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When Emma Duffy-Comparone, assistant professor of creative writing, began penning short stories as an undergraduate, she didn’t imagine that two of them would end up in her first published book.
Her debut book, “Love Like That,” comes out in March and includes nine short stories that all focus on women and relationships. The collection, published by Henry Holt & Company, has already been included on top fiction lists. Vanity Fair included it on its Best Books to Buy for Valentine’s Day list in February, while Vogue added “Love Like That” as one of its picks for March on its Best Books to Read in 2021 list.
The book cover features an illustration of a meat cleaver stuck in a heavily frosted cake with a missing piece. Critics are calling it “razor sharp,” thanks to its honest portrayal of flawed women wrestling with complex relationships—many of which lack clear-cut resolutions. While Duffy-Comparone wrestles with the “sharp” label—“Have you ever heard a man called sharp?”—she agrees that the characters in “Love Like That” juggle a lot of issues that they address head on.
“Any good book I can think of – no one wants to read about a perfect person. It makes for pretty boring fiction,” Duffy-Comparone said. “The more flawed you are, the more relatable you are. And the more mistakes you make, the more your story unfolds.”
Duffy-Comparone did not write her stories as a linked collection and said they were never meant to adhere to a single theme. As is the custom, the stories had already been published in other literary journals before her agent sent out the manuscript. “Love Like That” sparked a bidding war among major publishers, and as part of her deal with Henry Holt, Duffy-Comparone is working on a novel.
“Usually when I am asked to talk about it, I tell people they are all random stories. But when I look at it as a whole, I see it as a kind of diary of my 20s; I see evidence of the person who wrote each one,” she said, adding that the stories are not autobiographical.
She admits that “The Package Deal” most closely mirrors a conflict she’s experienced in real-life. She wrote it after taking a long break from writing and says the piece is written more urgently than the others. After reading a few self-help books about being a stepmother, she realized she was not alone in her experiences, and once she found the second person voice, the story started to come. She wrote it with one of the books on her lap, which she used as a touchstone. Duffy-Comparone received several emails from stepmothers after it was first published in New England Review, and after “Love Like That” received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, the reviewer reached out to her personally.
“I had women write to me and say, ‘This is my life! I want you to know that story summed up my whole life with my stepdaughter!’” she said.
New England residents will notice familiar settings pop up in each of her stories: references to Boston, Scarborough Beach in Rhode Island, The Portsmouth Music Hall in New Hampshire, and mention of Harpswell, Maine. Many of the stories take place at the beach, one of Duffy-Comparone’s favorite spots.
“You write about what you know because it’s more accurate. Your job as a writer is to give people an authentic experience and I think you’re more likely to pull that off, at least without a lot of research, if you write about places you understand,” she said. “I love being near the ocean because it has a moodiness.”
Indeed, Duffy-Comparone’s characters don’t spend idyllic days combing the beach. They encounter bumpy waves—most of them from within. In “The Zen Thing,” Anita contemplates what life will be like with her much-older married boyfriend, Luke, when he reaches the same age as Frank, her grandmother’s boyfriend who is burdened with a leaky colostomy bag. In “Marvel Sands,” the female protagonist works long hot days selling parking tickets and cleaning shower stalls under the watchful eye of her gruff boss, while her mother faces domestic abuse at home. In “The Devil’s Triangle,” two sisters who’ve lost their triplet sister navigate their collective sadness on a party boat in South Beach, where they take their pet guinea pig, Pam, along for the ride.
Each of the characters in the stories evolved organically, Duffy-Comparone said. Although she tries not to write too closely to life, she finds the stories often begin with a seed of what she’s experienced. Sometimes she’s inspired by the tone of someone else’s story—which serves off as a jumping place.
“While all of my stories have a similar sensibility, to me they have different tones and voices,” she said. “First it’s about having an idea for the premise, for the arc of a story, and then it’s about finding the voice and tone to tell it.”
Duffy-Comparone’s short stories have appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, AGNI and One Story, and have garnered two Pushcart Prizes. She’s received awards from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, the McDowell Colony, Yaddo and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She received her MFA in Creative Writing at Boston University and began teaching at Merrimack in 2015.
At Merrimack, Duffy-Comparone teaches fiction writing to undergraduate students, including Introduction to Creative Writing and a fiction workshop. Up until this semester, she has also taught creative writing to incarcerated students at the Essex and Middlesex County jails as co-director of the Jail Education Project. Most recently, she took over as director of The Writers House, which hosts a visiting writers series and other literary-based programming for students, faculty, staff and the wider community.