STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Courtney Sullivan [Commencement]


Title: Commencement
Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
ISBN: 978-0307270740
Pages: 336
Release Date: June 16, 2009
Publisher: Knopf
Review source: self-purchase
Rating: 4.5/5






When her friends began to get engaged, instead of feeling jealous or antsy to do the same, Celia realized something: There was a very real possibility that no one was coming to save her. She would have to make her own plan. If she wanted to someday leave her job and write books, then she’d have to write books to do it, not wait around for some hedge fund guy to finance her fantasies.

During their first year at Smith College, Celia, Bree, Sally, and April are thrown together by proximity. These young women are assigned to the same dorm. They seem as disparate in personality, interests, and backgrounds as anyone can be. Celia is a lapsed Catholic who lives on the edge. Bree is a Southern Belle with a fiancé at home in Savannah. Wealthy and emotionally drained Sally’s mother recently died. April is the radical feminist who constantly feels like an outcast. The 18-year-olds who arrive at Smith are not the same 21-year-olds who graduate from Smith College four years later. After weathering many ups and downs at Smith, by the time the women graduate, they are the best of friends and closer than many family members. By creating smart, layered characters and writing thoughtful, entertaining and moving prose, debut novelist J. Courtney Sullivan gets it right. She has created memorable, vastly different women who are intelligent, independent and devoted to each other. Although they are now spread out throughout the country, Sally is getting married and the girls will reunite at Smith for the ceremony.  Commencement is not merely a story about the experience of four twenty-something women’s college graduates. Commencement is an unabashedly feminist novel about the importance of female friendship and personal choices.

I recently spoke by phone with Courtney Sullivan. I decided to leave it in its question and answer format as we talked about feminism, sex trafficking, writing and her novel Commencement—making it difficult for me to put it into a profile format.

If you live in the Boston area, Courtney will be at New Literary Voices as part of the Concord Festival of Authors in Concord, Mass on November 1.

Courtney Sullivan [CS]: When I started writing the book, I was at the age where I had enough distance from the place but was feeling nostalgic about it. I had been re-reading The Group [by Mary McCarthy], which is one of my favorite books, and I was thinking about my group of friends from Smith who’d gone in very different directions. Some were at home taking care of parents who were ill, some were getting married and moving out to suburbia and some were in the city working and dating dealing with all that. It sort of in some ways was a challenge to our friendships. I thought ‘how do you stay close to someone when you may have a lot less in common with them then you did when you were in school.’ I thought we had formed these really close friendships at Smith in part because it was a women’s college and there’s a pretty unique bond that develops there. But we were still feeling like we could openly judge and critique each other’s life choices even though we were very far flung at this point. So I wanted to explore that and explore this generation of women who have so many choices– benefitting from the legacy of feminism that came before them in our mother’s generation– but sometimes feeling very overwhelmed by all the possibilities and not quite knowing where to start.
photo by Jerry Bauer

photo by Jerry Bauer

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write a novel about Smith and female friendships?

AS: Why do you think a women’s college education is important for women? I think it is. I went to Simmons, which isn’t Seven Sisters…

CS: Oh my sister and my grandmother went there. For me, it was more about what happened outside the classroom. In the dining hall, we’d have these big debates about politics or literature. The nature of the friendships that developed in the absence of men was pretty interesting too. I think these things are pretty unique and I think that in a culture where sexism is alive and well, there’s something really special and necessary about having this place carved out for just women.

AS: I read an interview you did a while back with the Boston Globe and you were asked about feminism. For me, I was involved in the Feminist Union and an internship at the State House and other activism and never shied away from calling myself a feminist. But there were a lot of students who wouldn’t associate themselves with the term—“No, if I’m a feminist it means I hate men.” I just still cannot believe that’s there is a negative connotation with feminism. Why do you think there’s such a negative connotation? [author’s note: I’m ten years older than Courtney]

CS: We live in a culture that has historically been, if I may drop the P word, patriarchal. There’s this sense that change for women is a scary thing. Maybe women can go into the work force. We’ll allow that but they need to do every thing they used to do on the home front still. We live in a culture that it’s to the benefit of this patriarchal thing to make feminism seem like a bad thing or unnecessary or trivial. On the one hand, it may seem outdated and unnecessary. On the other hand, they make it seem really scary and ugly. So really it’s a fear of what the power of that movement can do and has done. And a lot of women have internalized it. Many young women live their lives as feminists but don’t want to take on the word and it’s pretty disheartening. It’s pretty strange. At the same time, there are a lot of women who do use the word. It’s really alive and well in a lot of places too.

I’m working on this anthology [as co-editor] about the “click” moment, the moments when young women decided that they were feminists. So the essays in the book are by women in their teens, twenties, and thirties writing about what was the moment or person or place or thing that opened their eyes and made them think “this is something I want to take on” or “this is the name I want to use.” They run the gamut from a girl who had ADHD but it was never properly diagnosed until much later in life because it was really a diagnosis mostly given to boys. And we have someone who always wanted to play the tuba in the marching band but had been forced to play the piccolo. It’s quite a range. It’s not just Women’s Studies 101. A lot of it is real life happenings.

AS: When you define feminism how do you define it as everyone seems to have a different definition?

CS: I think what is comes down to is equal rights for men and for women.

AS: That’s what I think too.

CS: I think men benefit from feminism too. I think we live in this culture where men are expected to provide a certain way so that most men [or a lot of men] can’t take off as much time to be at home with their children or if their wife has a baby they are expected to be back to work on Monday. I think to break down this idea that we’re in this very binary sort of structure– men do these things, women do these things– and make it more people do these things will benefit everyone.

That’s what I wanted to get at with Commencement. Obviously these bigger issues like sex trafficking, but how does feminism play out in our day to day lives? I think it comes down to these things like: do you change your name after you get married, do you pay on a date or let the man pay, all these things that may be trivial but that make up what it is to place yourself in this world and say ‘how can I be a feminist and stand up for these beliefs and also just live a normal life?’ What does that look like?

AS: It was great to bring sex trafficking into a novel because people think of it as a thing that’s going on everywhere but in U.S. cities. It seems to people that it only goes on in these remote, foreign places like Ukraine. Unless you’ve seen Very Young Girls, the documentary with GEMS. 

CS: I think that documentary is amazing and I’ve been involved with [GEMS]  a little bit in New York. That documentary is really telling it like it is. But so much of the time when someone writes about domestic trafficking it really never gets any attention. And if it does it’s in this sort of creepy hyper-sexualized way. I always get enraged when I see on Law & Order or a show like that where they’re talking about trafficking but they’re really trying to make it almost seem sexy when it’s actually, in fact, the exact opposite.

AS: What is your writing process?

CS: Well, I have a day job in the editorial department of the New York Times. I can’t get up in the morning to write. The hardest part for me is getting my butt in the chair. I usually write for several hours on a stretch on a weekend day. It always ends up taking a lot of time depending on what I’ve written. Before I work on the chapter I’ll read what I’ve written from beginning to end and ideally read the whole book from beginning to end for what I have so far before adding on to it because I feel like when you’re writing something at that length if you said that character is really shy in Chapter 2 but in Chapter 4 she’s dancing on a table, then you really need to remedy that. The characters take on their own behaviors and then you have to go back and tweak as you are creating. I always start there and write through for as long as I can.

AS: Why do you like to write?

CS: I’ve always written fiction from the time I was maybe five or six. I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction and writing it. I think writing it is even more of an escape factor. You’re in the head of these characters. It’s kind of funny to come out of it for me sometimes. I’ll be writing all day Sunday and then I’ll go to work on Monday and the characters I’ve been trying to work on will still be in my head. So I’ll be scribbling frantic notes to myself. I just think it’s very enjoyable. I’ve always loved theatre. When I was in high school I used to do a lot of theatre as well. I think there are similarities between the two. Except with writing you get to sit in your pajamas and drink tea and with acting you have to stand up in front of a bunch of people. So I’ll choose writing.   

AS: What is your favorite aspect of Commencement?

CS: I find that going around and doing readings most of the people that the book resonates with or who read the book tend to be women. So my readings tend to be chock full of women. Women who went to Smith or who didn’t, women in my age group or much older or younger, they can all relate even if their personal story was different. They can all relate to the friendships in the book and the idea of these friends that you keep around forever- who know you in this way that no one else can. I certainly have those friends in my own life so I’m happy when it resonates with readers.

**note to FCC or anyone who cares: I bought my own copy of Commencement**





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