J. Courtney Sullivan is a young writer with big early success. Her debut novel, Commencement, made quite the splash when it hit stands in 2010, quickly becoming a New York Times Bestseller. Gloria Steinem had nothing but praise for the novel and Oprah’s Book Club included Commencement in a list of “5 Feminist Classics to (Re)read as a Mom, Wife and Writer.” In 2010, Sullivan co-edited the essay collection Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.
Sullivan’s second novel, Maine, was named a Best Book of the Year by Time Magazine and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Allure, Men’s Vogue, and the New York Observer, among other publications.
We met in an impersonal conference room where we had to wave our arms in the air every few minutes in order to stop the motion sensors from pronouncing the place unoccupied and switching off the lights. Sullivan had plenty of self-deprecatory jokes at the ready. Her laugh, bubbling up easily and frequently, is tinged with wonder, as though she can’t quite believe her own good luck. But her eyes, glittering with intelligence, confirm that luck has little to do with it.
As a kid, growing up. Were you a storyteller?
Of course. I grew up in this big Irish Catholic family. Everyone in the family is a storyteller. They all tell stories. Every Sunday we would go to my grandfather’s house for dinner. Everyone would be sitting around this long table and at a certain point in the meal, when I thought I could go undetected, I would slip under the table and I would just start eavesdropping on what everyone was saying. And, of course, the more wine they drank the more interesting the stories became.
And I started writing short stories when I was about six or seven. I feel like these stories were kind of about my family, even when they were about goldfish or bears. They were essentially trying to figure out the inner lives of what was behind what everyone was talking about at the dinner table.
When I was eight or nine, I started writing plays. My plays were unbearably long. They could be thirty, forty, fifty pages long. I grew up in a neighborhood full of kids, so after I finished a play, I would get the neighborhood together and everyone would perform the play. These all still exist on VHS tapes. Except you can’t hear what we’re saying in the play, because all you can hear are the mothers in the neighborhood saying, ”How much longer is this? When is this going to end?”
It sounds like you knew pretty early on that this is what you wanted to do.
Yeah. In high school – to my detriment now – that was really all I cared about: reading and writing fiction. I never really paid attention in math or science class and now it seems there are simple things about biology or division that your basic human being knows that I don’t because I just wasn’t paying attention. I was writing a poem.
I think it was very clear what direction I was going to be going in. Even my SAT scores would be, like, perfect in the English and then in the Math it would look like I just brought in an infant to sit in the chair.
And then you went to Smith. What made you decide to go to a women’s college?
At the time, I went there sort of in spite of the fact that it was a women’s college, not because. I was too wimpy. I wanted to stay within a couple of hours of the Boston area. I had grown up in a family where there was a family party every weekend, I saw these people all the time. So, I didn’t want to be too far away from them. I kind of decided on Smith because they had an interesting English department, and they weren’t too far from home.
I had gone to a weird high school – it’s called Boston University Academy. The high school was on the Boston University campus and it was designed so that you would accelerate your college education and graduate in three years. In your senior year of high school you are sort of dually enrolled as a high school senior and a college freshman at BU. So I applied to Smith with a year and half worth of credit, but quickly realized that I didn’t want to accelerate college – I really liked college and would have gladly stayed for seven years if I could’ve pulled it off! So I took a year off from Smith to almost do a do-it-yourself year abroad. Because since I was graduating in three years, I couldn’t go study abroad.
What did you do for that year?
I lived in London. I worked for six months in a literary agency. Then I worked as a nanny for six months. I nannied for a family with three boys under the age of two.
Oh my god!! And you survived that?
[Laughs.] It was the hardest job I have ever had.
How did you even hold them all at once? Physically?
Oh, it was crazy. I am not a strong person, I can remember walking up a hill holding all three and thinking, “Don’t drop anyone…!” But I loved it, too.
I had gone with the intention that I was going to write a novel during the year that I was in London. Which did not happen. But it was such an interesting time. I had never really traveled before. And here I was, in Europe, and able to go anywhere I wanted. I travelled all of France and all over Italy and all over Ireland and England… I fell in love with an Englishman…
Now you dared to go far from home. Because London sure is farther away than Smith.
Yes, but I was really very wimpy. I cried every day for the first two weeks I was there because I was so far from home. [Laughs.]
Did you have a structured writing habit early on?
Until I was writing fiction as a job – which is just now three or four years – it was always just my greatest joy and pleasure. It was not something I had to force myself to do. It was something I really wanted to do. So I don’t think I have ever been the kind of person who says: I get up at this hour and I write from this time to this time. Even now. But it was never something I had to squeeze in. It was just something I always just naturally wanted to do.
A writer once told me that she doesn’t believe it when writers say they enjoy the actual act of writing, that the act is always painful. But that doesn’t sound true for you. Are you one of the few who enjoys the actual act itself?
I enjoy it immensely, once I am in the thick of it. I think getting into the thick of it is incredibly hard. And I think for me, anyway, it has gotten harder and harder as I’ve gone along. You know that you are going to be taken to this other place and you are not going to be available to the real people in your life, or your Twitter account, or your email, or whatever it is. It is almost like I am very resistant to getting there. It takes me forever to get through the list of silly things I’ve got to do before I write each day.
But once I am in the midst of it, I do love it. And it goes by so fast for me. It could go six hours and I feel like it had been forty-five minutes.
And now that it is a job job, has that changed?
My life has changed a lot in the last few years, and that has definitely impacted the way that I write. Until two years ago, I had a full-time job. I worked for The New York Times, I was a researcher for Bob Herbert. I also did quite a bit of writing for the paper, and I was also doing magazine writing, which I had been doing prior to working at The Times. So my time to write fiction was really, really small. And really precious. And I think that was the most disciplined time of my life. I really wanted to have a novel published, that was my dream. Every Saturday, that is what I did. I had this little apartment in Brooklyn Heights that was teeny. But I loved it. Saturday, people would say: Wanna go shopping, wanna go to the movies? And that was just my day when I wrote, so I said no.
This makes me sound crazy, but I would say, I have to see one person a day. I can go to brunch with someone, but then I’ve got to write until midnight. Or, I can go out Saturday night, but that means I have to write all day on Saturday. I didn’t want to be a crazy shut-in who was just writing for forty-eight hours straight. But yeah, I think for most of my twenties I could have been doing more fun things but I was home writing.
That shows a lot of discipline and focus. Were you always like that, or did you have to train yourself?
That’s funny, because I don’t think of myself as a disciplined person at all.
What you just described? That’s disciplined.
No matter what your day job is, in this day and age we are all writing. You may not be working for a publication, but you are still emailing all day long. In my case I was working for a newspaper so my whole day revolved around reading and writing. And I think no matter how much you love those things, when you get home at the end of the day, you don’t say: “You know what I really want to do right now? Read and write.” You just don’t. So I think the weekends felt really separate to me.
Previously, I had worked at a women’s magazine for two years. And I think, on the surface, if you were to say: What’s harder, working for The New York Times or a women’s magazine? But when I worked at the women’s magazine, I did work a lot of weekends. I worked a lot of nights. And so I had a lot less time to focus on novel writing. My job at The Times was wonderful because it was fascinating work but it was really contained within certain hours and the weekends were my own. That was huge.
Let’s backtrack a bit and talk more about those jobs. You moved to New York after you graduated from Smith and you began to work at Allure. Tell me how that all came about. For a lot of young women who were English majors, that is kind of the dream situation.
This was right around the time when The Devil Wears Prada had come out and in that book there is this recurring line: “A thousand girls would kill for your job, a thousand girls would kill for your job.” They are always saying it to this girl who hates her job. And my mother would always say it to me as soon as I complained. She was kind of joking but kind of serious.
Basically, my senior year at Smith I was thinking: “I want to be a novelist, how do I do that?” And realizing that it’s not the same as saying, “I want to become a lawyer or a dentist or a teacher.” These things have structured paths and what I want to do doesn’t. Even though I always wrote fiction, saying you want to be a novelist feels a little like saying you want to be a pro baseball player or an astronaut.
So my senior year, basically what I did is that I asked as many novelists as I could find – which wasn’t terribly many – I just asked them what they had done. What their path had been.
So, you did what I am doing.
Yes! Exactly. Doug Bauer is a wonderful writer and he was one of my teachers. He had really lived in the world of writers so I guess I got a lot of my information from him. And Kurt Vonnegut had come for one semester and I had taken a masters class with him. He was amazing. Of course all of us were just so in awe of him. He wanted to give us everything he could, but he didn’t necessarily know what that should be, so I remember him saying at one point, “What can I give you? What do you want? Do you want my home phone number?” He could tell that we were in awe and he wanted to deliver.
So many of these people that I asked said that they had started out in magazines.
In college I had an internship at the Atlantic Monthly, which was in Boston. And that was amazing. That was my first real glimpse into a world of people working with writing. And the ideas moving through there, it was just such an impressive and exciting place. And it was so unlike the Boston that I had grown up knowing. But there it was, in the North End.
What I really noticed about it, what really stuck with me – and I find this to be true of writing novels now – was that every month there would be this new information to wrestle with and try to make sense of. You would immerse yourself in that, and then you would be on to the next thing. I thought that was amazing because these writers and editors were getting to live about a thousand lives. They were getting to know everything you could about all these lives that most people don’t know anything about. I just loved that. And I kept in touch with a lot of people there who were great resources moving forward.
So, I had heard that you should work at a magazine. And I had also heard that if you didn’t have any connections with a magazine, you should go to the Columbia publishing course. That kept coming up, and coming up. It was a hard decision for me. I was paying for my own college and was already staring down three years of college loans. And that was an expensive program. So, I was hesitant. But I did end up doing it.
They did a career fair at the end and I ended up getting interviewed for this job at Conde Nast. I really didn’t want it. My grand plan for my life was to return to London, continue being a nanny and write novels. This would be my path. But my mom felt otherwise. She said, “Why don’t you just take this interview that you’ve been offered…?” I didn’t want the job to the point where I did the following: When I got the call, I was with my extended family at this beach house on Cape Cod. Bear in mind, my real house was just an hour away. But instead of going home and getting real clothes, I just assembled an outfit from what was in the beach house, what people there had. So I wore this crazy blazer that my aunt had from Anne Taylor with these giant shoulder pads, these square-toed shoes…I just wore the ugliest outfit I could imagine! Because I think I just didn’t want to get hired at Conde Nast and I thought that they would just see me and not even let me in the building. But someone in HR had a good sense of humor because she ended up hiring me.
I got hired as what they called “a rover”. You went from one magazine to another and you were basically an in-house temp. Depending on who was in charge of you from one day to another, it could be horribly bad or really interesting. One day you are at Self and the next day you are at Vanity Fair and the next day you are at GQ and the next day you’re at House and Garden. It was actually a lot of fun.
It’s funny, I think pretty much everyone who starts as a rover wants to work at The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, or Conde Nast Traveler, given whatever their own personal preferences for greatness are [laughs]. I of course wanted to work at The New Yorker but the first job opening that came up was at Allure and I had actually just done a pretty long stint there. So, I took the job.
It was very different subject matter from anything I had ever personally cared about or known about. And it was like your typical movie about a girl who studies women’s studies for four years and wore pajamas to class everyday and now works at a women’s magazine. It was right after the Devil Wears Prada and it was right when Ugly Betty had come out. People would say to me almost every day, “Have you seen that show, Ugly Betty?” I was like, “Thank you.”
But in some ways what goes on at a magazine, is what goes on at a magazine. So I learned a tremendous amount working there. I learned about writing for a specific audience, writing to space, writing on a deadline. All these really vital parts of being a working writer. Now I meet MFA students who don’t really want to sully their perfect prose by working at a magazine, but I actually think it is one of the best things that you can do as a young writer.
How long were you at Allure?
I was there two years.
And then you moved to The New York Times. Meanwhile, you were writing fiction on the weekends. Were you working on one particular project?
I had been working on Commencement, but just in starts and stops. The first sixty pages probably took me a year. And then I wrote the rest of the book in six months.
Wow, pretty good six months.
That was probably six months or so after I started working at The Times. It was the first time – and I think this makes a huge difference – it was the first time in my New York experience that I was living alone. It was the first time that I had my own apartment without roommates. And I think that was such a key thing. Also, it was so expensive and I was so terrified about how expensive it was, that first of all, I couldn’t afford to go out, and second of all, I just felt like, “You gotta be serious now kid. You gotta make this happen.”
Before this time you always had roommates. Who were you living with and where?
First I lived with a girl I had done the Columbia course with. We were roommates in this tiny apartment on the Upper East Side that was right across from a fire station. So every five minutes you would hear the fire engine, the lights would blare into the apartment…
We lived together for a year. And then she moved in with her boyfriend to whom she is now married. My high school best friend moved in with me in that same fire station apartment and we lived there together for another year. And the house from The Jeffersons was on the street. Every time I walked by it, it would amuse me. It is one of those New York things. Right before you bring your extended family into your tiny apartment where they are going to be horrified, you say, “Look! The building from The Jeffersons.” And they totally forget that you are living in squalor.
My best friend and I both moved out at a certain point and moved in with our respective boyfriends in two different apartments – neither of which lasted very long. But then I moved into this apartment in Brooklyn Heights by myself, pretty much because it was only a seven-minute walk to the apartment of that same friend who had also moved in with her boyfriend. So we were back to essentially living together, but we each had our own apartment.
I love Brooklyn Heights. I actually think that if you are a writer and you can somehow manage to live there as I did, in a teeny tiny apartment, you should. I really think there is something magical in the air.
Tell me how you got your agent.
When I was an intern at The Atlantic, Brettne [Bloom, her agent] had been there [as an intern] a few rotations ahead of me. She was now going to go work at this literary agency in Boston. I was very, very lucky.
He was very encouraging to me to keep going. So I did keep sending him work from time to time when I was back at school. Eventually another editor there, Lucy Prince, she remembered Brettne and she called me and said, “I love your short stories. Could I send them to this young agent that I know who is just starting out?” I said, “Yes please!” [Laughs.] That was during the time that I was nannying in London. I didn’t have a personal computer, so I would go to these Internet cafes to check my email every so often. Sometimes I would go three or four weeks without checking, which is crazy now when I check my email every three to four minutes. I remember that I went to the Internet café one day and I had this email from Brettne about my stories and it had been sitting there for a month! I remember thinking, “How did this happen, this is crazy! How breezy do I look?” [Laughs.] Like, “Yeah, I’m busy being a nanny, I’ll get back to you when I can…”
When I came back to the States, I went to New York and had a meeting with her. It was very exciting, I still had a year of college to finish. Of course I was thinking, “I am going to be a renowned novelist within the next three to five months…!” But of course it didn’t happen that way.
So, fast-forward a few years. Commencement comes out and it ends up being this big splash. It gets highlighted by Oprah’s Book Club. I mean, can it get better than that? A writer’s jackpot.
I don’t even think I have processed any of it yet. For so many people, and I was definitely one of them, this was a dream. To have it actually happen is in some ways the most wonderful thing in the world and in some ways I don’t think any dream, as it plays out in real life, can ever live up to what you imagined.
I was at work at The Times when Brettne told me that Knopf was buying my novel. I would have been happy to have it published by my mom in our basement, but the fact that it was Knopf was really a splendid thing.
Your family sounds like they were very supportive all along. How did they feel about this great news?
They were just so excited about every part of it and have never asked me to censor anything I might write. But there was one sex scene in Commencement that my mother read when I showed her the manuscript and she said, “Please, please for the love of me and your future children, take it out. It’s just too gross.” I left it in but I told my mom that I took it out… So, about a year ago, the book had been out for two years, and I get an angry call from my mom saying, “I saw that you left that in!”
Was there ever anything else you thought of being other than a writer?
When I was working at Allure I felt pretty adrift and I would constantly think about becoming a teacher. I would fill out the Teach for America application, or the city equivalent of that program, and I would get to the part where I had to click print, and I would never click print. I am not sure why.
Speaking of teaching, what advice would you offer to aspiring writers?
First of all, I don’t think there is such a thing as an aspiring writer. I think you either are a writer, or you’re not. Although this is infuriating to hear, being a writer and publishing a book, in some ways they have nothing to do with each other. In some ways, publishing a book is the only way that you can come to, you know, be received as a writer. So of course that is very important and I’m not saying it isn’t. But I don’t think you will ever feel any more there than you do now. At least I don’t. And I am going on my third published novel now.
Which is kind of a bummer but also kind of a good thing to remember because the writing is really why you do it at the end of the day. I know that might sound trite, but it’s true. And that is what is what will sustain you, not a good review or having someone tell you they love your book. That’s wonderful, but if you take too much of that on board you also have to take on board every mean one-star review you get on Amazon. If you do that you will perish.
There are so many obstacles, especially in this modern age of ours, and reasons not to write and doubtful voices that will come more from your own head than from anywhere else. I still have that every time I sit down to write: What is this, this is stupid, this character isn’t believable… But you just have to keep writing. And I think a lot of your writing will be bad. But that’s inevitable. You have to go through the bad to get to something worthwhile.
None of our favorite novelists sit down and write perfection the first time. I just refuse to believe that is true, or else I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Michael Lionstar