Sarah Payne Stuart is a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, and the Nobleboro resident will be the first person to say it. In fact, it is Stuart’s incisive, witty writing about what it means to be a New Englander that recently earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship.
“Grants of approximately $50,000 each were awarded to 22 poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers in the United States and Canada on the basis of past achievement and exceptional promise,” reads the early-April announcement on the website of the literary organization Poets & Writers, pw.org. And there at the end of a list of names of the nine people – most of them from New York – chosen to be Guggenheim fellows in nonfiction is “Sarah Payne Stuart of Nobleboro, Maine.”
The same list was published in The New York Times. “It was nice to be in The New York Times with ‘Nobleboro, Maine’ after my name,” said Stuart recently, over a cup of coffee in the cafe of Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop in Damariscotta. “It was just ‘New York, New York, New York’ after the others.”
As for how she came to be in the running for a Guggenheim Fellowship, it was not because the charmingly self-deprecating Stuart is constantly sending out applications for awards.
“I never apply for anything,” said the self-described introvert. “I don’t like to apply for anything.” But a friend of hers at The New Yorker magazine – in which she has published two essays, “Pilgrim’s Progress: On God and Real Estate” and “Pilgrim Mothers: The Ladies’ Four O’Clock Club” – had advised her to send the necessary paperwork to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York City.
“He told me, ‘They need funny writers,'” Stuart said. “I don’t like to fill out forms – but I did.”
“They asked me what organizations I belong to,” she said, referring to the forms she was asked to complete. “I’m not in clubs.” Stuart said she was able to list only two: The Harvard Lampoon and the Damariscotta Lake Watershed Association.
Stuart was raised in Concord, Mass., “under the influence of the writings of Louisa May Alcott,” as her Guggenheim profile puts it. When she turned 18, she “fled Concord for Harvard (University),” where she became one of the first female editors of The Harvard Lampoon.
She has lived in Southern California, in New York City, and, for the past 10 years, in Nobleboro, though she does occasionally leave for a couple of weeks at a time “to see my kids and colleagues” in New York City, where she and her husband of 39 years, documentary producer Charles Stuart, keep a part-time residence. Their three adult children live and work in New York.
“I’m a real New Englander,” she said. “I tried to live outside of New England a couple of times.”
One of those times was when she was about 19 years old and lived in Santa Monica, Calif., where she waitressed at a restaurant called Ye Olde Pie Shoppe, a business name intended to evoke New England, she said.
“I was a terrible waitress,” said Stuart. But more importantly, “California was always sunny – not punishment and reward, like (weather) in New England.”
Unsurprisingly, she loves the weather in Maine. “It’s a drama queen,” she said of the state’s changeable weather. “Maine is a drama queen.”
In addition to personal essays, Stuart has written both nonfiction and fiction books, most recently her 2014 history-memoir, “Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town,” hailed by Boston Magazine as “an acidic, hilarious, and monumentally self-deprecating account of its author’s doomed love affair with the world’s quaintest town.” She has also been writer or co-writer for several documentary films, including 1996’s “Mary Magdalen: An Intimate Portrait,” which was made for the Lifetime channel, and stars Penelope Ann Miller and Martin Scorsese.
“We’re guilt-ridden people, and you don’t realize it till you leave,” Stuart said of being a New Englander. “But we are a very moral people. We take ourselves very seriously in New England, but we also make fun of ourselves.”
As she writes in the first chapter of “Perfectly Miserable,” “Yes, we are sinners in the hands of an angry God; still, looking around us, we can’t help but believe that someone up there might like us just a little bit more than he likes everyone else. We are like our Puritan forefathers who loathed themselves on the one hand, and thought they were above everyone else on the other.”
“I do know New England. I really get it and I love it,” Stuart said. “I have to be who I am. … I’m just going to write what I write well. I’d rather write a big, juicy historical novel, but it’s not what I do.”
“I’m a humor writer, so it’s really nice to get recognition from academics,” Stuart said of the Guggenheim honor. Plus, she said, “The money’s great. It’s great to make money as a writer.”