“If I could pick anywhere in the world to live,” Ann Leary said, “it would probably be in the Ipswich-Essex area.”
In truth, Leary, a former Marblehead resident, probably could live anywhere, as the wife of actor and comedian Denis Leary. Instead of moving to the North Shore from her home in Connecticut, though, she has cast our area as the fictional Wendover, Mass., in her new novel, “The Good House.”
It’s the funny, sad, and sometimes suspenseful tale of Hildy Good, a 60-ish realtor and lifelong resident of Wendover, whose own secrets are entwined with those of her clients and neighbors. “The Good House” is earning Leary, a blogger and author of one previous novel and a memoir, a name of her own by hitting The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists in recent weeks.
After a peripatetic childhood in the Midwest, the then-Ann Lembeck and her family settled in Marblehead in 1976, when her father got a job with Gillette.
“It’s funny. I did a signing at the Spirit of ’76 Bookstore in Marblehead, and a lot of my friends were there, and I thanked them for making fun of my accent when I moved there, because if not for them I would still talk like Sarah Palin,” said Leary, 50. “Yes, I was teased, but being 14 and used to moving a lot, I quickly changed my accent and started saying ‘wicked’ all the time.”
The book originally focused on one plotline, a scandalous romance between a psychiatrist and a patient, which was inspired by a real-life Boston area case. But Leary says the setting was also key from the beginning.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the New England personality and a little envious of the true townies who identify so closely with the place because many generations of their family have been there,” she said. “Hildy was one of the peripheral characters who started to fascinate me, and later I made her the narrator, and that’s when the book really started to work for me.”
Among the memories that went into her local portrait: While living in Marblehead, she took riding lessons in Ipswich. “I wanted to set it in a town like that, but I made up my own town” to avoid getting details wrong, she said. Locals will recognize a number of places, though.
Leary’s mother and sister still live in Marblehead, and her portrait of the gentrifying North Shore looks spot on, from the neurotic wives of hedge fund bosses to the townies trying to make ends meet as their hometown grows more expensive.
Among those she got very right is the character of Frank Getchell, who has a complicated history with Hildy dating back to their teen years. He’s a working-class townie, a handyman who cobbles together a bunch of jobs, including collecting trash and plowing snow.
“When I finished writing the first draft of the book, I sent a copy to my sister and a copy to a friend in Connecticut where I live now,” Leary said.
“My sister called me and said, ‘You have to change the details of the Frank Getchell character because of’ — and then she named a guy from Marblehead that we both went to high school with, who is now the Frank Getchell in that town. I had no idea! It’s not based on him! And then my friend in Connecticut called and said, ‘I think you need to change the details of the Frank Getchell character,’ and she named a guy in the town where I live now!”
The experience has been repeated several times at readings all over the country, she added with a laugh, so apparently there’s a Frank Getchell in every town.
Leary and her husband, a Worcester native best known for his FX series “Rescue Me,” raised their two children (now grown) in a semi-rural corner of Litchfield County, Conn. On this particular day in early March, she’s calling from Los Angeles, where her husband is doing Hollywood things and she’s promoting the book.
But if that sounds a bit chi-chi, Leary is anything but. Her husband may have played a firefighter on “Rescue Me,” but Ann Leary is one of probably very few celebrity wives who moonlight as small-town volunteer EMTs. It’s a tough gig, but it also gives her an insight into the dark side of small-town life, which is handy for a novelist.
“One of the hardest things I’ve done in my adult life is taking the course and passing it,” she said. “It’s very gratifying . . . Of course I’m bound by confidentiality. But the ride to the hospital is all about the patient, and the ride back is all the town gossip!”
In an era of anguished confessional memoirs and reality TV, Leary is also surprisingly casual about one thing she shares with Hildy: alcoholism.
Hildy got sober after an intervention by her family, but a year or two later she has begun drinking again, by herself, in secret. Leary has been sober for several years, but she says her own course was similar, with a long sobriety interrupted by an attempt to drink in moderation, alone. That’s why she can write so vividly of the joys as well as the pitfalls of the bottle.
“The truth is, I have been approached by magazines and different publications that want first-person accounts of my dreadful drinking experience, and it’s just so boring,” she said. “I’ve tried at various points in my life, as most alcoholics have, because that’s all we want is to drink normally. But I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work for me, so now I don’t drink.”
Ann Leary’s younger sister, Meg Seminara of Marblehead, says such candor is typical of her sister. The EMT gig, on the other hand, came as a surprise.
“Ann has a lot of energy. She really doesn’t sit still. But that took me by surprise. I knew she wasn’t squeamish, ” Seminara said. “She’s just always doing something. She has a tremendous amount of energy and she likes to put it to good use.”
She also has a lot of support in-house, Ann Leary said. She and Denis met when she was a student in his writing class at Emerson College in the 1980s, and they got together afterward.
Although fans of his blazingly sarcastic on-camera performances might find it hard to believe, she says he’s quite different at home.
“Denis is such a champion of me,” she said, “He thinks everything I do is perfect. His feedback is always like, ‘Amazing! I love it!’ ”