Sarah Payne Stuart

Sarah Payne Stuart

Fellow: Awarded 2016

Field of Study: General Nonfiction

Competition: US & Canada

I grew up in Concord MA, under the influence of the writings of Louisa May Alcott. For a brief, excruciating period, I called my mother “Marmee” and emptied the dishwasher without being asked. At age 18, I fled Concord for Harvard, where I became one of the first women editors of the Lampoon. “I pray every night that you do not go to graduate school,” my mother said. And so, after college, I looked for jobs that would pay the rent.

After several low level jobs in a variety of fields, I became a copywriter, working at BBDO and Hill Holliday in Boston. Despite the political incorrectness of advertising at the time, and sexism more recent but as dire as that in “Mad Men,” I loved writing ads. I won a Hatch Award for a print campaign and moved to New York for a job at Doyle, Dane, Bernbach.

But it wasn’t until I quit advertising and had two children a year apart that the words began to pour from the heart— possibly because writing was a lot easier than getting those snow suits on. I wrote a humor book with Patricia Marx, HOW TO REGAIN YOUR VIRGINITY (a best seller) and sold my first novel, MEN IN TROUBLE, a comic-tragedy about a girl growing up in a bipolar family, which was favorably reviewed by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and “Fresh Air.” After the birth of my third child, I published a second novel with HarperCollins, THE YEAR ROGER WASN’T WELL, a comic novel about a marriage breakup. This afforded me the opportunity to work with the great editor, Robert S. Jones. With his encouragement, I conducted several years of research, which led to my first nonfiction book, a multi-generational, historical saga, MY FIRST COUSIN, ONCE REMOVED: Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell, a New York Times Notable Book. The book was hard to write because so many terrible things happen to people in it, but, of course, I was told, mainly the book was funny. During this time I also wrote two screenplays, one optioned, and worked for my husband’s company, writing and researching a number of documentary films (airing on HBO, Lifetime, TLC). My Mother’s Murder (HBO) was nominated for a Cable Ace writing award.

In 2014, I published another history-memoir: PERFECTLY MISERABLE: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, A New York Times Editors’ Choice and a Kirkus best book of the year in nonfiction (among others). I have published two personal histories in The New Yorker (“Pilgrim’s Progress: On God and Real Estate,” 2012; “Pilgrim Mothers: The Ladies Four O’Clock Club,” 2014). My writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review (“Bobby was a Difficult Child,” essay; book reviews), and Town and Country (Manners and Misdemeanors).