Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for J. Courtney Sullivan

for bestselling novelist
J. Courtney Sullivan
whose latest novel
has JUST hit bookstores
(in time for your summer reading pleasure -- snag it today).

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

If I could start in the middle of the process each day, I’d be the happiest woman on earth. Once I’m in the thick of writing, it’s a little like going into a trance. I’ll look up and find that seven or eight hours have passed without my noticing. But beginning is total agony for me. I’ve wasted countless hours procrastinating. When I was finishing my first novel, Commencement, I would bake elaborate pies and cakes for no occasion, just to avoid writing. I gained ten pounds. With Maine, I got obsessed with paint colors and adopted a puppy.

That said, a lot of writing a novel happens when you’re not writing. At a certain point, my characters become so real to me that they are almost like any other person in my life: I’ll be walking down the street thinking about my mother, and then I’ll transition to thinking about one of them. So in a way, I am always working and gathering ideas, whether I’m at my desk, on the subway, or eavesdropping on strangers in a restaurant. (At least that’s what I tell myself to stave off Catholic guilt.)

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

My main tip for writers is this: Find a way to make peace with rejection. When I was in college, and for years afterward, I sent off dozens of short stories to literary magazines and never got a single one published. I had enough form rejection letters to wallpaper a three-bedroom house. Occasionally, some kind editor would scribble a handwritten note at the bottom of the page, saying something like, “This shows promise.” I saved every one of them, and recently I came across the little pile in a box under the bed. Things can change on a dime, so don’t think that because people have told you no in the past, that you can’t ultimately hear yes. Just keep going.

Besides, rejection letters are actually good practice for being a professional writer—there will always be reviewers and nasty anonymous people on Amazon who don’t like your work, and that’s okay. (I mean, you’ll want to show up at their front doors with a cream pie in your hot little hand, but on the whole, it’s okay.)

One other piece of advice: Ignore advice. Too often, I hear writers saying “In order to be a real writer, you must do this or that.” One of the main ones is, you must write every day. I don’t write every day and I’ve published two novels and recently got a contract for a third. So there.

Last thing: If you want a generous-hearted, wise take on being a writer, read the fantastic Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott as soon as you possibly can. If you’ve already read it, read it again.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was an only child until the age of nine. I grew up in a neighborhood full of boisterous kids. There were seven girls on my block, born within a year of each other. We called ourselves the Garden Street Girls and got up to all kinds of mischief. (I think there might be a Young Adult series in there somewhere…) I was extremely sensitive, a little bossy, and I had a wild imagination—almost all of the games we played were my inventions. I wrote lengthy plays that we’d perform for our parents, whose main response would be, “How much longer is this gonna take, Courtney?” (See also: Rejection.)

I also spent a lot of time playing by myself, recording these elaborate radio shows, and writing short stories. I loved books, especially ones that featured sisters, since I did not yet have one of my own. My favorites were Little Women, the Ramona series, and anything by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

None of my aunts and uncles had kids until I was a teenager, so as a child I spent a lot of time around adults. I was precocious and got a great deal of attention, but I also learned to fade into the background. Sometimes I’d crawl under the table after a big family dinner and just listen for hours. I’m still like that, although I can no longer get away with crawling under the table.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

Absolutely. I can’t imagine writing about a location I didn’t know by heart. And of course, one’s physical location so often informs the sort of life he or she will have. That’s something I love exploring in fiction.

I finished writing Maine in Maine, in the same town where my characters live. It’s also where I first conceived of the idea for the book. A good friend of mine comes from a family with a fabulous cottage on the beach. I owe them a great debt of gratitude, because I lifted the setting for Maine straight from their home—right down to the old wood-burning stove and the piano from J&C Fischer New York. It helps me to see my characters move about in a place I’ve seen many times. And I am obsessed with the way that houses, towns, cities provide these solid backdrops to the passage of time—with several generations moving through the same rooms and roads.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I was a researcher at The New York Times for four years, working for the op-ed columnist Bob Herbert. I love doing research—I could happily spend all day digging around in old newspaper archives.

In November 1942, there was a horrific fire in Boston at a nightclub called the Cocoanut Grove. 492 people died. When I was growing up, I heard a lot about the tragedy—my great grandfather had been a fireman at the time. He was sent to the scene. On that night, one of his daughters was supposed to be at the Cocoanut Grove. It turned out that she had just gone home, but as far as my great grandfather knew, his daughter was there and he couldn’t save her. He was a tough guy who had fought in World War I, but I think what he saw at the Cocoanut Grove haunted him for the rest of his life. My mother and grandmother were always somewhat obsessed with the events of that night, even decades later.

The fire plays a part in Maine, so a couple of years ago, for the first time, I started doing real research on what happened. It was extremely sad and totally fascinating to read over the Boston Globe coverage from that time. Being able to supplement everything I’d heard from my own family with actual news accounts gave new dimension to the story.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

I am blessed to live with my boyfriend Kevin, a man who does the dishes and the laundry. A man who, when I plate up some Chinese takeout, says, “Wow, this looks amazing,” as if I have actually done something.

Writers need space and solitude. (I never wrote more than when I was single and lived alone.) A partner who will give you both is great. But perhaps the most important thing of all (and okay, I guess this is obvious) is to find someone supportive, loving, and kind.

I’ve always been obsessed with Dorothy Parker. (Haven’t we all?) As a teenager, I romanticized the hell out of her New York life. A couple of years after I moved to New York myself, I got a chance to meet a young woman writer who I really admired, and somehow we got to talking about Parker. “We all want to write like her,” this woman said to me. “But without having to live life the way she did.” Tortured and brooding can be fun for a while, but those traits have a shelf life.

Last summer, while I was on tour for the paperback version of Commencement, I gave a reading in Tennessee. It turned out that novels about feminist awakenings, sexual experimentation, and East Coast women’s college life weren’t exactly big in Tennessee. Or, at least, mine wasn’t. About four people showed up. I read what I thought was a pretty funny passage. No one laughed. Except for one person: Kevin. I kept looking at him and thinking, “You’ve heard me read this a hundred times. How on earth are you laughing?” The sound of his laughter saved me that day. I’ll never forget it.

J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel, Commencement. Her writing has 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 others. She is a contributor to the essay anthology The Secret Currency of Love and co-editor of Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Maine is her second novel.

Follow J. Courtney on Twitter: @jcourtsull

To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,
short story writers, and agents, click on the below.

Laurie Foos

Susan Henderson

Chantel Acevedo

Caroline Leavitt

Danica Novgorodoff

Rebecca Rasmussen

Laurel Snyder

Tatjana Soli

Julie Buxbaum

Randy Susan Meyers

John McNally

Justin Manask (agent)

Melissa Senate

Steve Kistulentz

Christopher Schelling (agent)

Dani Shapiro

Jeff VanderMeer

Catherine McKenzie

Emily Rapp

Stephanie Cowell

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Paul Elwork

William Lychack

Leah Stewart

Michelle Herman

Lise Haines

Benjamin Percy

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Karen Salyer McElmurray

Kim MacQueen

Crystal Wilkinson

Michael Griffith

Laura Dave