A Conversation with J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine
J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine, will be here at Waucoma Bookstore on Friday, July 1st. Come join us for an author reception with her from 5:00-8:00pm.
A Conversation with J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine.
Q: Why Maine (as in, the state)?
A: I grew up outside of Boston, about a ninety-minute drive from southern Maine. We went to the Ogunquit/Wells/York area all the time, whether it was to rent a little cottage on the beach for a week or just to have a lobster dinner at Barnacle Billy’s. I love that part of New England so much. It’s physically beautiful and has such a rich history. I’ve always been intrigued by the artists’ colony that popped up in Perkins Cove in the late 19th century. The juxtaposition of urban painters and Maine lobstermen living side by side seemed like it was just begging to be put in a novel.
Also, the Kellehers are a family in which everyone talks about everyone else behind their backs; each has an opinion on the shortcomings of the others. The funny thing is, they’re all right. I like the idea of family bonds having elasticity to them, so that even when they’re stretched to the breaking point, they rarely just go ahead and break. A secluded family beach house seemed like the perfect setting for all of this to percolate.
Q: Maine is told from the point of view of four women in the Kelleher family. Alice, the matriarch, Maggie, Alice’s granddaughter, Kathleen, the prodigal daughter, and Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter in law. How and why did you choose to focus on these four women out of all the characters in the novel?
A: I wanted to explore how certain things—like alcoholism, religion, resentments, and secrets—move from one generation to the next. We hear women say all the time, “Please God, don’t let me turn into my mother.” In most cases, we either become a lot like our mothers or we work like hell to do the exact opposite of what they did, which creates all new problems. The mother-daughter dynamic is powerful and often fraught, so I wanted to really dig into that. With Kathleen and Alice, we have a mother-daughter pair who can never seem to see eye-to-eye. Kathleen tries to cultivate a much more casual relationship with her own daughter, more of a friendship. In turn, her daughter Maggie longs for boundaries.
In early drafts, there were more voices: Ann Marie’s daughter, Kathleen’s sister Clare. But these four women rose to the top. Alice and Maggie are the generational bookends. Kathleen represents the one who went away—the complex blend of guilt and freedom that comes from throwing off one’s familial responsibilities. Ann Marie is essential because, as an in-law, she represents a sort of outsider, even though she is Alice’s main caretaker.
Though we’re not inside the heads of the other characters, I tried to make every member of the family three-dimensional. Many early readers have said that Daniel, the grandfather, is their favorite character, and he died ten years before the present day action of the book. There’s something about that that seems right to me. Often, the people whose presence looms largest are the ones who are no longer here.
Q: The Kelleher women of Maine range in age from 30 to 80. Was it difficult for you to write from such a wide range of perspectives?
A: The time in which we are born shapes so much of who we become, and writing women from different generations allowed me to show this fact in action. Alice wanted to be an artist, but as the daughter of working class Irish parents in 1942, she got pushed into a more traditional life. She couldn’t use birth control, because a priest forbade it. Her granddaughter Maggie is born more than fifty years later, and the landscape for women is entirely different. At the age of thirty-two, she lives alone in New York City, works as a writer, and makes a (possibly foolish) decision to stop taking the Pill.
Alice was probably the most challenging character to write. I wanted to get her childhood in the 1920s and her young adulthood in the forties just right. Luckily, I love doing research. I pored through old editions of the Boston Globe and talked to my grandmother and great aunt many times about their youth. I’d call my grandmother every so often to ask what exactly she would have worn out to a party in 1939, or how much she made babysitting as a kid. (About a quarter a day, as it turned out. She told me that she was indignant when her sister was once paid for an entire day’s work with a hardboiled egg. That anecdote, and others like it, just had to be included in the book.)
Q: Catholicism is important to the characters of Maine to varying degrees. Why did you choose to include the women’s relationship with religion throughout the novel?
A: The Catholic Church in America has changed so much over the last century. You can have members of a single Catholic family who experience their faith in entirely different ways. Vatican II was a major turning point, and more recently, the sexual abuse scandal. For Catholics of my grandparents’ generation, there seems to be a much more literal reading of things. Alice experiences this in her fear of going to Hell for a sin she committed sixty years earlier. To her, Hell is a very real place, not just a theoretical concept.
Catholicism is a culture as much as a religion. Many who have rejected the Church still feel that Catholicism is part of their identity. The Church has mandates on so many modern social issues: Divorce, infidelity, homosexuality, premarital sex, birth control, abortion, IVF, and so on. If you’re a practicing Catholic like Alice or Ann Marie, you have to negotiate this in your day-to-day life. If you’re lapsed like Maggie or Kathleen, this probably really ticks you off (even as certain aspects of it might niggle away at your conscience.) Either way, a story emerges. In my experience, you rarely meet someone who was raised Catholic and has lukewarm feelings on the matter.
Q: Your debut novel Commencement was a breakout bestseller in hardcover and paperback. What did it feel like to achieve success so early in your career?
A: There is something magical, and slightly terrifying, about the process of creating characters in the safety and privacy of your own head, and then suddenly seeing them go off into a world full of strangers. I’ve written short stories and novels since I was about six, but the publication of Commencement marked the first time that anyone other than my mom and dad had read them.
It was deeply gratifying to hear readers all over the country recount their own tales of post-college friendship, and the process of navigating a world full of confusing and sometimes contradictory choices. The thing that probably surprised me the most was the reaction to a scene in the book that deals with date rape. So many young women wrote me and said that they had lived through similar events, and that reading Commencement helped them process what happened. That was incredible and unexpected.
I set my first novel at my alma mater, Smith College, and some alums were angry about what I wrote. On the other hand, in what was perhaps the single most memorable experience of this entire journey, I was walking through Northampton (the town where Smith is located) after a reading one afternoon, and a student passing by just looked at me and said, “Thanks for writing it.”
Q: The Kellehers are an Irish Catholic family from Massachusetts. You’re an Irish Catholic gal from Massachusetts. Are any of the characters modeled after you or your family? A little birdie told us you took Irish step dancing lessons as a kid, just like Ann Marie’s daughters…
A: When Commencement was first published and I gave a reading in Boston, my extended family went out afterward for a celebratory dinner. By then, word had spread that I was working on a second novel about a big Irish Catholic clan. One of my uncles gave a moving toast, and he finished it off by saying, “We just want you to know how proud we are and how much we love you, since a year from now none of us will be speaking to you anymore.”
He was only kidding (I hope), but I got the point. None of the characters are based on any one member of my family. That said, all novels borrow a bit from real life. My great-grandmother used to take one look at a girl in a short dress and say, “Your knees should have a party and invite your skirt down.” This became one of Daniel’s signature phrases in Maine. And then there’s the Kellehers’ fondness for Irish music, the hot toddies, the Hail Marys, and the cousins by the dozens. (As one of my cousins says.) A lot of that stuff came from my own life. As for the step dancing, guilty as charged. Like Celia, one of the characters in Commencement, I credit those Irish Step days with my excellent posture and complete inability to dance like a normal person.
Q: Where do you ‘summer’?
A: The Kellehers’ beautiful house in Maine is, alas, not based on my own family’s home. It is, however, based on the family home of my best friend from high school—a gorgeous waterfront property in Kittery Point. It was there on the beach a few summers back that I first conceived of this novel. I borrowed the layout of Alice’s cottage from that house, as well as the story of the family building it themselves from the ground up.
When I was a kid, we’d often spend a week or two on some beautiful New England beach—Cape Cod, Nantucket, New Hampshire, and of course, Maine, were the places we frequented, often with ten or twelve relatives in tow. These days, I mostly summer in my sweltering Brooklyn apartment, where I alternate between sitting at my desk and sticking my head in the freezer.
Last August, as I was completing Maine, my boyfriend and I rented a lovely house in Cape Neddick, not far from where the Kellehers’ property would be. He had never been there, and it was fun to share things with him that I’d done a million times before with family and friends. There was something a little bittersweet about it, too. I felt nostalgic, even as I was in the process of making new memories. It made me aware of the way time seems to unfold upon itself when you revisit familiar places from your childhood. A lot of that made its way into Maine.
Q: Maine goes on-sale in June, just as people are hitting the beach. In your opinion, what makes ‘the perfect summer read’?
A: Something so absorbing that it transports and consumes you. Last summer, while I read Heartburn by Nora Ephron on Ogunquit Beach, a seagull came along and ate half the contents of my tote bag, including my wallet. I didn’t even notice.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m in the early stages of a new novel. It’s a portrait of four very different marriages that span the course of the twentieth century, and have something surprising in common.
One of the characters is a paramedic. Yesterday I got to spend the entire day on an ambulance ride-along. It was truly great, a reminder of how much fun it is to be a writer. As a reporter and novelist, I get to be nosy and ask people about their own private worlds—and rather than telling me to buzz off, they actually share it all. People want to tell their stories; that’s something I’ve realized along the way. Of course, I’m referring to people other than my relatives.