Courtney Sullivan: My family, and other social animals

Courtney Sullivan's new bestseller about changing US mores was inspired by her own family history, she tells James Kidd

Shortly after Courtney Sullivan published her debut novel, Commencement, in 2010, she embarked on a book tour of the US.

When she returned to her home-state of Massachusetts, the Sullivans were out in force at a celebratory dinner in her honour. "There were probably 25 people at this very long table," she remembers. "One of my uncles stood up and gave a lovely speech. He said: 'We all love you so much and are so proud of you. And we really need to say this now because we know that a year from now, none of us will be speaking to you anymore.'"

This avuncular threat was inspired by Sullivan's second novel, then a work in progress but now a New York Times bestseller entitled Maine. An engaging story of family dysfunction, it follows three generations of the Kellehers – Irish-American Catholics who bear at least a passing resemblance to Sullivan's own Irish-American clan.

Sullivan is quick to emphasise that her uncle was not in earnest, but I wonder whether she had any misgivings when writing a story that was potentially so close to home. "Of course!" she laughs loudly, and cites a favourite joke of her father's as evidence: "Irish old-timers forget everything but their grudges." In reality, a different form of Irish-American folk wisdom prevailed. "My mother always said, 'Write whatever you want. Don't censor yourself. Sometimes it's better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.'"

Before Maine's success enabled her to write full-time, she worked as a New York Times researcher. I meet her in a diner in her adopted home town; she arrives a few minutes late, but armed with a novel excuse. While waiting for a train from Brooklyn into Manhattan, she was stopped and questioned by a police officer who thought she was playing truant from high school. Although Sullivan turned 30 last year, it's easy to see how one could make the same mistake: her slight figure, youthful looks and understated dress all speak of someone far younger. In conversation, she is smart and fizzy, deconstructing the romantic comedy He's Just Not That Into You one moment, asking after Kate Middleton the next, before concluding with a discussion of feminism in contemporary America. Throughout, she seems enthused with fresh wonder that she is able to write fiction for a living.

Maine represents a considerable advance on Commencement, a story of four graduates facing life after college. Largely set in the Kellehers' holiday beach house, Maine juxtaposes the promise of leisure with simmering family resentments. Sullivan suggests the premise had some basis in her own life. "When I was growing up, several generations of my family went away for a couple of weeks in a big house. When you slow down everything else in life, the tension has a way of exploding."

Sullivan's study of inter-generational conflict is partly a personal project. "I guess my writing tries to answer questions in my own life," she says at one point. But Maine also seeks to address broader questions raised by the past 60 years of American social history. There is Alice, the recently widowed Kelleher matriarch who sacrificed her artistic ambitions to raise a family, and tries to relieve present loneliness with alcohol and her Catholic faith. The youngest Kelleher is Maggie, Sullivan's alter ego, who is free to pursue her literary and personal ambitions.

"I was interested in how women in America are defined by the historical moment of their birth. Timing is everything. Maggie represents what Alice could have been had she been born 40 years later." At the same time, Sullivan argues, Maggie's relative personal freedom breeds new problems. "Having all the choices in the world does not necessarily make for a blissful existence. Sometimes it makes for a more complicated one."

Maine has been a critical and commercial hit in the US. Time recently named it one of its 10 books of the year. Some reviewers, however, dismissed it as "chick lit", a label Sullivan unpicks with a combination of acceptance and weariness. "It's frustrating, but also part of the territory of being a woman writing right now. Jane Austen is still considered a 'women's writer' while Thackeray is for everyone, even though he also writes about romance and social graces. No man is ashamed to say he's a fan of Annie Hall, but would any man name When Harry Met Sally his favourite film?"

Sullivan is living her own private romantic comedy right now: in the week between arranging the interview and our meeting in New York, she became engaged. While clearly happy, she is keen to avoid the excesses of the modern wedding. "Some of my friends who used to say how creepy they found the whole wedding culture reversed that opinion the moment they got engaged. It is like a Dawn of the Dead takeover."

By curious coincidence, the novel Sullivan is currently working on explores how marriage has changed in America over the past 100 years, through the prism of the diamond industry. "It's partly about how advertisers created the belief that diamonds are forever. But I'm particularly fascinated that our generation was exposed to the notion that marriage often doesn't work – either your parents were divorced or your best friend's parents were divorced – and yet so many of us are eager to just jump right into it. It's like a next generation do-over."

It is, Sullivan says, a second instance of life imitating art: one of Maine's sub-plots, about Maggie's relationship with her boyfriend, anticipated Sullivan meeting her fiancé. "Am I a close observer of things because I'm a writer, or am I writer because I'm a close observer of things?" she wonders aloud.

Whatever the truth, Sullivan's fiancé would do well to pay attention to the subject of her future works.

Maine, By Courtney Sullivan (Grove Atlantic, £12.99)

'... Kathleen imagined the three of them – Maggie, Alice, and herself – side by side, three generations of women absorbing power and wisdom from one another. She realized it was a mistake from the moment they arrived. The swami asked to inspect their belongings. Kathleen had expressly told her mother there was no caffeine or alcohol allowed, and Alice said that was fine by her. But when he unzipped her suitcase, he found two Ziplocs full of tea bags, three bottles of red wine, a large bottle of rum and a blender. A blender!'

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders