Like the French stew for which it is named, Stacey Sauter’s novel “Bouillabaisse,” which is set in historic Laurel, has simmered for some time.
Preparation began in 2003. That was when a friend who was at Sauter’s house for dinner revealed a family secret - the brother after whom Sauter had inquired was not her brother, but a cousin who was raised by her family after his own mother died in childbirth.
Then Sauter and two other close friends were diagnosed with cancer. One of those friends, Bob, died with Sauter at his bedside.
“I was a state of grief for a year,” she said. “During that time, one of the ways I started working through that was to write this book.”
That book became “Bouillabaisse,” which was published earlier this year and tells the tale of 15-year-old Gail Kenealy, who must raise her younger siblings and cousins after her aunt dies in childbirth and her mother battles depression.
Sauter was looking for a community in which to place the fictional Kenealy family when she was driving south down Route 1. She made her way into historic Laurel, she said, and “all of a sudden this stage opened up.”
She was struck by the beautiful homes and the close-knit community surrounding St. Mary of the Mills Church, including St. Vincent Pallotti High School and the Pallotti Convent along Eighth Street. She knew she had found the perfect place for her coming-of-age tale.
Old Town residents will find a familiar world in “Bouillabaisse.”
Laurel Park, the Patuxent River, Oliver’s Tavern, the Warren Memorial Health Center and even the recently-shuttered Laurel Meat Market all make appearances in the novel.
Sauter, who lives in Potomac, did some archival research to get a feel for the Laurel of 50 years ago, but she also made regular visits to the neighborhood to soak up the wisdom of longtime residents. Even so, she admits she did take some artistic license with some details; “Bouillabaisse” is set in 1967, but the Meat Market didn’t open until 1970, among other things.
Sauter’s visits here also led to the development of a friendship that impacted the novel. She became close to Sr. Perpetua Moellering, a Catholic nun well known in the neighborhood for her ministry, who inspired a character who helps guide the young Gail Kenealy through her trials.
Moellering read a draft of the “Bouillabaisse” manuscript before her death in 2008. She gave it her blessing, Sauter said, as long as she cleaned up the language.
“Bouillabaisse” is something of a departure for Sauter. She is a real estate agent who has published three other novels, but all of them have been suspense thrillers. Though some of her previous books have been published by large publishers, Sauter said the “Bouillabaisse” manuscript was rejected by mainstream publishers for being too religious and by religious publishers for being too secular. She believed enough in this novel that she opened her own publishing house, Thornton Creek Press, to make sure it reached readers.
In the process of writing the book, though, Sauter said she came to appreciate the charm that Laurel offers.
“I absolutely fell in love with that little town,” she said, “and I’m so grateful that the city and community have done all they can to preserve it.”
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, 522 Main St., will host its 52nd annual Holly Days Bazaar on Saturday, Nov. 17, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the parish center adjacent to the church. Handmade gifts and ornaments, toys, pizzelles, cheese, baked goods and raffles will be available. St. Nick will visit from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Continental breakfast and lunch will be available at the Holly Inn. For more information, call the church office at 301-776-5151 or go to stphilipslaurel.org.