Ellen Smith: I’ve had the pleasure of beta-reading some of your stories, including your new release, The Art of Love. Often, your stories focus on exploring relationships. How would you describe the relationship between your two main characters, Mary and Patrick?
Peter Stipe: Mary and Patrick share a natural attraction to each other. They fall in love almost the day they meet. Unfortunately there are too many issues that each of them must deal with for the relationship to work. The reader learns on page one that the relationship will fail. But I hope we all root for them to sort it out as we follow their story.
Mary feels an intense need to be perfect in order to please her demanding parents. Perfection includes attaining perfect grades in grad school, marrying the right man before living with him, and above all, following the strictest directions of her Catholic faith. Patrick is consumed by his art and is inexperienced in building a relationship with a woman. He allows Mary to lead him in the relationship and cannot bring himself to act on the urges that both he and Mary feel. Religious faith does not play into his direction though he does begin following Mary to church. Their relationship is awkward, stumbling along with neither of them knowing how to move forward.
In counterpoint we see the free-wheeling relationship of their artistic friends, Melanie and Aaron. Both very successful as artists, living together in a magnificent loft apartment, Melanie and Aaron seem to be the perfect role models for Mary and Patrick. Then they encounter a crisis that threatens their relationship. Maybe the perfect relationship has flaws that Mary and Patrick haven’t seen. Melanie and Aaron are worldly but are also struggling in their relationship
Mary and Patrick are also advised by older mentors. For Mary it is a former professor, a nun, Sister Catherine whose advice follows traditional Catholic guidelines. For Patrick it is his Uncle Win, an artist. Both Sister Catherine and Uncle Win care deeply about Mary and Patrick. Some but not all of their guidance is worthwhile.
The story follows the development of this difficult relationship. Mary and Patrick both try so hard to make it work. We know from the beginning of the book that it can’t. Still they are a beautiful pair and they share a wonderful year together.
ES: The Art of Love takes place in Rhode Island. I’ve actually never been to New England, but your descriptions made me feel like I was there! What inspired you to set your story in Rhode Island?
PS: I moved to Virginia three years ago after living most of my life in New England. It is a beautiful part of the world and I’m pleased that you felt that while reading my story. Along with Providence the story takes the reader to other parts of Rhode Island; to an art festival in the countryside nearby, to Block Island, and to Beavertail Point, all favorite places of mine. The story also involves visits to Patrick’s home on the coast of Maine, to Mary’s family vacation home on a lake in Connecticut, to Boston, and briefly to Montreal, though that’s not really part of New England. Patrick settles at the end of the story in the small town of Newmarket, New Hampshire, near the coast. I lived in Newmarket before moving to Rhode Island. It too is a place I am fond of.
I lived outside of Providence and worked in the city for many years. One of the fun aspects of Providence is the contrast between two colleges there with abutting campuses. Brown University is a classic Ivy League school with traditional Ivy League values. The Rhode Island School of Design, RISD, is one of the best art schools in the country. It is a campus proudly displaying alternative artistic cultural approaches to art and life. I was intrigued by the contrast of these two neighboring colleges and thought that setting the two lead characters on these campuses would point to the conflicting views of Mary at Brown and Patrick at RISD
We also follow Patrick, a quiet country boy from the rural coast of Maine into New York City where Mary is most comfortable. We feel Patrick’s unease in the city and sense another road block in their relationship.