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Compiled by Eric Weld   Date: 9/18/09 Bookmark and Share

A Novel Reflection on the Smith Life

Q & A with J. Courtney Sullivan ’03, author of Commencement

With its vivid depictions of lifetime friendships, career and family realities, and relationship woes and wonders, J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel Commencement is enjoying critical and commercial success. Amid her book tour, Sullivan will make a stop at Smith on Thursday, Sept. 24, to read from Commencement and take questions from the audience. The event, in the Campus Center Carroll Room, will begin with a book signing at 3:30 p.m. Her reading will begin at 4:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, Sullivan answered questions for the Gate about Smith and her novel.

Gate: What inspired you to write about Smith?

J. Courtney Sullivan: I started writing Commencement about two years after my graduation. Northampton and the Smith campus were so fresh in my mind, and I was growing nostalgic for the place. I was considering a lot of questions in my own life: How do friendships change, and how do they stay the same after college? How do you stay close to dear friends whose day-to-day existences are so different from your own? And how does the current generation of young, female college graduates in America decide which choices to make when there are so many laid out before us? Smith is such a physically beautiful place, full of so many interesting and complicated women. To me, it seemed an ideal backdrop for a novel about four young females coming into their own.

Gate: How closely does Commencement depict your Smith experience? Is your character Celia, with whom you have so much in common biographically, you?

JCS: My years at Smith were some of the best years of my life. I learned so much, met so many wonderful friends, went through my share of Smithie drama, and probably ate much more than my share of banana cream pie in the King House dining hall. Commencement touches on some of my experiences, but some things—junior year abroad comes to mind—had to be left out for the sake of storylines or space. Most of the book is pure fiction. There are definitely a lot of similarities between me and Celia: we live in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn, our upbringings were similar, we sort of look alike, and as children we both took embarrassing Irish step dancing classes that left us completely unable to dance like normal people. But Celia is much more of a wild child than I ever was. She’s fairly apolitical, while I am obsessed with politics and women’s issues. I probably have something in common with every one of my characters: I share Bill’s love of W.H. Auden and Bree’s love of Dolly Parton, and so on.

Gate: Your four main characters represent an interesting graph along the feminism spectrum—all feminists, one could argue, but in their distinctive ways. Where do you stand along that spectrum? With which of your characters do you most relate?

JCS: Many readers are so convinced that I’m Celia (perhaps the least political of the bunch) that they actually gasp when I tell them that my version of feminism is most closely aligned with April’s (she’s the radical of the group.) My admiration for writers like Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, and Virginia Woolf inspired the more overtly feminist parts of the book. And April’s research on the trafficking of minors and sexual discrimination in the military is based on extensive interviews I did both in college and as a researcher at the New York Times. But I think some of the more everyday stuff in the book—from changing (or not changing) maiden names to going Dutch on dates to having grown up with working vs. nonworking mothers—speaks to the lives of the young women I know, myself very much included, and gets at feminist ideas in a different sort of way. Part of that is the question of whether young women are willing to look at their history and recognize the sacrifices that were made on their behalf by generations past. And also whether they are willing to acknowledge the extent of the discrimination that still exists. I’m surprised by how many young women shy away from the term “feminist” (as Bree does in the book) even as they embody what it means to be one.

Gate: How do you respond to charges that your book does not accurately characterize the Smith experience?

JCS: There are many events and ideas in the story that are drawn from real life. The intensity of the friendship between the four main characters is very true for me. But at the end of the day this is a novel. Commencement is a work of fiction that uses a real place as its backdrop, and that can be tricky. While I was writing, some people suggested that I change the school to a fictitious women’s college, but that seemed like a bad idea to me. I wanted it to be Smith, because the Seven Sisters are so distinctive and have a rich history that can’t be conveyed by calling the place Jones Women’s College. I never expected to write a book about Smith that would please every single Smithie—I’m sure that would be impossible. We are too diverse and opinionated a group for all of us to ever be happy about the same thing at the same time. This is just one story, there are so many more to be told.

Gate: Who is the intended audience for your novel? And what do you hope readers come away with?

JCS: On its surface, Commencement is a novel about four young women that might mostly appeal to young women readers. But I’m always pleasantly surprised when the occasional man in his 70s rolls into one of my bookstore events and says he was up all night finishing the book. Or when a mother of three who never went to college emails me and says she enjoyed it so much. My New York Times colleague, the op-ed columnist Nick Kristof, wrote about my book on his blog, saying, “I found it interesting sociologically (Ah! So that’s what women say and do when guys aren’t around!)” That sort of sums up the male reaction to the book so far. For women, I think it resonates in the themes of friendship and personal choices—something we can all relate to, whether we went to Smith or not.

Gate: Can you comment on the role of men in Commencement? How did Smith shape, for you, the definition of a quality man?

JCS: I’m tempted to say that asking how Smith shaped my definition of a quality man is like asking how dinner at a vegan restaurant helped me figure out my favorite cut of beef. Smith had so much to offer socially and academically that I didn’t think much about men when I was there. It was probably after graduation, when dating reemerged in full (and in New York City no less) that I began to think about the ways in which several years at a women’s college impacted my behavior around men. On one level it was, “Great, romance is fun. Sign me up.” On another level it was, “Men are bizarre. I’m not sure what to make of them.” I think the characters in Commencement wrestle with this on many different levels.

Gate: Can you offer advice for aspiring writers at Smith?

JCS: The first step, if you want to be a journalist, is to say it loud, say it proud, and don’t be afraid of it. Editors need ideas and aspiring, hungry writers have lots of them. My first job was working as an assistant at Allure magazine, and that was a great opportunity because it allowed me to write small pieces and get my first bylines. If you’re not working at a publication already, pitch ideas (lots of them) to smaller newspapers and magazines. If you’re still a student, you must write for the school paper! (I didn’t, but you must!) The Web sites of major magazines are also a great place to start—they need content, and they are open to newer writers. If you don’t know any editors personally, pitch to the names you see on a masthead. If you’re lucky enough to get an email response—even a rejection—pitch to that person again, or ask them for advice. Sure, some people are too busy, but they’ve all been where you are, and a surprising number are very generous with their time and Rolodexes. Those first few clips are the toughest to get, but once you do, you’ll be amazed at how quickly other opportunities arise. When it comes to fiction writing, I think the most important thing is just to write—find a way to quiet any doubting inner voices, make the time, put your butt in the chair, and just do it. You’ll be amazed by the results. Last thing: Learn to roll with rejection—laugh at it, mock it, decoupage your coffee table with “Thanks, but no thanks” letters. The writers I know who have made it the farthest all have talent, of course, but more importantly they have determination and grit.


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