Samantha Hahn: Courtney, thank you so much for inviting us into your beautiful Brooklyn home. You were raised outside of Boston MA. and attended Smith in Northampton, MA. What prompted you to choose New York as your home, and specifically Brooklyn?
Courtney Sullivan: When I was in college, I knew I wanted to be a fiction writer, but I didn’t know any writers personally, or how one went about becoming one. Every time a novelist came to campus, I’d ask her about the path she’d taken. Most said they first lived in New York and worked in magazines, so I decided that’s what I would do. For years, I saw this as temporary. New York was too hectic for me to imagine staying for long. I first lived on the Upper East Side, and then in SoHo. I thought I would move home to Boston after two years, then five, then ten. I held onto my Massachusetts driver’s license as long as humanly possible.
I’ve been here fourteen years now. I moved to Brooklyn nine years ago because my best friend from high school had recently moved to Brooklyn, and I’d spent a lot of time getting to know it when visiting her. That was the first time I thought I might actually like living in New York. I rented a tiny studio apartment on Cranberry Street in Brooklyn Heights, one of the most beautiful neighborhoods on earth. I’m in Carroll Gardens now. I love it. It’s quiet. The houses are so charming, with their gated front yards and cherry trees. The restaurants are great, and you can walk to Brooklyn Bridge Park. We know all our neighbors. But I still identify so much with New Englanders, and still think that eventually, I’ll move back home. Funny enough, the other night I was talking about this with a cab driver, and told him that I intend to return to Boston one day. He said, with such confidence, “Nope. Not gonna happen. You would have done it by now.” I guess time will tell which of us is right! I tend to write about New England because I know it well, and also, I suppose, because I miss it. Writing about Boston or Maine lets me revisit those places whenever I want. If I lived there, I wonder if I’d write so much about them.
SH: You’re an avid reader in addition to being a writer. How and where do you carve out time and space for reading? What are your favorite genres?
CS: My prime reading time is at night before bed. I wish I could read on the subway, but I’m too much of an eavesdropper and can never focus while other people are talking. This year, I finally discovered audio books and I do like listening to those on the train or while I’m out walking the dog. I really enjoy a good memoir or biography, and I’m crazy about poetry. But my first love will always be the novel. I like juicy fiction about families and relationships most of all.
SH: You grew up in an Irish-Catholic family, did that experience coming of age inform your latest novel?
CS: Very much so. I’m not religious, but when you grow up Catholic, it stays with you in so many ways. I still catch myself saying Hail Marys in times of trouble. I am still racked with Catholic guilt! And while I have strong criticisms of the church, I also know that it does a lot of good on a large scale and in the lives of individuals. It’s a fraught thing, and one that I love exploring in fiction. The family in my new book includes both a cloistered nun and characters who have completely shunned the church (and everyone in between.) This reflects Catholic families I know in real life—within each, there is such a range of experiences and beliefs.
The Irish Catholic tradition, in particular, is in equal parts about storytelling and repression. A strange dichotomy. This was something I wanted to investigate in this new novel. How the two coexist and contradict one another.
SH: Many of your novels have female protagonists and you identify as a feminist. Do you think all writers are expected to be in some way a mouthpiece for their race, culture, or class? Or is this more about your own passion as a writer to convey the experience of the people you deeply understand?
CS: I don’t think a novel will be successful, in most cases, if the author starts out with an agenda in mind. But I do think novelists tend to return to certain obsessions in their work, and one of mine has always been the idea that the moment a woman is born will determine so much about who she’s allowed to become. All my books are different, but they all return to this point, looking at women in the context of their historical moments. I enjoy writing male characters as well. As I get further along in my career and my life, I am more confident in doing so. (After my book, Maine, I realized that if I could get inside the head of an eighty-year-old woman, I could get inside the head of a man.)
I was once on a panel with a brilliant and celebrated young woman writer, who said that she primarily writes men because it’s the only way to be taken seriously. That made me so sad. It’s crucial to tell women’s stories, since, well, we make up half the world! And who better to tell them than women? I very much reject the notion that the domestic sphere is somehow unworthy or less interesting as a topic of exploration. To my mind, it’s where a lot of the most interesting stuff of life happens.
SH: You’re about to have a child. That’s so exciting. Congratulations. I wonder if becoming a mother will impact your writing. Do you think it will?
CS: For the past seven years, since my first novel was published, I’ve sat on panels with fellow novelists. Nearly every time, someone in the audience will ask about how and when we write. I always say that I don’t write every day, but when I do write, it’s for several hours at a stretch and I need complete silence. Whenever there’s a mother on the panel with me, I can just see the amused look in her eye. I have writer friends with children who tell me about writing in the school parking lot while they wait in the pick-up line, or at the kitchen table with the whole family swirling around them. Or else they have childcare for a very set amount of time, and try to make the most of that. So I know that the actual act of writing will soon change, and the luxury of time will be no more. As for the writing itself, we shall see. You hear a lot about how motherhood changes a person, and it’s odd to be on this precipice, knowing that change is coming, but unsure what it will really feel like. I’m excited to experience it firsthand.
JJ: What female writers do you particularly admire?
CS: Jennifer Haigh, Anne Enright, Sarah Waters, Emma Straub, Maggie Shipstead, Meg Wolitzer, Celeste Ng, Jane Smiley, Elizabeth Strout, Ellen Gilchrist, Nora Ephron, Rebecca Traister, Lindy West, Ruth Ozeki, Mary Oliver, Kate Walbert, Sigrid Nunez, the late Marjorie Williams… Oh, the list goes on and on!
SH: I see in addition to studying Victorian literature you also focused on women’s studies. Can you share a list of some books/authors that have shaped you?
CS: There were a handful of books I first read in a fantastic class about feminist women writers. The syllabus of this one class opened my eyes more than many other classes combined. We read Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping, and Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy among others, all books that I go back to again and again. Victorian Lit was also an education unto itself. The first time I read Bleak House, it completely changed my sense of what a novel could be.
SH: Let’s go back in time a bit. Growing up, what were some of your favorite stories? What sort of books were around your home as a kid?
CS: I loved books as a child, and I read constantly. My father is a huge reader. I think it means so much to grow up in a house full of books. I can remember being five or six and looking at the titles on his shelf—The Catcher in the Rye and Sophie’s Choice stand out for some reason. I was so excited to grow up and be able to read those books! I was a huge fan of Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl and Judy Blume. I loved Stuart Little, The Little House books, The Dollhouse Murders, Harriet the Spy, The Secret Garden. Before all these, I loved picture books. I’ve recently been rebuilding my childhood picture book collection, which is full of titles that might not be considered classics like some of the above, but which forged my passion for reading. Books like Richard Hefter’s Stickybear series, Tiggy and the Giant Wave, Ivy Cottage, and so many others. When I got a bit older, I was heavily into The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins. (My mother wouldn’t let me read Sweet Valley High, which of course meant that I always desperately wanted to.)
SH: When did you know that you wanted to be a novelist? What do you love about the craft of writing? What’s hard about it?
CS: I was writing short stories for fun from the time I was in kindergarten. (My earliest knownn work is a blatant rip-off of the Petula Clark song Downtown.) When I was in fourth grade, a novelist came to speak to my class at school. It was a total turning point for me. Until then, I hadn’t quite realized that this thing I so loved to do could be a job. That night, I told my parents I wanted to write books when I grew up. (Of course, I was at the age where I wasn’t aware that most people can choose only one career, so I also wanted to be a hairstylist, an actress, a teacher, a fashion designer, and a lawyer.) The best part of writing is that rare moment when you’re totally immersed in the world of your characters. The worst part is trying to get there. One of the main characters in Saints For All Occasions is a cloistered Catholic nun. In the process of writing her story, I interviewed several nuns. It struck me that many of them come from artistic backgrounds. As members of the clergy, they are always wrestling with the idea of faith and having to confront their doubts in order to accomplish what they need to. That feels so similar to the writer’s life to me.
SH: We’re excited for your new book. Tell us a bit about it.
CS: Saints For All Occasions is the story of two sisters who immigrate from Ireland to Boston in the late 1950s, and a decision they are forced to make as young women that changes the course of both their lives. One, Nora, becomes a mother of four. The other, Theresa, a cloistered nun. In the present day, they haven’t spoken in decades. But when Nora’s son dies suddenly, Theresa comes home for his wake and funeral. Nora hasn’t told her adult children that she even has a sister. The book goes back and forth between past and present, incorporating the viewpoints of Theresa, Nora, and Nora’s three remaining children. It’s a story about openness vs. closedness, the corrosive effects of secrets, sisterhood, motherhood, siblinghood. Faith and doubt and forgiveness.
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