Writer’s Corner: An Interview with J. Courtney Sullivan
Published: Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 21:02
Smith graduate and author J. Courtney Sullivan (Commencement, Maine) shared some Smith nostalgia and details of her writing life with our correspondent.
JL: How do you think Smith contributed to your development as a writer and person?
JCS: Smith is such a huge part of me being who I am. It was, for me as a writer, the best education I could've had because I wasn't doing creative writing. Mostly I was reading great books. I love Victorian Literature, first of all, it just got me reading good books and I think that's the first step to becoming a writer. I also think I will always be a huge proponent of women's-only education. The women I've met at Smith are still my closest friends – it changed me. There's a real spirit of activism there as well and that was a great thing to be a part of.
JL: What do you think is unique about the Smith ambience as opposed to the Mount Holyoke one, Wellesley, etc.?
JCS: I think that people were saying when I was writing Commencement, people kept telling me to make it fictional but it's funny because when you're at Smith, the other women's schools are your rivals but when you graduate it's all the women's colleges together. For Wellesley, being so much closer to the city is a completely different experience than being at Smith and Mount Holyoke, where you're out there. It was the best way to prepare for the next step. At lot of times at Smith it felt very serious to me. I really was accumulating so much knowledge.
JL: Why an all-women's school for you?
JCS: I think I chose Smith in spite of the fact it was a women's college, not because it was a women's college. I didn't want to be in a big city, I also didn't want to be too far from home. The first time I went there I was like, whatever; but, when I came back for Accepted Students Weekend, I loved it.
JL: What are some of the biggest steps that you had to take to arrive at where you are in your life right now?
JCS: I think that probably the biggest thing for a writer is being comfortable with rejection and knowing that you have the final word on you. When I was in my early twenties, I was sending so many short stories to literary magazines that I could paper my walls with the rejection letters, but the biggest obstacle to being published is not writing at all. I think a lot of people want to write a book, but it can also be very difficult. There's a lot of things that you can't do if you're sitting inside writing all day and you have to be okay with that.
JL: What or who inspires you to write?
JCS: I think that I'm very inspired just by observing. It happens so often that I'll be out at dinner and eavesdropping on people at the next table and be inspired to write more about their real world. I don't understand the people who don't want to eavesdrop on the next table. I always carry a little notebook around with me. There's something really great about writing fiction and non-fiction. In most careers, you just do one thing and that's what you do, but in writing you get to keep peering into other people's worlds and people are so open to writers. I did an ambulance ride along in Cambridge with a paramedic and that is such a gift.
JL: What do you think a writer's responsibilities are?
JCS: I think that it's kind of an interesting time for writers because the main goals of being a writer, reflecting society back to itself, hasn't changed. But I think that authors are much more reachable now through technology and I think that's awesome, but also dangerous, you know, you haven't written a word today because you've been on Twitter.
JL: Can you summarize or describe what you hope your contribution to pop culture is?
JCS: I think I'm very excited and very happy and very surprised that people read my books and want to read them. It's funny because whether you're creating books or food or whatever it is, you have to accept that other people describe what they think what you're doing is and you just have to be creating. With Commencement, some people said it's chick lit, it's written by a young woman for young women, some people said it's women's literature. Once I even saw it in the Thriller category. Other people label it; all you can do is keep putting it out there.
JL: Your new novel is set in Maine. What does the Maine ambience mean to you?
JCS: I think that, first of all it's such a physically beautiful place, it's the perfect backdrop for a film because of the beauty. For my novel, it's just so physically pristine and pure that it fits to set darker drama there. It's just something an artist can't resist and that's why so many artists live in Maine. It might come from so many creative people that live in Maine writing about the place that they know.
JL: It's clear that in your book, Maine is a place of reflection and disclosure. What encourages this impression of Maine?
JCS: I grew up in Massachusetts, but always went to Maine in the summertime, and obviously the geography of Maine is so beautiful. Living in New York, I dream about Maine all winter, and it seems slowed down there. There's also something about any vacation that causes people to slow down and relax. I think so many people with summer homes can all relate to having a summer home where everyone turns back into who they are, and then inevitably the fighting that goes on in the book [also happens] in real life.