J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine, will be here at Waucoma Bookstore on Friday, July 1st. Come join us for an author reception with her from 5:00-8:00pm.
Maine was recently reviewed in The New York Times & USA Today. Jenny recommends this book!
You can pre-order a signed copy of Maine or Commencement (Sullivan's previous book) on our website. (Please note "signed copy" in the "Comment" section when you check out)
Ebook editions of J. Courtney Sullivan's books: Commencement , Dating Up , Click
A Conversation with J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine.
Why Maine (as in, the
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
the Kellehers are a family in which everyone talks about everyone
else behind their backs; each has an opinion on the shortcomings of
the others. The funny thing is, they’re all right. I like the idea
of family bonds having elasticity to them, so that even when they’re
stretched to the breaking point, they rarely just go ahead and break.
A secluded family beach house seemed like the perfect setting for all
of this to percolate.
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. With Kathleen and Alice, we have
a mother-daughter pair who can never seem to see eye-to-eye. Kathleen
tries to cultivate a much more casual relationship with her own
daughter, more of a friendship. In turn, her daughter Maggie longs
early drafts, there were more voices: Ann Marie’s daughter,
Kathleen’s sister Clare. But these four women rose to the top.
Alice and Maggie are the generational bookends. Kathleen represents
the one who went away—the complex blend of guilt and freedom that
comes from throwing off one’s familial responsibilities. Ann Marie
is essential because, as an in-law, she represents a sort of
outsider, even though she is Alice’s main caretaker.
we’re not inside the heads of the other characters, I tried to make
every member of the family three-dimensional. Many early readers have
said that Daniel, the grandfather, is their favorite character, and
he died ten years before the present day action of the book. There’s
something about that that seems right to me. Often, the people whose
presence looms largest are the ones who are no longer here.
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?
The time in which we are
born shapes so much of who we become, and writing women from
different generations allowed me to show this fact in action. Alice
wanted to be an artist, but as the daughter of working class Irish
parents in 1942, she got pushed into a more traditional life. She
couldn’t use birth control, because a priest forbade it. Her
granddaughter Maggie is born more than fifty years later, and the
landscape for women is entirely different. At the age of thirty-two,
she lives alone in New York City, works as a writer, and makes a
(possibly foolish) decision to stop taking the Pill.
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?
The Catholic Church in
America has changed so much over the last century. You can have
members of a single Catholic family who experience their faith in
entirely different ways. Vatican II was a major turning point, and
more recently, the sexual abuse scandal. 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.
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. 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.
Your debut novel Commencement
was a breakout bestseller in hardcover and paperback. What did
it feel like to achieve success so early in your career?
There is something magical,
and slightly terrifying, about the process of creating characters in
the safety and privacy of your own head, and then suddenly seeing
them go off into a world full of strangers. I’ve written short
stories and novels since I was about six, but the publication of
marked the first time that anyone other than my mom and dad had read
was deeply gratifying to hear readers all over the country recount
their own tales of post-college friendship, and the process of
navigating a world full of confusing and sometimes contradictory
choices. The thing that probably surprised me the most was the
reaction to a scene in the book that deals with date rape. So many
young women wrote me and said that they had lived through similar
events, and that reading Commencement
helped them process what happened. That was incredible and
set my first novel at my alma mater, Smith College, and some alums
were angry about what I wrote. On the other hand, in what was perhaps
the single most memorable experience of this entire journey, I was
walking through Northampton (the town where Smith is located) after a
reading one afternoon, and a student passing by just looked at me and
said, “Thanks for writing it.”
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? A little
birdie told us you took Irish step dancing lessons as a kid, just
like Ann Marie’s daughters…
was first published and I
gave a reading in Boston, my extended family went out afterward for a
celebratory dinner. By then, word had spread that I was working on a
second novel about a big Irish Catholic clan. One of my uncles gave a
moving toast, and he finished it off by saying, “We just want you
to know how proud we are and how much we love you, since a year from
now none of us will be speaking to you anymore.”
was only kidding (I hope), but I got the point. 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
Daniel’s 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. As for the
step dancing, guilty as charged. Like Celia, one of the characters in
I credit those Irish Step days with my excellent posture and complete
inability to dance like a normal person.
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
I was a kid, we’d often spend a week or two on some beautiful New
England beach—Cape Cod, Nantucket, New Hampshire, and of course,
Maine, were the places we frequented, often with ten or twelve
relatives in tow. These days, I mostly summer in my sweltering
Brooklyn apartment, where I alternate between sitting at my desk and
sticking my head in the freezer.
August, as I was completing Maine,
my boyfriend and I rented a lovely house in Cape Neddick, not far
from where the Kellehers’ property would be. He had never been
there, and it was fun to share things with him that I’d done a
million times before with family and friends. There was something a
little bittersweet about it, too. I felt nostalgic, even as I was in
the process of making new memories. It made me aware of the way time
seems to unfold upon itself when you revisit familiar places from
your childhood. A lot of that made its way into Maine.
goes on-sale in June, just as people are hitting the beach. In your
opinion, what makes ‘the perfect summer read’?
Something so absorbing that
it transports and consumes you. Last summer, while I read Heartburn
by Nora Ephron on Ogunquit Beach, a seagull came along and ate half
the contents of my tote bag, including my wallet. I didn’t even
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.
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.