Next Chapters: Jane Cairns

Next Chapters is a biweekly feature spotlighting graduates of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, which has been running since 2010.

Novel Incubator Year: 10

Current Project: historical fiction

Photo credit: Erika Buckley

What are you reading now?

I’ve just completed Book Riot’s 2022 “Read Harder Challenge.” It’s an annual set of 24 tasks—so about two books a month—that invites you to explore genres, formats, perspectives, etc. that you might not otherwise have picked up. The point is to help push you out of your reading bubble, which for me is literary and historical fiction. Some of my favorite tasks this year were “an anthology featuring diverse voices” (Sword Stone Table edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington, a collection of King Arthur/Camelot stories in a variety of genres); “a horror novel by a BIPOC author” (The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo might be closer to gothic but was great fun); and “an award-winning book from the year you were born” (Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter, a masterpiece of omniscience and interiority with an ensemble of juicy, flawed characters).

What’s the origin story of your incubator novel? 

I came across a reference to a “Mr. Stark’s Zoo” in Manchester, New Hampshire, while studying the 1867 diary of a 15-year-old girl for another project. Research revealed that William Stark was a member of New Hampshire’s most famous military family, the ringleader of a locally infamous student rebellion, and the published poet of slyly bawdy verse. When I learned he was confined to an insane asylum by his family to stop him from (reportedly) buying a herd of elephants, I knew I had both the arc and the conflict necessary for a good story. I began planning a book of narrative nonfiction but ran into too many gaps and holes in the historical record. Doing the imaginative work of fiction was the only way I could truthfully tell William Stark’s story.

Tell us about your writing routine. 

My Incubator program during 2020-2021 was conducted completely over Zoom, and my six-woman writing group (formed in a previous GrubStreet Novel Generator class) transitioned to virtual meetings as well. We all worried—especially the ever-supportive Incubator alums—that the close relationships these programs are known for would suffer. For me, the opposite happened. I found the limitations imposed by the pandemic unexpectedly conducive to concentration and prolific writing. Each weekday morning over Zoom, several members of my writing group joined me in a “virtual coffee shop” that has continued even as COVID restrictions have been lifted. I start almost every writing day with a quick, 9 a.m. pep talk with my writing besties before we mute ourselves and write together for a few hours.

What do you do for fun?

Another benefit of the pandemic is the increased time I’ve spent outdoors, hiking local trails on the weekends and using my bike as a car substitute. Several of my morning writing partners are faithful runners and workout warriors. The “peer pressure” to get off the computer at lunchtime and prioritize a midday walk has put more exercise into my weekdays.

What is your favorite snack while writing?

Tootsie Rolls



Jane Cairns, an active member of Boston’s GrubStreet writing center, is currently querying her Novel Incubator novel, Exalted Objects, and working on a new book about a Jazz Age New York City flapper. She has been a columnist and researcher for a group of trade magazines, including Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. A board member of the Andover Center for History and Culture, she speaks and writes frequently on social history topics and is a regular columnist for the Substack newsletter “History Buzz.” She lives with her husband in Andover, Massachusetts.

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