For four years, Susan Scarf Merrell had a secret — the hardest secret she’s ever had to keep.
Finally, the word is out.
“I can’t quite even fathom it,” Merrell said during a telephone interview on Friday morning. “To be honest, it still doesn’t really feel real — at all.”
Three days earlier, the Los Angeles Media Fund announced it would finance and produce the film, “Shirley,” starring Elisabeth Moss as the titular role of author Shirley Jackson, with Michael Stuhlbarg as her husband, Stanley Hyman — two people who existed in real life, but living inside a story that Merrell created.
The creative team first optioned her eponymous book in 2014, after a friend of Merrell’s passed on the new release to screenwriter Sarah Gubbins.
“It was under option almost immediately, and to this same group of people, and they kept renewing it. Every six months or a year, I would get a little piece of information,” Merrell said. “But people always say to you, ‘Don’t ever believe anything about film until it’s a done deal,’ because it can go at any moment.
“But we knew they had a script written, and we knew they had a director, so there were things that made it seem like it was very likely. And I started hearing names of actors fairly recently, and they turned out to be true — but who would believe that, you know?” she continued. “It is such a dream come true, it’s beyond a dream come true. I would’ve never even dreamed it, it’s so fabulous.”
It wasn’t until 2007 — on her first day of graduate school at the Bennington Writing Seminars — that Merrell even heard the name Shirley Jackson. She was talking with her mentor, novelist Rachel Pastan, when she said, “I want to write a book that is domestic but with something sort of magical, but not quite.”
Pastan suggested reading the 20th-century Gothic writer, who authored six novels, two memoirs and more than 200 short stories over the course of two decades — neither of them aware that Jackson lived a block from where they were meeting.
“I realized I’d been walking past her house every day when I went to get my coffee, and I was buying my coffee at Towers Market, where Shirley was when inspiration for ‘The Lottery’ hit her and she ran home with her stroller and wrote the story in three hours, and sold it to The New Yorker,” Merrell said. “It was just crazily meant to be.”
After wrestling with the idea for years, Merrell would eventually pen the novel from her home in Sag Harbor — “Sometimes I went upstairs, sometimes I went downstairs,” she said. “Different days demand different locations” — finding an entry point from the fictional character of Rose, one half of a young couple that spends a year at Bennington in 1964 with Shirley and Stanley, and finds themselves in the heart of a psychological thriller.
“I really struggled with the story I wanted to tell,” Merrell said. “One day, I was walking in the woods near my house and all of a sudden, I thought to myself, ‘Well, what happens if somebody comes to visit her? And that person is the person who can tell the story?’ Rose was my way in. And then it came out very quickly, because I knew so much about [Jackson and Hyman], and I’d been thinking so much about them, and I’d written stories in her voice. I’d been playing with my fantasy of who she was for so many years that once I knew the way in, it just happened.”
Merrell imagines Jackson as a “remarkable combination” between a complete genius and a stellar housewife, she said, teetering back and forth without much help from Hyman.
“I think she was incredibly intuitive and maybe a little uncomfortable in the world — definitely a little uncomfortable in the world. And, maybe, a little bit of a witch? I don’t know,” Merrell said. “Her children say she could open a drawer and find something that hadn’t been in there five minutes before. I don’t know. But she definitely had this intense intuitive quality, and a great sense of humor, and I think she was sort of wild, and kind of a party animal.
“And I think the marriage was a complicated marriage,” she continued. “I think they really loved each other, they were each other’s best critics, but neither of them was an easy person to be married to, I suspect.”
Stuhlbarg, who will take on the role of Hyman, was in three Best Picture Oscar films this year — winner “The Shape of Water,” and nominees “The Post” and “Call Me By Your Name” — while Moss, who will play Jackson, is currently starring in season two of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which won the actor an Emmy.
“Oh my God, Elisabeth Moss is perfect. Her face is perfect for Shirley. And she’s such an amazing actor. I could not be happier, for both of them,” Merrell said of Moss and Jackson. “If I closed my eyes and had to imagine people, those two actors would be the people I would imagine. If you look at pictures of Stanley, the presence is just very similar — that slightly mischievous, slightly dark paternal quality. It’s very much what the Stanley, at least of my book, what I imagine him to be like.”
As more news continues to trickle in — Josephine Decker will direct, Killer Films’ Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa will produce with Moss, Gubbins and Sue Naegle, alongside Jeffrey Soros and Simon Horsman of Los Angeles Media Fund, and rumor has it that they are scouting locations in upstate New York for filming this summer — the reality is that this is the point where Merrell checks out, she said. Her work is done.
“I have nothing to do with anything from here on, which is the weirdest part of the whole thing,” Merrell said. “These people now own the book, in a way. They own the vision for what this will be, so I’m really curious, too — very excited, and very curious.”
For more information about Susan Scarf Merrell, please visit susanscarfmerrell.com.