In 'Friends And Strangers,' J. Courtney Sullivan Examines Female Power and Privilege
Author J. Courtney Sullivan has a knack for probing the interior lives of women. Her four bestselling novels — “Commencement,” “Maine,” “The Engagements” and “Saints for All Occasions” — tackle many different ideas. The marketing of engagement rings. The gift of religious devotion. The difficulty of families.
But they have one thing in common: The women in them seem utterly real and completely sympathetic, even when readers might be horrified by their choices.
That is also true of the women in Courtney Sullivan’s new book, Friends and Strangers. The novel tells the story of Elisabeth, a Brooklyn journalist who finds herself living in a small college town just as she becomes a new mother. She’s lonely — and the college student she pays to watch her baby, Sam, becomes her main confidant.
Both Elisabeth and Sam are vivid, compelling characters. And through them, the author probes much bigger ideas — of class and privilege, of the hollowing out of America.
Sullivan discussed the book on St. Louis on the Air in advance of her virtual reading with the St. Louis County Library on July 2. As she explained, it’s the first book she wrote after becoming a mother, and that experience colored how she depicted Elisabeth’s journey — right down to the Facebook groups where so many mothers go to discuss their most intimate moments.
But in many ways, Sullivan explained, she drew on herself even more for the character of the babysitter, Sam. As an undergraduate at Smith College, Sullivan babysat for a woman who lived in town. A chance encounter with that woman when Sullivan returned to Smith for her 10-year reunion ended up inspiring the novel (and a pivotal scene within it).
“Pieces of my own life end up in all my own books, even if it’s through a character who’s a nun in 1950, even if it’s not someone who so clearly resembles me,” Sullivan explained, referencing “Saints for All Occasions.” “But certainly, I think because my children are 16 months apart, I had a baby and then another baby, so I was really in that world of taking care of them and tending to their needs.
"And when I went into the space of writing, and I had time to do that, it was exciting to travel back in time to a younger version of myself — a version of myself who lived in London and was dating an inappropriately aged DJ. A lot of it made its way into the book.”
Of her five novels, Sullivan noted, “This one is I think probably the most autobiographical.”
Even so, she had to do her research. After a draft was finished, Sullivan said she worked with her editor to update Sam’s character so she felt more like a college student today than one from 2003, when she graduated from Smith.
“I have a cousin who’s in her early twenties, and I kept texting her constantly. ‘Where would your friends go if they went out on a Friday night?’” she recalled. “And, ‘What do they wear? Do you guys talk over Skype or do you talk over some other things I haven’t even heard about yet?’ She was like, ‘Are you writing a book about me?’”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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