J. Courtney Sullivan Draws a Big Crowd for Her Reading from "The Engagements," Fields Questions about Her Earlier Work, "Commencement," and Gay Culture at Smith College

Author J. Courtney Sullivan at the South End Library, December 2013 Note: the report below is based on the notes and pictures by FOSEL board member Ann Lloyd, novelist Sue Miller, and Walter Newman. The writer herself was unable to attend.

 Author J. Courtney Sullivan spoke to a nearly filled room at the South EndLibrary in early December and, like many others who have come to talk at the branch, traced her writing roots to a childhood love of libraries. She specifically cited one book she checked out many times, Harriet the Spy. The question of how one becomes a writer elicits many explanations, but Sullivan's included frequently sitting under the dining room table during large family dinners, eaves dropping on adult conversations, and writing everything down, as had Harriet the Spy, her mentor. Early sleuthing practice paid off when she was doing research on a real character in her most recent novel, The Engagements. the young copywriter Frances Garety who in 1947 coined the famous slogan, "A Diamond is Forever." A week before The Engagements was due at the publisher, Sullivan located the Philadelphia home where Gerety had died in 1999. Its new occupant told her she had a box of papers Gerety had left in the house: Would she like to have them? The box contained notes on marketing strategies, names of the famous coaxed to wear diamond jewelry and all the juicy bits that linked diamonds with romance. The publisher had to wait a little longer for the manuscript.

Sue Miller, who had recruited Sullivan to speak at The South End Writes, introduced the author as the talented pupil of her partner, Doug Bauer, when he was teaching at Smith College. Miller noted that Sullivan has made her living primarily as a writer since graduating, "which is a HARD thing to do," she commented.  "Though you may not have noticed her name at the time, you’ve probably read something by her in the New York Times, or the Times Book Review or another publication." Miller described Sullivan's first significant book, Commencement, as one that  "told the story of a group of young women who meet at Smith and then go on to their very scattered and different but still-connected lives, coming up against various obstacles and complexities of their time as they do -- sexual, professional, personal," she said. "It got more than enthusiastic reviews, and was compared to the famous Mary McCarthy novel tracing the lives of another group of young women who meet at college – in that case, Vassar -- titled The Group."

Members of the audience asked questions about Commencement which, among many other matters,  described frankly and compassionately a culture at Smith College that was tolerant of lesbian relationships when that was generally considered a taboo. Sullivan responded that, among the alumni of the the elite college for women the reactions to her book fell into three groups: those who attended since 1995 will say, "it sounded familiar." Graduates from the years between 1960s to the 1990s will say, "I've heard about it but never experienced it." Those who attended Smith before the 1960s "want me dead," Sullivan asserted. She added that during another author's talk elsewhere, a man in the audience spoke up and said he'd been married to three Smith alumns and that he could certify "lesbians were there."

 COMING UP NEXT IN THE SOUTH END WRITES SERIES ARE: 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014:

 South Ender Christopher Castellani, whose recent novel, All This Talk of Love, got a great review in the New York Times Book Review earlier this year. Previous work includes A Kiss from Maddalena, winner of the 2004 Massachusetts Book Award, and The Saint of Lost Things, a BookkSense Notable Award. Castellani is the artistic director of Boston’s creative-writing center Grub Street.

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 Tuesday, February 25:

 Michael Lowenthal, novelist, short-story writer, editor and teacher of creative writing,will read from his most recent The Paternity Testwhich describes the voyage of a gay couple trying to save a marriage by having a baby. His previous work includes Charity Girl and The Same Embrace. During Lowenthal’s valedictorian speech at Dartmouth College in 1990, he revealed he was gay, prompting The Dartmouth Review to editorialize that he had ‘ruined the ceremony.’ The New York Times reported he received a standing ovation, however, so all was not lost.

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 Tuesday, March 18:

 Max Grinnel, otherwise known as The Urbanologist. Grinnell’s focal point is the urban condition. He teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Boston University, where he helps students learn about urbanism, architecture, planning, and related topics.

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Tuesday, April 8:

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 Poet  Colin D. Halloran, who served with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2006.  A former public school teacher, Colin works with students and teachers to find ways in which poetry can inform the media’s and historians’ portrayals of war. His debut collection of poems, Shortly Thereafter, won the 2012 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award.

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 Tuesday, April 29:

 Anita Shreve, award-winning author of numerous books of fiction, including the international bestseller The Pilot’s Wife. which was made into a movie of the same name and was an Oprah Book Club selection. Her new novel, Stella Bain,  has just come out to excellent reviews in the Boston Globe.

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 Tuesday, May 20:

 South End author Wendy Wunder (The Probability of Miracles) will return to talk about her latest novel, due out in April 2014, called The Museum of Intangible Things.

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 Tuesday, June 10:

 William Landay, award-winning author of crime fiction including the New York Timesbestseller Defending Jacob, The Strangler and Mission Flats.