For as long as she can remember, Juliette Fay has had stories stocked up in her mind. As a mother of four kids and a dedicated human services professional, these stories stayed put for much of Fay’s adult life—until one day when she stumbled across the worst book she’s ever read.
“I was helping one of my neighbors with a book swap, and she gave me a beach read for my upcoming vacation,” Fay, BC ’84, said. “It was just so bad.”
Little did Fay know, one bad book would change the course of her career.
“I was sort of fascinated by its badness,” Fay said. “The way my brain works is that I think of something, and it becomes a premise for a story in my head. So, I took the premise of my bad book and started spinning out the story as usual, but this time, I literally bought a pen and pad of paper on vacation. When I got home, I had 17 written pages.”
This first delve into writing novels was never published, but Fay has since published six novels, with the most recent being published in September 2021.
Fay was born in Binghamton, N.Y. An avid reader, Fay grew up in her local library, reading Judy Blume books and The Boxcar Children series. In 1968, Fay’s father was hired as a professor at Boston College, where he still works today, and their family moved to Lexington, Mass.
Staying close to home, Fay graduated from BC in 1984 with a double major in human development and theology—which allowed her to think deeply about humanity but not much else, she said. After graduation, Fay went on to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and worked in an emergency family shelter, which was one of the most formative years of life when she was young, she said.
“I felt like I learned more that year than I had my whole previous 21 years,” Fay said.
After opening her own daycare for children in shelters, Fay moved back to the Boston area, where she earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1992, aspiring to pursue a career in human services.
“People always ask if I was an English major or if I always wanted to be a writer,” Fay said. “No and no. As much as I was a reader, I never thought about writing as a career path.”
Fay continued to work part time in human services—teaching children with autism, working with The Children’s Trust to end child abuse, and more—until the birth of her fourth child, after which she became a stay-at-home mother.
“It was really hard on me,” Fay said. “I loved being home with my kids, but I really found myself adrift. I wanted to have a life of the mind. I needed something for me.”
It was then that Fay stumbled upon her infamously terrible beach read and began to rewrite it as her own.
“I couldn’t stop writing. It was awesome,” Fay said. “I was just doing it because it was enjoyable to me, and I could do it around my kids’ schedules.”
Fay didn’t tell anyone about her project, she said, but she continued to write in the quiet of early mornings and late nights. Eventually, Fay had a finished novel on her desk.
“It never actually got published,” Fay said. “Every writer I know has what we call the book in the drawer—the one that never saw the light of day. It was like my practice novel.”
From there, Fay immediately began writing what became her first published novel, Shelter Me, the story of lessons learned by a young mother grieving her late husband. Fay quickly realized it was better than her practice novel—she could see how much she’d grown as a writer, she said. After contacting friends and following leads, Fay found an agent during the publication process of Shelter Me.
“Being successful in the publishing world requires an enormous amount of luck,” Fay said. “I personally know plenty of good manuscripts that have not been published, and we’ve all read terrible books that have made it through. I feel very lucky to have been able to have the career that I have.”
In September, Fay published her sixth novel, Catch Us When We Fall, with HarperCollins. Writing this novel, Fay said, was a strange experience—an image of the first chapter of the book came to her as she was waking up one morning.
“Usually, I spend more time upfront thinking about the structural pieces of a story,” Fay said. “With Catch Us When We Fall, I had to pedal pretty quickly to get all of the background information that I needed to create the story.”
Catch Us When We Fall is the story of 29-year-old Cass Macklin, a young woman at a turning point in her life. After falling in love with Ben McGreavy, Cass turns to partying to process her traumatic past. Fun times devolve into alcoholism, and when Cass discovers that she’s pregnant, she knows that she has to stop drinking. Turning to Ben’s brother, Scott, for help, Cass navigates the challenges of sobriety for the sake of her baby’s safety.
“I have alcoholics in my life, many of whom are thankfully in recovery,” Fay said. “And the most important of whom is my dad.”
As much as her father’s drinking impacted her as a child, Fay said, his recovery was also significant.
“The process of recovery was so interesting because it wasn’t just about not drinking,” Fay said. “It was really about personal discovery. I was wildly inspired by that process, and I felt like it was such a beautiful thing to write about.”
Fay spent a lot of time researching the recovery process because she wanted to represent it accurately, she said.
“The most rewarding thing for me about writing a novel is when someone reaches out to tell me it felt real,” Fay said. “This felt real to me, and this helped me think, or this made me feel less alone. There’s nothing more rewarding than that.”
Karen Kiefer, BC ’82, a friend and neighbor of Fay for 20 years, said she loves all of Fay’s books. Yet, in the midst of the unending COVID-19 pandemic, Kiefer has a particular appreciation for Catch Us When We Fall and the hope that it could provide for readers during difficult times, she said.
“Catch Us When We Fall shines a light on addiction, on relationships, on failure, on love, and on how you can piece it all together in trying to move forward,” Kiefer said.
Kiefer said that Fay lives with the same authenticity that she strives to achieve in her writing.
“Juliette really cares about people, and she’s a beautiful listener,” Kiefer said. “I think that’s helped her to become a profoundly powerful storyteller. She respects both her characters and her readers so much.”
Looking forward, Fay recently submitted the first round of edits for her next book, which is expected to be published in a little over a year, she said. As Fay continues to write and release the stocked-up stories in her head, she finds inspiration in almost everything, she said.
“Once you’re on the lookout for inspiration, it’s like your brain is attuned to it,” Fay said. “I find inspiration everywhere.”
Catch Us When We Fall can be purchased from most bookstores, both in person and online.
Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor
Photos Courtesy of Juliette Fay