs of Littlefield?
Suzanne Berne: I’ve always loved novels that focus on a place, also novels of manners, social comedies. Some years ago I was rereading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, her novel about an insular 19th-century English hamlet threatened by modernity in the guise of the railway, and I remember thinking, What would this sort of novel look like set in contemporary America? I was especially intrigued by Cranford’s structure—much of it is narrated by a visitor, a sharp-eyed young woman who comments on local customs, preoccupations, misfortunes and romances. So that’s how the novel started.
I began to sketch Littlefield as a refuge from the conflicts and terrors of the “Global Village,” a lovely comfortable suburban New England town—so lovely that it has recently been listed by the Wall Street Journal as one of the Twenty Best Places to Live in America. For my visitor, I created a social anthropologist from the University of Chicago, who arrives to study the effects of global destabilization on a place that should be exceptionally stable. But then someone begins poisoning dogs at the town’s first designated “off-leash” dog park. And so menace begins to loom over the village, which isn’t much of a refuge after all.
Paste: Why did you choose to make one percent of Littlefield’s citizens therapists/psychiatrists/etc.?
Berne: Well, I thought it was funny, first of all, to send a social anthropologist to study the effects of global destabilization on what should be among the world’s most psychologically well-policed and well-medicated populations. But I was also intrigued by the idea of a town full of therapists and psychiatrists who spend their lives studying human psychology, and yet still don’t know much about their neighbors—or even much about their own spouses and children. Chekhov said somewhere that “the personal life of every individual is based on secrecy,” which, if you agree with him, means that we are all of us, every day, surrounded by mysteries. The paradox of studying mysteries very much appealed to me.
Paste: Which character in the novel was the most challenging to write?
Berne: I found them all challenging in different ways, and I found having so many characters perhaps the biggest challenge of all. But I suppose Margaret—who is more or less the heroine (often less)—was the most difficult. She is worried that her life is about to fall apart; therefore she’s self-involved, self-conscious, anxious, somewhat unstable and not especially admirable. And yet her determination to stumble on, despite being frightened most of the time, strikes me as very admirable. She tries to pay attention to the people she loves and to the world around her. She tries to be brave. She wants to be a good person. But she’s afraid and confused and lonely, so she doesn’t always behave well. One of the challenges was to keep her character from being whiny. Or to let her be whiny, without whininess becoming her defining feature.
Paste: I have to ask, which side would you support in the debate over Baldwin Park’s off-leash dog policy in the novel?
Berne: I agree with George, one of my characters, who declares that the pursuit of happiness should be a dog’s right, too. And to be happy, most dogs need to be off-leash at least once in awhile.
Paste: Can you share any details about what you’re writing next?
Berne: A novel not set in the suburbs!