The wOw Interview: Bestselling Author J. Courtney Sullivan

Bestselling author J. Courtney Sullivan

wOw editor Hilary Black chats with the rising young fiction star about her highly anticipated second novel, “Maine” — already hailed by critics as “one of the major beach reads of the summer.”

“Maine” is told from the point of view of four women in the Kelleher family: Alice, the matriarch; Maggie, Alice’s granddaughter; Kathleen, the prodigal daughter; and Ann Marie, Alice’s daughter-in-law. How and why did you choose to focus on these four women out of all the characters in the novel?

I wanted to explore how certain things—like alcoholism, religion, resentments, and secrets—move from one generation to the next. We hear women say all the time, “Please God, don’t let me turn into my mother.” In most cases, we either become a lot like our mothers or we work like hell to do the exact opposite of what they did, which creates all new problems. The mother-daughter dynamic is powerful and often fraught, so I wanted to really dig into that.

The Kellehers are an Irish Catholic family from Massachusetts. You’re an Irish Catholic gal from Massachusetts.  Are any of the characters modeled after you or your family?

None of the characters are based on any one member of my family. That said, all novels borrow a bit from real life. My great-grandmother used to take one look at a girl in a short dress and say, “Your knees should have a party and invite your skirt down.” This became one of the signature phrases in Maine. And then there’s the Kellehers’ fondness for Irish music, the hot toddies, the Hail Marys, and the cousins by the dozens. (As one of my cousins says.) A lot of that stuff came from my own life.

The Kelleher women of “Maine” range in age from 30 to 80. Was it difficult for you to write from such a wide range of perspectives?

Alice was probably the most challenging character to write. I wanted to get her childhood in the 1920s and her young adulthood in the forties just right. Luckily, I love doing research. I pored through old editions of the Boston Globe and talked to my grandmother and great aunt many times about their youth. I’d call my grandmother every so often to ask what exactly she would have worn out to a party in 1939, or how much she made babysitting as a kid. (About a quarter a day, as it turned out. She told me that she was indignant when her sister was once paid for an entire day’s work with a hardboiled egg. That anecdote, and others like it, just had to be included in the book.)

Catholicism is important to the characters of “Maine” to varying degrees. Why did you choose to include the women’s relationship with religion throughout the novel?

Catholicism is a culture as much as a religion. Many who have rejected the Church still feel that Catholicism is part of their identity. The Church has mandates on so many modern social issues: Divorce, infidelity, homosexuality, premarital sex, birth control, abortion, IVF, and so on. If you’re a practicing Catholic like Alice or Ann Marie, you have to negotiate this in your day-to-day life. For Catholics of my grandparents’ generation, there seems to be a much more literal reading of things. Alice experiences this in her fear of going to Hell for a sin she committed sixty years earlier. To her, Hell is a very real place, not just a theoretical concept. If you’re lapsed like Maggie or Kathleen, this probably really ticks you off (even as certain aspects of it might niggle away at your conscience.) Either way, a story emerges. In my experience, you rarely meet someone who was raised Catholic and has lukewarm feelings on the matter.

Why “Maine” (as in, the state)?

I grew up outside of Boston, about a ninety-minute drive from southern Maine. We went to the Ogunquit/Wells/York area all the time, whether it was to rent a little cottage on the beach for a week or just to have a lobster dinner at Barnacle Billy’s. I love that part of New England so much. It’s physically beautiful and has such a rich history. I’ve always been intrigued by the artists’ colony that popped up in Perkins Cove in the late 19th century. The juxtaposition of urban painters and Maine lobstermen living side by side seemed like it was just begging to be put in a novel.

Where do you ‘summer’?

The Kellehers’ beautiful house in Maine is, alas, not based on my own family’s home. It is, however, based on the family home of my best friend from high school—a gorgeous waterfront property in Kittery Point. It was there on the beach a few summers back that I first conceived of this novel. I borrowed the layout of Alice’s cottage from that house, as well as the story of the family building it themselves from the ground up.

What’s next for you?

I’m in the early stages of a new novel. It’s a portrait of four very different marriages that span the course of the twentieth century, and have something surprising in common. One of the characters is a paramedic. Yesterday I got to spend the entire day on an ambulance ride-along. It was truly great, a reminder of how much fun it is to be a writer. As a reporter and novelist, I get to be nosy and ask people about their own private worlds—and rather than telling me to buzz off, they actually share it all. People want to tell their stories; that’s something I’ve realized along the way. Of course, I’m referring to people other than my relatives.

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.

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