Smith Alum, J. Courtney Sullivan, Holds Book Reading

Anya Gruber ’16
Contributing Writer

Last Thursday, September 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Neilson Browsing Room, fiction writer and Smith graduate J. Courtney Sullivan ’03 read excerpts from her newest book, The Engagements.

Smith English professor Michael Gorra opened the event with a short introduction of Sullivan, a former student in his course on the Victorian Novel. Gorra recalled a paper which Sullivan wrote for his class relating Charles Dickens to the then-new television program Sex and the City, remarking, “The biggest compliment I can pay is that I wish it [had been] longer!”

Sullivan, a Massachusetts native who now resides in New York City, said that she has been writing stories for as long as she can remember. “I’ve always wanted to be [a writer] … I always wrote fiction for myself.” Reflecting on some of her early middle- and high-school writing, she said, “I switched mediums [briefly] to really long plays that I’d have the entire neighborhood perform.”

Looking around Neilson Browsing Room, Sullivan quipped, “I’ve been in this room many, many time, but this is my first time on this side of the podium. Smith is, of course, a place I know very well.”

Sullivan’s first novel, Commencement, traces the experience of a group of women who attend Smith College. Sullivan remarked that her own experiences and friendships at Smith inspired the novel, as well as the desire to recognize Smith’s commencement traditions as not simply a graduation, but an occasion to “mark beginnings and endings.”

According to Sullivan, writing is a way “of asking questions and trying to get at them from different viewpoints.” This philosophy is exemplified by The Engagements.

“[The Engagements] is an investigation of the nature of marriage itself,” said the newlywed author. The novel follows four couples in various stages of married life. Sullivan relayed an anecdote about her old Smith friend who swore she’d never get married, but eventually got engaged after all. Sullivan went with her to look at rings, an episode which appears in her novel. In addition, Sullivan was inspired by the recent developments in legalizing same-sex marriage.

As for her reading habits, Sullivan says she enjoys contemporary fiction but often revisits the Victorian novels she studied in-depth at Smith. She added that poetry is another interest of hers, and helps her improve her own writing. “Poetry reminds you to pay attention to language and the level of the sentence, and to not get too caught up in plot.”

“For my first two novels, I just started writing, and found out my characters that way,” answered Sullivan when asked about how she creates characters. She added, “[Writing] is a weird process, because I love writing, but it’s agonizing … I really just write when I’m in the zone, and when I’m in that zone, I’m there for a really long time.” The self-proclaimed “well-trained eavesdropper” continued, “The thing about writing fiction is that is you’re always collecting moments [to put in your stories].”

J. Courtney Sullivan will be returning to Smith campus to speak at a panel discussion entitled “Education as Inspiration: How Smith Informs Four Writers’ Lives,” which will take place on Friday, October 18, as part of President McCartney’s inauguration celebrations.

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