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Author interview: J. Courtney Sullivan

The Weekly chats to writer J. Courtney Sullivan, author of The Engagements.
Author interview: J. Courtney Sullivan

What was the inspiration for The Engagements?

After attending many weddings over the course of several years, I was thinking a lot about why we choose the mates we do, and what happens next. Is a successful marriage based on compatibility, or does it have more to do with luck and the circumstances that befall a couple as they move through life? I wanted to write about marriage in all its complexity and at various stages of the relationship—a content and long married couple, a frazzled young couple with kids, a husband and wife who have seen the passion between them vanish. Marriage is one of the most conventional, universal human experiences and yet every marriage is completely unique. As a novelist, I love exploring the aspects of relationships that we don’t necessarily get to see in real life, those private moments that exist between two people when no one else is looking.

I also wanted to tell the story of marriage in America—how the institution has changed, and which parts remain constant. (As same sex marriage becomes legal in more and more states, it’s easy to forget that just a little over forty years ago, it was illegal for blacks and whites to intermarry. A wife couldn’t get a credit card without her husband’s permission. The concept of “no fault” divorce, which is the norm today, did not yet exist.

What research did you need to do and how did you go about this?

I knew that research would be a key component because the story spans almost a century and is largely concerned with worlds outside of my personal experience: modern paramedics, the rare instrument business in France, advertising in the forties and fifties, and so on. I started off by reading stacks of newspaper articles from the last hundred years to decide which major and minor cultural events would have significance for each of my characters. Then I went to the experts. What amazed me was the sheer generosity of strangers (many of whom have now become friends) who were willing to share their knowledge. Anne Akiko Meyers, a tremendous violin soloist, helped me write a convincing virtuoso. The paramedics in Cambridge, Massachusetts brought me on ambulance ride-alongs and answered hundreds of questions. I went to Paris to get to know Delphine’s neighborhood. And Frances Gerety’s former co-workers and neighbors shared their recollections of her. (Gerety was the real-life copywriter who wrote the line “A Diamond Is Forever” in 1947.)

Before I was a full-time novelist, I worked as a researcher at the New York Times, for the op-ed columnist Bob Herbert. I absolutely love doing research. I might still be researching this book if there were no such thing as a deadline.

Talk us through a typical day when you are in the middle of writing a novel.

Every day is different for me. I know novelists who are quite strict and make themselves write for a certain number of hours each day. A lot of people say writers must write every day, but I don’t. If I’m working on a magazine or newspaper article, I can easily put an hour’s work into it and then leave it behind to walk the dog or have lunch with a friend. But fiction is different. For me, the hardest part about writing fiction is getting started. It’s a struggle every time I sit down in front of the computer, because it requires leaving everything else behind and entering into the world of my characters. Once I’m in that world, I tend to stay there for a long time—six or eight hours straight, at least. So I need to know that there will be no distractions.

What do you do to celebrate finishing a book?

There’s always champagne involved. And sometimes a new purse. After I finished The Engagements, it had to be a new laptop instead, because I dropped the old one a time too many.

What comes first when planning a novel, the characters, the plot or the setting?

It’s always different, but this time around it started with the characters. Some of them had been in my head for a while. I had this idea of a couple who have been married for decades, and came together in the first place because of a mutual loss. They turned into Evelyn and Gerald. And I kept thinking about paramedics—what was it like for them to go into the homes of strangers, whose only common trait was the fact that they weren’t expecting to need an ambulance that day? And so James came into being. Delphine started as an image: A beautiful French woman trashing the apartment of a man who had wronged her.

These four main characters came together easily, but as I was writing them, I felt like someone was missing. I was reading a book called “The Heartless Stone” and there was one sentence about a woman named Frances Gerety in it. It said she had written the line “A Diamond Is Forever” for De Beers in 1947 and that she herself never married. I knew right away that I had to write about her.

For each of my main characters, I answered around 50 questions before I started writing—these ranged from “What was your childhood nickname” to “What’s the worst thing you ever did to a friend” to “What job did you want as a child and what job did you actually end up with?” I had never done this before. It was a great exercise and meant that I knew my characters fully before I started to write the story.

What’s next on the agenda?

I get married in exactly one week, so right now the only things I’m writing are thank you notes and seating charts. A week after the wedding, I leave for a month-long book tour. I know that by the time that wraps up, I’ll be eager to dig into a new novel.

Three top tips for aspiring writers?

  1. Read, read, read. All good writers do. Reading inspires you and challenges you to do better. I think of it as similar to the way that athletes have to fuel their bodies with healthy foods. For an aspiring writer, there is no better fuel than great literature.

  2. Do not take rejection personally. Even the most successful authors have to deal with it in the form of the occasional bad review, so you may as well get used to it. Before I published my first novel, I got enough rejection letters to decoupage an entire house. But I kept going.

  3. Take notes. Your observations of the world around you are your best resource and you want to make sure you remember them. I had a full-time job when I was writing my first novel and half of my second. I couldn’t write a full scene every time something funny or poignant or memorable happened, so instead I would jot down ideas or snatches of dialogue on the backs of receipts or whatever I could find while standing in line at the dry cleaners or riding the New York subway. On Saturday mornings, I’d line up all the pieces of paper on my kitchen table and I’d often be amazed at what I’d find—even something that had happened just a day or two earlier would have been forgotten if I hadn’t taken a minute to write it down.

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