July 28, 2013

Author Q & A: VOW WOW

J. Courtney Sullivan follows the success of her novel 'Maine' with a much-anticipated look at marriage in 'The Engagements.'

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Courtney Sullivan is rightly associated with Maine. She not only set her second novel here, she titled it "Maine."

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MEET THE AUTHOR

J. COURTNEY SULLIVAN will read from and discuss “The Engagements” at 7 p.m. Wednesday as part of the “Writers in the Loft” series at The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth, N.H. This is a ticketed event that includes a reserved seat, book and bar beverage for $41. Call (603) 436-2400 or visit themusichall.org.

Sullivan also got married here. In June, she and her husband held a beautiful ceremony at The Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport.

But perhaps most telling, she boards her dog here. When she embarked on a book tour to promote her latest novel, "The Engagements," Sullivan drove from her home in New York to Scarborough to board mystery-mix Landon at the only kennel she and her husband love and trust.

And besides that, Sullivan just loves Maine. She grew up on the south shore of Massachusetts and spent summers in southern Maine.

Her career is very bright. "Maine" was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine, and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. Her writing has also 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."

We spoke with Sullivan last week during a brief lull in what has been a whirlwind summer since the June release of "The Engagements" (Knopf Doubleday, $26.95).

Q: I know you have a new book out, and we'll get to that. But I want to start by asking you about the novel "Maine," because many of our readers may be familiar with it. What is your history with the state of Maine?

A: I grew up in Massachusetts, just south of Boston. I grew up coming to Maine every summer. My mother always went to Hampton Beach (N.H.) as a kid, but discovered Ogunquit when she was in college. We would stay in Ogunquit, York or Wells.

And my best friend from high school has a house in Kittery Point. They have two houses side by side on the beach. One is very modern, and one is the original cabin built by her great-grandfather. I would stay there in high school.

I started writing "Maine" while we were visiting her. Her two great-aunts, who live in the modern house next door, would always tell these great stories about going to the house in Kittery Point years and years before. I thought it was an interesting place to set the story, with the stories of several generations of family and the things that linger and change. I started writing it while in that house. I wrote down everything that was in the house, and those two houses became the basis for "Maine."

Q: Where do you live now? 

A: I live in Brooklyn, N.Y. – Park Slope, to be precise. But we always dream of moving to Maine. We are here as much as we can be.

Q: How was the novel received?

A: It was an interesting experience. So many people could relate to this family drama in the book. Especially in New England, people have such close connections to the place where they live and where they go in the summer. And so many people have such connections to the state of Maine. For many people, Maine represents a state of mind.

Q: OK, on to your new novel, "The Engagements." What story are you telling here?

A: I was interested in writing about the institution of marriage, because same-sex marriage laws were changing so quickly when I started writing it two years ago. On one hand, marriage today is similar to what it was 75 years ago, and in other ways, it is a totally different relationship. I started thinking, 40 years ago, a black man could not marry a white woman. A woman could not have a credit card without her husband's signature.

There are four marriages in the book; each takes place in a different decade. Together, they tell the story about how marriage in America has changed over those decades.

Q: Which leads to my next question. You set this book in various times, spanning 60 years. Why?

A: I felt like I wanted to get at this idea of time and the passage of time and what it has done with marriage and how marriage has changed. Each marriage takes place in a moment where marriage is in flux at the moment.

Q: You just got married. Care to discuss that event in the context of this book?

A: In some ways, I start writing a novel to answer questions I have in my own mind in some way. When I started writing "The Engagements," I was not yet engaged. But most of my friends were getting married, and some had been married for 10 years. I started asking, "What makes a marriage last? What are ingredients for a good marriage?" I wanted to throw all of that into a story.

Q: Did you have a big wedding? 

A: We had 120 (guests). It was great. There were a lot of people at the hotel who had read "Maine." My husband and I did a first look, where we did the pictures before the ceremony. I was walking down the porch at The Colony, and he has his back turned to me. The photographer was snapping away, and a woman on the porch grabbed my arm and said, "I loved your book," which was very nice. And then she started asking a question about it. I said, "Umm, I'm kind of busy right now. Can I talk to you a little later?" It was very sweet.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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