J. Courtney Sullivan is, just like each of her engaging and multifaceted characters in Commencement, far from two-dimensional. In our conversation, she tells me stories about sending copies of works by feminist activist and scholar Catharine MacKinnon anonymously to boys after a terrible first date, and refers to her expression of newfound political views in her younger years as “really intense.” She also speaks candidly about publishing Dating Up: Dump the Schlump and Find a Quality Man, a self-help book which she says “I don’t know that I can make a feminist argument for,” in 2007, in order to “get my name out there.” Sullivan is the kind of multiple-selves, self-contradicting yet genuine feminist that the 21st century has borne. So too are Sullivan’s heroines in Commencement, Celia, Sally, and Bree, who range from ambivalence about how to apply the lessons of feminist writers they’ve studied at Smith to their own lives, to a simple inability or refusal to relate to issues of women’s inequality. The fourth heroine, April, stands alone as the self-identified radical in the group and the only woman willing to put her own body and life on the line for her values. I was reassured by April’s ability to articulate her convictions, but concerned about how their consequences would be realized in the unfolding plot of this suspenseful novel.
I don’t want to seem as though I’m being hard on Sullivan or her characters: Commencement’s politics focus intently on the importance of recognizing women’s inequality locally and throughout the world, and much of April’s activism against underage prostitution and other pressing women’s rights issues in the novel stems from Sullivan’s own work with columnist Bob Herbert at The New York Times. “I’ve been really blessed that I work for a columnist who’s really interested in women’s issues, and so I’ve been able to really sort of dig in to these issues that I’ve always been passionate about,” she says.
If a further stamp of credibility is required, Gloria Steinem called Sullivan personally to offer a blurb, including the consequential line, “Commencement makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning.” “I’ve always worshiped her from afar, of course; I saw her at many panels in my Smith days,” says Sullivan, who graduated in 2003. “But she just called and said, ‘Oh, hi, it’s Gloria Steinem, and I have this blurb for you but I can’t seem to figure out the e-mail so I’m just going to read it to you.’ I’m like, what? I mean, I couldn’t even process what was happening and I was just basically speaking in gibberish and she then just read out the blurb which is the most generous blurb of all time from my complete hero in life, so I was just falling all over myself. I had to write her a note later to say, ‘Sorry I couldn’t get three words out but I was just a little bit in shock!’ So that was pretty cool.”
While the tensions and multiple interpretations of 21st-century feminism feel on one level like the heart of Commencement, Sullivan sees her characters and their interwoven stories as the nucleus. “When you’re writing a novel, I feel like you can’t approach it and say, this is a novel about feminism, this is a novel about friendship, this is a novel about—I mean, I certainly had bigger ideas, a sort of sketched-out framework, but it was much more ‘What happens when four friends leave college and want to continue being friends, how does that look? How do they do that?’ And so all these other pieces—feminism or Catholicism or sex or whatever, they just enter in because that’s what there is, that’s what I have in my head.”
Sullivan’s skill as a storyteller is just one of many personal connections to her Irish heritage. She mentions that her parents will be “thrilled” about her appearance in Irish America, saying, “I’m from outside of Boston and in Boston people are so passionate about their Irishness … When I was growing up, for example, everybody on our street was Irish. And all the girls did Irish step dancing, it was pre-Lord of the Dance, it was before anybody knew what gillys were, but we did, and there was such pride among the members of my family and people I grew up with. Every St. Patrick’s Day in my hometown is such a huge thing. You know, it was like Christmas, but in green. So I went to Smith and I remember waking up on St. Patrick’s Day and going out into the hall, and there was like one person wearing green. Nobody was celebrating. I was like, ‘What is this? Aren’t we going to listen to the Clancy Brothers now? What’s happening?’” She enthuses, “My family comes from County Cork. A couple of years ago, my parents and my sister and I went and did the whole Ring of Kerry thing, which was fantastic, and I think we have family in other places scattered around there as well. I love Ireland.”
Celia, one of Commencement’s four heroines, also comes from an Irish Catholic background and has drawn comparisons to the author. While Sullivan insists, “There are parts of me and parts of all my friends in each character,” she agrees that Celia’s Irishness has plenty to do with her role as the glue that holds the girls together past college graduation and well into the beginnings of their adult lives. “My first week at Smith, I had made a plan to go to a movie with some girl on my hall, and I just felt like I didn’t want anyone else to be left out. I just dreaded the thought of being left out in this brand new group of women and so by the time this girl had gotten her coat on, I had invited twenty more people. And she was kind of like, why? But I just wanted everyone to feel included. I think you’re right, I think it probably does come partly from being Irish, and coming from, as Celia does, and as I do, a very traditional, big Irish Catholic family. I’ve been doing readings lately and reading from Celia’s first chapter, the first chapter of the book, and she says all these things about how she just wanted to have a weekend to herself, where she wasn’t obliged to do some family thing. But then when she gets to Smith she’s like, ‘So what do I do now?’ And I definitely had that as well when I grew up—and still, my family in Boston gets together every single weekend for some sort of communion or birthday party or whatever. They go to every BC baseball game. It’s a community unto itself. So I think when you come from a background like that you’re looking for community everywhere. Also, I’m the oldest in my family, nine years older than my sister but also older than all of our cousins, who are even younger than she is. So I definitely grew up with a bit of that nurturing mother hen sort of thing going on.”
The relationship between mothers and daughters is an element at the core of this novel, as each character struggles between adolescence and adulthood, reliance and independence. “That was something that was looming large in my thoughts when I was writing this book, and I just think that the role of mothers in their daughters’ lives is obviously so enormous for good and bad. I still talk to my mother every day. I have friends who think that is absolutely bonkers and talk to their mothers every other week for five minutes. I call my mother every day for things: ‘How long do you cook an egg for?’ Or, ‘Can you remind me of our dentist’s phone number at home?’ The most ridiculous stuff, you know. So I do think that that first sort of female-to-female relationship is very interesting. It does sort of shape in some ways how you will go on and interact with other females in your life… and the mother’s approval is so strong, the desire for it is so strong, even when you’re an adult, even when you’re completely out of the house and separate.” Sullivan says that she has been lucky in that her parents have entirely encouraged her writing, even when it hits close to home. “My parents are exceptionally amazing and supportive and generous and comfortable because I’ve been writing about them for so long in different ways.”
Sullivan’s mother also impacted her experience of Catholicism, which inspired some details in the relationship between Celia and her own mother in Commencement. “In the neighborhood I grew up in, everyone was Catholic. Certainly everyone in my family was Catholic. And it was sort of understood that you would of course want to marry an Irish Catholic man, and I always really struggled with Catholicism, for many different reasons. But it’s weird because, like Celia does, I have held on especially to the Virgin Mary; my mother has always completely worshiped the Virgin Mary, and Jesus was almost like second fiddle to her, and we had the Virgin Mary statue in our yard and all of that. And my mother is forever giving me rosaries and this and that, just sticking them in my pocket or whatever. …That has really sunk in with me, so in any time of danger or stress or peril I always revert to saying a Hail Mary. Anytime I see an ambulance go by with the siren on, I say a Hail Mary. So it is a bit like blending the actual religion, which I don’t believe in many of the tenets of, with a kind of superstitious, female-centric—I mean, this very masculine religion and I take away the only feminine component there is.”
Sullivan is hard at work on two upcoming projects: a feminist anthology co-edited with Courtney Martin as well as a second novel. The novel, “about an Irish Catholic family from outside of Boston, follows three generations. All the characters who tell the story are women, but the oldest is the grandmother who’s in her mid-eighties, and then her daughters and daughter-in-law speak, they’re all about in their fifties, sixties, and then the granddaughters, who are in their thirties. It follows them over the course of a summer at their family beach house in Maine. All variety of horrible secrets are festering in every different segment of the family, and they all come to a head once everyone comes together at the end of the summer. … It deals a lot with religion and how Catholicism is dealt with by different members of the same family in many different ways.”
The anthology, tentatively titled Click (“as in the ‘click moment,’ which is a second wave term”) is crafted of replies from self-identified feminists (“They’re all in their twenties, thirties, and a few are in their teens”) when asked about the event, person, book or movie that “flipped a switch” in their thinking. “The topics are so good. They range from one girl who learned from watching Saved by the Bell that she wanted to be a feminist, to one girl who learned by being in the marching band and always wanting to play tuba, and they wanted her to play something smaller and more elegant and ladylike.”
Aside from her own writing and her continued work at The New York Times, Sullivan finds time to be involved in non-profit work. She is on the advisory board of Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs up professional women writers from the New York area with girls to mentor from within the New York public school system. “It’s an amazing program,” says Sullivan. “It’s just incredible. They have such confidence and they’re so empowered by the stuff that they write, and they have fun.” She also backs GEMS, a group in Harlem that helps girls get out of underage sex work.
“It’s really difficult, I think,” says Sullivan honestly. “I just interviewed Gloria Steinem for the Smith alumni magazine, which was awesome, and I was asking her something that was obviously trying to work out my own issues, saying something about, you know, sometimes it just feels like too much. Like there are just too many things, it’s just insurmountable, there aren’t enough of us fighting this fight, what are you supposed to do about that? And she kind of said, ‘that’s not your concern. Just do the one thing you can do, and do it, you know? Don’t make any excuses about it. Just do that thing.’ When you think about what’s happening to women abroad and then you go up to Rachel Lloyd at GEMS, which is like three stops up on the A train, and you see what’s happening right here, it can be very overwhelming. But people like Rachel Lloyd are just doing their thing. And they’re making such a huge difference in the world. Even if no one’s ever heard of them, they’re making a huge difference, you know? And now I’m back on my soapbox.”
With a sparkling debut novel behind her and several projects in the works, Sullivan is nothing less than a fresh, credible and unafraid new voice in the literary world, and I think her soapbox is just where I like her best.
J. Courtney Sullivan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New York, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Allure, Men’s Vogue, the New York Observer, and in the essay anthology The Secret Currency of Love. She is a graduate of Smith College, lives in Brooklyn, and works in the editorial department of The New York Times.