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Exclusive: An Interview with Commencement’s J. Courtney Sullivan

It’s probably no accident that Commencement, J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel, is encased in a jacket the exact same color as a little blue box from Tiffany & Co. — just the kind of box certain women hope to receive when they reach one of those Kodak-approved life milestones. The novel’s main characters are four women who meet their freshman year at Smith College and together take on the rites of early adulthood that follow — yes, commencement, but also first jobs, engagements, and broken hearts.

J. Courtney Sullivan gabbed with us about the book, Smithies, and why she’s proud to be a “J.”

Flavorpill: In your novel, Bree and Celia refer to their first year out of college as their “freshman year of life.” What was your freshman year of life like?

J. Courtney Sullivan: When I first graduated from Smith, I came to New York and I worked at Allure magazine. That was my first job out of the gate. And as a Smith graduate who had pretty much worn my flannel pajama pants and zero makeup for four years, I was a little hesitant to be working at a magazine with the subtitle “the beauty expert.” But it was a really great experience for me because a lot of the women’s magazines, definitely Allure included, they really offer people at the very beginning level the opportunity to write. And so I kind of learned a lot about writing, writing on a deadline, writing for space, and that kind of thing, from that job.

So that’s what I was doing, and I was sort of getting my bearings. I lived on the Upper East Side at that time with my best friend from high school and we lived in this tiny apartment where we had no real furniture. We had like this broken futon and a couple folding tables. We were just doing the, twenty-whatever-we-were, 21-in-New-York thing, 22-in-New-York.

FP: Commencement’s four main characters are so different from each other. I’ve known girls like April and Celia, and found that they tend to form friendships with people like themselves. Do you think that’s a Smith thing, befriending people who are very different than you, or was it a choice you wanted to make for the characters?

JCS: Well, I think it’s both. I think that certainly when you’re writing a novel with four main characters who are all the same age and all go to the same college, you want to make them as distinct from one another as possible so people aren’t turning back and saying, “wait, which one is this, which one is that?” At the same time, you don’t want them to be caricatures. You want them each to have depth beyond “the southern belle” or “the feminist.”

I also think that when I went to Smith, the women I befriended, and I think this is a pretty typical college phenomenon — where you’re sort of thrown in with these other people who you might never have befriended, but they happen to be living in the exact same hall as you — sometimes you befriend them your first year and then you meet the real friends you’re going to have later, but in my case at least, the friends that I met in the very beginning, were really friends that I’ve kept right up until now, and all of them are just wildly different types.

FP: The subject matter and tone of your book aren’t the only reason you remind me of Curtis Sittenfeld. Both of you have names that might be misconstrued as belonging to males. Why do you go by J. Courtney Sullivan?

JCS: In my writing life, many a person has thought that it’s just this sort of pretension factor. But in fact, in my family, it’s a big Irish-Catholic family, and a lot of the women go by their middle names. So my mother, for example, her name is Mary Joyce. She’s always gone by M. Joyce. And the reason that so many of the women go by their middle name is because so many of them have the first name Mary. So for me, they kept the tradition of calling me by my middle name, but my first name is actually Julie. I’m named after my Aunt Julie.

When I worked at Allure, going back to that freshman year of life, the first time that I had my name in the masthead, I put it in as “Courtney Sullivan.” But I had always, my whole life, been “J. Courtney Sullivan.” If you look at my kindergarten attendance sheet, I bet it says “J. Courtney Sullivan.” So I put in “Courtney Sullivan” to have that in the masthead, and when the issue of Allure came out, I got angry phone calls within a minute from my mother and my Aunt Julie saying, “What happen to your ‘J’? Aren’t you proud of your ‘J’?” So I had to put it back in.

FP: Have you gotten any reactions to the book from your classmates at Smith or other Smith alumnae and faculty? What kind of reactions are you bracing yourself for?

JCS: So far the reactions have been very positive. I have an absolutely amazing group of female friends from my Smith days who are all coming out next week for the launch of the book and for my book party, and you know, it’s just fantastic. All of them were kind of eagerly looking for themselves in the text, I think, and nobody is a one-to-one ratio. People I don’t know quite as well have pretty much been excited about it. I think most Smithies are excited to kind of revisit the places in the book. They’re all real dorm names and real restaurants and real academic buildings. But I know Smith women are an opinionated bunch, and there are going to be some who say, “That wasn’t my Smith College!” That’s fine, you know, it’s just one interpretation.

I certainly came out of Smith, really, with an almost ridiculous love for the place. Sometimes I try to remember, did I even love it that much when I was there? Or is it mostly nostalgic? I just adore Smith College. And all of my friends too, there’s sort of this overflowing love for Smith that’s a bit ridiculous. So I certainly wasn’t setting out to skewer it in any way.

FP: As one of your blurbs points out, your novel draws on The Group in that it follows a group of college friends as they make their way in the world. Why did you think this scenario needed updating, and what new perspective do you think Commencement brings to it?

JCS: I personally love to read books about women, about books of friends; that dynamic never gets old for me. So I loved Mary McCarthy’s The Group, I loved The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. What strikes me especially about The Best of Everything, I don’t know if you’ve read that book –

FP: I haven’t.

JCS: You must! What’s sort of amazing to me about those books is that so much has changed for women and also so much has stayed the same. I guess probably writing Commencement, it was a combination of two factors; one was that I wasn’t that far from my Smith time, so I remembered it still very clearly, and I was happy and eager to revisit that time of life. But even more interesting to me in my early twenties, mid-twenties was how my friends and I had all graduated college and you know up until that point in life, you’re all the same age and you’re all essentially doing the same kind of thing: you’re all this age and you’re a senior in college. And then everyone’s lives post-graduation sort of take off wildly in very different directions. So one person might be getting married while another is just sort of fumbling along in the dating world. One person’s career might be really taking off. One person might have family issues that are just very serious and that require a level of maturity that other people are not having to embrace yet. I found it interesting, and I still do, to see how women tend to compare themselves to one another, and sort of that struggle to be happy for your friends while also trying not to compare yourself to them too much, trying not to say, “Well, she has that. Why don’t I have that?” or “She’s done this. Why haven’t I done this? Am I behind?”

FP: What do you miss most about college?

JCS: We were so enmeshed in one another’s lives for better and for worse. Sometimes I’ll talk about college with my friends that went to more normal schools, the co-ed schools, and I’ll describe my experience, and they’re like, “No, ours wasn’t like that at all!” We just spent so much time all cuddled up in bed, watching movies, talking, you know, whatever we were doing, and I would say it was probably pretty pure, and I miss that closeness. It’s funny, when my college friends get together – a few of them came to New York recently and we spent the weekend together – and rather than going out to great clubs or going out to see a Broadway show, we basically holed up in my apartment with junk food and watched Lifetime for three days. And it was absolutely fantastic.

FP: What books are you most looking forward to reading this summer?

JCS: Maile Meloy’s new book of short stories [Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It], I am so excited to read. I just absolutely love her two novels. One is called A Family Daughter, and the other is called Liars and Saints. Her novels are just so beautiful and so amazing. I’m working on a book right now about a family, and she just captures the family dynamic so well.

And I guess I just have a lot of books that have kind of piled up and have been wanting to read but haven’t, and summer usually presents a good opportunity. One of them, a friend of mine just gave me [a collection by] this poet named Richard Wilbur, who’s been around forever but I haven’t read him. A friend of mine just gave me his complete works, so I’m excited to get into that. And everybody has been talking about the book The Help, and I also just started that. It’s phenomenal so far.

To check out a list of Sullivan’s upcoming readings, visit her website.

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