One of the things I love(d) most about being a journalist is meeting interesting people and asking them questions. Every Monday, I hope to bring that here, interviewing writers, lawyers, creators, and all-around cool people. Today’s edition is a day late, as I am in New York for work, but hopefully worth the wait as it features New York Times best-selling author, J. Courtney Sullivan. Her most recent novel, The Engagements, was published in June by Knopf.
How did you meet me? I met [you] through our mutual Kneerim, Williams & Bloom family. My wonderful agent, Brettne Bloom, introduced us. [We] bonded immediately over Red Sox baseball and good Milton restaurants. (Yes, they exist.) Later on, [you helped] me navigate the legal ins and outs of my most recent novel, The Engagements, which deals in part with the behind-the-scenes workings of the diamond industry.
What was your major in college? Did you take any creative writing classes? I was an English major at Smith. At least back then, the department skewed heavily toward literature. There was only one fiction writing workshop. You were allowed to take it twice, which I did. The second time, my professor was a brilliant author named Doug Bauer. The next semester, I created a one-on-one tutorial, wherein Doug and I met twice a week, and I wrote a novel. (Smith is great about letting you choose your own adventure in this way.) That novel now lives in a drawer and will hopefully never see the light of day. But it was a terrific, educational experience for a young writer. Kurt Vonnegut also came to campus one year and taught a master class that I was lucky enough to get into. I remember his main rule was that every character you write should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. He also encouraged us to create a piece of writing—a poem, an essay, a short story—and make it as perfect as possible, then throw it away and never share it with anyone. Creating just for the sake of creating. This was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter. In our current culture of over-sharing, I like this idea a lot. (Though I’ve never been brave enough to actually do it.)
Do people think they see themselves in your characters? Has that created problems or are the generally flattered? On a couple of occasions, I’ve worried that someone might see herself in a character, and it’s never come to pass. Other times, I wasn’t even thinking of a person and he became convinced I was writing about him. You would think people would clam up around a writer and become very protective of their stories. But on the contrary, people are constantly telling me their secrets and encouraging me to write about them. (I usually don’t.) Back when I was working as a researcher for an op-ed columnist at the New York Times, I learned a valuable lesson: Most everyone wants to tell their stories. I believe it’s just a human instinct. For The Engagements, because I was writing about worlds unknown to me, I interviewed people who had certain things in common with my characters—several paramedics in Cambridge, a classical violinist, French women who moved to New York for love, and so on. The real-life inspirations for these characters were generous and happy to share what they knew.
Where do you write? I mostly write in a corner of my bedroom. I have a lovely antique desk set up by the window. My husband and I both work from home in our one bedroom apartment (and we have a large hound dog who may as well be named Procrastination—he loves attention and is far too cute to be ignored.) I dream of one day having a gorgeous beach house with a writer’s cottage in back. Basically, I want to be a novelist in a Nancy Meyers’ movie.
What is your fantasy day in Boston? I grew up in nearby Milton and though I’ve now lived in New York for ten years, Boston still has my heart. For me, the city is full of memories. It’s where I attended preschool in the North End, where my mom used to take us to see the Nutcracker each Christmas, where I rode the T into high school at BU Academy, where my friends and I spent hours strolling around Newbury Street. And every time I return home, there’s something new to try. Most recently, my husband and I checked out the food trucks in the South End. Loved that. My fantasy day involves a morning walk around Castle Island. A visit to the Gardner Museum. An afternoon Sox game, with seats in the Green Monster. Dinner at Sam’s and drinks at the Boston Harbor Hotel.