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Q&A with J. Courtney Sullivan, Author of THE ENGAGEMENTS

J. Courtney Sullivan came to Politics & Prose in DC this summer to read from her book The Engagements, which I reviewed yesterday on EDIWTB. It was a really fun discussion – she’s funny and sweet and shared a lot about the process of writing The Engagements. Here is a summary of the reading.

Opening by J. Courtney Sullivan:

This is my third novel, and it’s about marriage. I’ve been married for four weeks, but I started this book two years ago. I was interested in how the institution of marriage has changed over 100 years, and how it has stayed the same. Same sex marriage is so recent, and as recently as 40 years ago interracial marriage wasn’t allowed in every state. It wasn’t that long ago that wives weren’t allowed to have a credit card.

I’ve had these characters in mind for a long time. I always wanted to write about a paramedic, so I created James, a paramedic in Boston in the 80s who is just getting by . Evelyn and Gerald are in their 70s and have been married for several decades. They’re affluent but not happy about their son, who is getting divorced. Delphine is a French woman who is married to her business partner. They started as friends and the passion has gone away as the marriage has gone on, and there is a new handsome man in her life.

I wrote about these three marriages, and decided that if I am going to write about marriage, I needed a couple who wasn’t interested in getting married. I created Kate and Dan, who don’t want to get married. Their best friends are getting married and one of the grooms has turned into a bridezilla, so Kate is dealing with that.

There was someone missing. I added many 5th characters but no one worked. I was writing about diamonds a lot, and read about the DeBeers advertising. Frances Gerety wrote the line, “A Diamond is Forever” – and she turned out to be the missing piece. She’s the connection between all the characters. She’s the first real person I’ve ever put into fiction.

I ended up interviewing 12 of Gerety’s former co-workers from the Ayer agency, where she worked. The agency became a character too. I interviewed 10 men and asked them, “Why didn’t Frances ever become more than a copywriter?” She was the only one who worked on the copy for DeBeers from the 40s to the 70s. She transformed the industry – before the campaign, people didn’t wear diamond engagement rings, and after the campaign, 8 out of 10 women do. That number has never dropped.

I spent two years looking for the memos that the Ayer agency prepared about the campaign. On the day the book was due, I found a box with the memos in the attic of Gerety’s house. They really infused the story. (The deadline for the book was extended.)

And here is the Q&A.

Q: The characters were so different, so fully drawn. Who was the inspiration for the characters?

A: The biggest challenge and most fun of writing fiction is getting into the heads of people who aren’t yourself. Commencement and Maine were set in worlds I know well. For The Engagements, I had to get out of my comfort zone. Each of these characters lives in a world uncommon to me. I used to be a researcher at the NYT and I know all about researching and figuring out who characters will be. I went to Cambridge and met with paramedics, went to trainings, and did ambulance ridealaongs. 1987 was different from now, so I interviewed medics from then and pulled from their experiences. For Delphine, I didn’t know Paris that well. It was unusual for me. I had to go to Paris, where I hired a guidee and walked and walked until I found Delphine’s house and her store. I interviewed a violin prodigy. I did a lot of research.

Q. Your writing and development of characters – and women in particular – is masterful. I am particularly impressed with how you write women of age and experience. How are you mature enough to identify with them?

A: I’m really 62 with an amazing plastic surgeon… My first book was about a group of friends, the second about women in a family. The next one was obviously going to be about marriage. I’ve seen my friends getting married and how it played out. What makes a good marriage? Luck? Is the success predestined based on who you are? What if one person changes? I like to peer into parts of life that I am not invited into.

Q: From a writing perspective, do you know your characters’ whole lives before you write? The Engagements unwrapped slowly – did you write a biography for each character first or write as you go?

A: With Commencement and Maine, I just started writing. I made some changes to the main character in Maine – Alice – halfway through and changed her from a sweet grandma to a someone who was bitter and scary. With this book, I really needed to know the characters first. But an outline was too rigid. I did a lot of theater in high school, and we had to answer 50 questions about our character – what is his/her favorite color, most painful childhood experience, nickname, etc. For The Engagements, I answered these questions for all four main characters. I had a sense of who they were before I started writing.

Q: Talk about the challenges of writing James, a male character.

A: I had as much in common with James as I did with Alice from Maine. I thought I’d try to write a man. Over time, I realized that it’s not so black and white – we aren’t a different species. James is just a man; I thought – “I can do this”.

Q: What do you read?

A: I read non-fiction to inform my books. As for fiction, recent favorites are Jennifer Close, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave.  A teaser: Love, Nina, by Nina Stibbe, which is a collection of letters written by a nanny for a family in London to her sister.

Q: Did your parents’ marriage inform your characters here?

A: You can’t mother children without thinking of your own mother. Either you want to be like her or you don’t. It’s similar here – the marriage you observed growing up will inform how you think about marriage. Kate grew up in the 80s with divorced parents, so she’s cautious. I identified with Kate – her opinions were mine. I wasn’t engaged when I started the book and was a curmudgeon about weddings (though I did think I’d get married). Then I got engaged and turned into a bride.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I am in the early stages of something new, but I am not getting into that yet.

THE ENGAGEMENTS by J. Courtney Sullivan


Vacation read #2 was a book that I’ve been trying to get to all summer: The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan. I’ve been a fan of Sullivan’s since reading Maine two summers ago and was excited to give her latest a try.

Like Maine, The Engagements has more character development than plot, which was fine with me. It contains four stories about love and marriage, spanning thirty years between 1972 and 2012. Evelyn and Gerald have been happily married for 40 years, but are now facing the demise of their son’s marriage, which brings up some tough memories about how they met. Present-day Kate and Dan don’t believe in the need for marriage to establish their commitment to each other and their young daughter. James and Sheila, struggling financially in the mid-1980s, nonetheless stay true to each other. Finally, Delphine, a French woman who left her husband in 2002 to follow a young American musician to New York, wonders if she made the right choice. The stories are all underpinned by the true story of Frances Gerety, a young copywriter who wrote the famous DeBeers’ tagline, “A Diamond is Forever” in the 1940s, thus cementing the diamond ring as the symbol of love and marriage for decades to come.

I enjoyed The Engagements quite a bit. Each of the storylines was compelling, with twists and surprises that kept me guessing how they would play out. (The individual strands do connect, eventually, at the end of the novel.) I liked these flawed characters, with the exception of Kate, who is possibly the most self-righteous character I’ve come across in a book recent memory. She was so heavy-handed in her organic food-eating, anti-materialistic, ultra-socially conscious way that I found myself rolling my eyes at her throughout the whole book.

I like Sullivan’s writing – detailed and rich, but also smooth and easy. This was a fun and satisfying book to read. Lots of detail, lots of historical touches thrown in. (You can tell that Sullivan does exhaustive research for her books.) Again, there are many flashbacks and not a lot of plot. But that didn’t bother me – I enjoyed getting to know these characters and their lives.

Sullivan did a reading from The Engagements at Politics and Prose earlier this summer, which I will write about in my next post.