Best Friends Forever
- September 28, 2020
- By Cheryl Dellecese
In the summer of 2013, bestselling author J. Courtney Sullivan ’03 returned to Smith to speak to high school students participating in a precollege creative writing workshop. Her third novel, The Engagements, was set to come out soon, the same week she was getting married. While walking through Northampton (specifically, to Herrell’s Ice Cream), she stopped at a crosswalk where an SUV pulled up alongside her. She immediately recognized the driver as a Smith professor’s wife who, when Sullivan was a senior, had just arrived from New York with her husband and new baby. Sullivan babysat the infant three days a week and grew close to the mom. “I was fresh off a year spent working abroad as a nanny in London and had returned to college feeling like I’d outgrown the place,” Sullivan recalls. “The woman I worked for was adjusting to motherhood and a life far from her friends.”
They eventually lost contact, and by 2013 Sullivan hadn’t corresponded with the woman in years. “I waved, but she didn’t seem to recognize me,” Sullivan says. “She drove on.”
That night, back home in New York, she related the story to a Smith friend (another writer), who immediately declared, “That should be your next novel.”
Sullivan’s next novel would instead be the bestseller Saints for All Occasions (the story of two sisters who immigrate to America from Ireland), but the brief experience of seeing her former employer again stayed with her and ultimately became the basis for her newly published book, Friends and Strangers. “At the heart of the story is a friendship between two women a generation apart,” Sullivan says. “A friendship so intense and specific to a moment that it can’t possibly last, but it shapes the course of both their lives.” Sullivan took her real relationship with the woman she babysat for and made it, as she says, “deeper, weirder, thornier.”
Friends and Strangers tells the story of Elisabeth, a successful writer who struggles to find her footing as she, her husband and new baby move from Brooklyn, New York, to a small college town in the Northeast. She meets Sam, a senior at the local women’s college, when Sam answers Elisabeth’s ad for a babysitter. They immediately connect, but tensions soon surface, brought on by generational differences and a perceived betrayal.
Female friendship is a central theme, but the story also provides a critique of American life in the pre-Trump years and how we got to where we are today. “The gig economy, the shrinking safety net and the notion that privilege takes many forms,” Sullivan says.
The book also provides a fascinating peek at the ways women—especially new mothers—connect online. “When my first child was born, my friends and women in Facebook groups I’d never even met just lifted me up and showed me the way,” Sullivan says. “I wanted to explore the tendency women have now to congregate in online spaces and share the details of their lives with one another—sometimes in ways they wouldn’t with the people they see every day.”
Sullivan’s penchant for delving into the lives of women and laying bare their strengths, vulnerabilities, foibles and friendships has earned her a loyal following that has helped propel almost all of her books to the New York Times bestseller list. Critics have been equally kind. Time magazine named her one of the 21 women writers everyone should be reading, a list that also includes Elizabeth Gilbert, A.M. Holmes and Alice Munro. Entertainment Weekly called Sullivan a “natural storyteller,” and The Washington Post named Saints for All Occasions one of the best books of 2017, calling it a “quiet masterpiece.”
Since its June publication, Friends and Strangers has received the same critical and commercial success. Not only did it appear on the New York Times bestseller list, but it has received rave reviews and been chosen as a must-read book by publications like The Washington Post, Vogue and People.
What makes Sullivan’s writing particularly powerful is that it unapologetically draws from where she is in her own life. Commencement is about a group of friends from Smith, navigating life several years after graduation; Maine relates the saga of a large Irish Catholic family from New England, much like her own.
Sullivan acknowledges that it’s only natural for readers to speculate on what is real and what is fiction. For her, though, writing is not really about exploring specific moments of her own life; it’s a way of making sense of what’s to come. “I’m not writing because I have the answer,” she says. “I’m writing because I need an answer.”
‘A sense of my own story’
When the pandemic hit in March, Sullivan temporarily relocated to her hometown of Milton, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. Before that time, she and her husband and two children were living in Carroll Gardens, a quintessentially hip yet homey Brooklyn neighborhood, complete with stately brownstones on tree-lined streets, where everybody knows their neighbors. Her best friends from both high school and Smith live nearby.
By her own account, the last two years have been “great but crazy.” Having two children 16 months apart, she says, is a little like living with “an octopus in the house.” She is quick to point out that she has been able to devote herself to writing because she has had a full-time weekday nanny. “I wouldn’t be able to have a job or be a writer without that,” she admits. “I feel like that’s often a big piece of the conversation with women who want to write and also have children, and they feel this huge frustration level. It has nothing to do with being a mother; it has to do with affording childcare while you write.”
After Sullivan had her first child, ideas for Friends and Strangers started to pop into her head. She would email the ideas to herself with the subject line “babysitter.” She wrote the book from those notes at her kitchen table after the kids were in bed. Without the luxury of overworking every little detail, she says she wrote the book in a very “unfiltered way.” She also felt more confident in what she wanted to say. “I think the older you get, the less that you really care about what people think,” she says. “I have a sense of my own story.”
‘I was always paying attention’
Sullivan, the eldest child of an attorney father and a mother who worked in public relations, grew up surrounded by her large Irish Catholic extended family. Every weekend there was some sort of family gathering, with aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins. “I was always trying to make sense of my family through writing,” Sullivan recalls. “I was the oldest child of my generation. For the first decade of life, I was the only kid in this big sea of adults. At a certain point, they start telling stories. And I was always just paying attention. That’s always been my way.”
She also had a large group of neighborhood friends—all girls. “I think that prepared me to go to Smith,” says Sullivan, who describes herself as a feminist. “That was the first chapter of an all-women environment for me, and we are all still really close friends.”
As a child, Sullivan was a voracious reader. Early favorites included Anne of Green Gables and Little Women (Sullivan had the honor of writing the forewords to recently rereleased editions of these classics), along with anything by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin ’77 and Harriet the Spy (which Sullivan says speaks to her innate nosiness). She was also a prolific writer, routinely keeping journals and creating plays and poems.
When she was in fourth grade, a writer came to speak to her class. Listening to someone who actually made a living telling stories was life-changing. “Even though I loved books, it hadn’t occurred to me that it could be your job,” Sullivan says. “That was the moment I decided I wanted to be a writer. I went home and told my parents that night.”
Sullivan was similarly determined when she made up her mind to attend Smith. Although her first visit to campus on a rainy day didn’t leave much of an impression, she changed her mind after she was accepted and spent a night in Wilder House. “I thought, These women are so cool and the things they talked about were so interesting,” she remembers.
Adjusting to college life wasn’t easy. “I missed home and cried myself to sleep at night those first couple of weeks,” she says. What made things better were the friendships she formed and the activities that kept her busy. She served on the student senate, and during her sophomore year, she was head of students at Franklin King House.
An English major, she took advantage of the many opportunities Smith afforded her to listen to and study with professional writers. She studied fiction writing with Sigrid Nunez, Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Bauer, and remembers being particularly inspired by a conversation between novelist Ruth Ozeki ’80 and editor and author Carole DeSanti ’81. (Both Ozeki and DeSanti teach in Smith’s English language and literature department.) “It meant so much to me to be in their presence,” she says, “and know that it was possible to make a life for oneself as a writer.” Sullivan landed a Praxis internship at The Atlantic magazine, where she met permissions manager Brettne Bloom, who would become her agent.
After Smith, Sullivan attended the Columbia Publishing Course. “I didn’t have connections in the New York media world,” she says, “and so much of that course was meeting people who are in the business.” Before the summer course was over, Sullivan had been hired by Condé Nast as a rover, an in-house temp who fills in at various magazines. She may have dreamed of a permanent position with The New Yorker, but she did get a staff job with beauty magazine Allure. “It was nice to have bylines right out of the gate,” she says.
After several years at Allure, Sullivan worked at The New York Times for columnists Bob Herbert and Gail Collins. She began doing freelance writing and, in the evenings and on weekends, worked on her first novel, Commencement. Published by Knopf in 2009, it was an instant bestseller. Sullivan’s longtime idol Gloria Steinem ’56 called it a “generous-hearted, brave first novel.”
‘Women are keeping the world going’
Sullivan’s time is a precious commodity, but she has made time to volunteer for the past two years with Immigrant Families Together, a nationwide nonprofit founded in response to President Trump’s policy of separating families at the U.S. border. Immigrant Families Together reunites children and parents, posts bond money for detained parents, and provides resources and financial support for families seeking to stay in the United States. In 2018, when Sullivan’s son turned 1, she felt an overwhelming empathy with the mothers whose children were being taken. “Everyone was just so horrified by it and wanted to do something,” she says. “My best friend from Smith and I would be talking about it every night, just crying to each other.” Since finding the group, she has logged 20 to 40 hours a week— even visiting the ICE office in Manhattan to post a bond on the day her second child was due.
“It’s interesting to see that women are doing so much of the unpaid work of keeping the world going and fixing all the broken places,” Sullivan says. In her own life, her friendships have sustained and uplifted her. “The older I get, the more I value my friendships with other women,” she says. “We are one another’s guides through life. I thank my lucky stars all the time that I was born a woman.”
This story appears in the Fall 2020 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.
In her bestselling novels, author J. Courtney Sullivan ’03 exposes the intricacies of female friendships. Photographs by Peter Ross