Zibby Owens: I interviewed J. Courtney Sullivan at the beginning of the pandemic. I hope that her episode, which I’m releasing today on her publication day, is still relevant. We talked about timeless themes. I just adored talking to her. If there are any things that seem out of date, that’s why. Congratulations to her today on her publication. So glad to have gotten to know her. For those of you who don’t know, J. Courtney Sullivan is the New York Times best-selling author of the novels Commencement, Maine, The Engagements, and Saints for All Occasions, and now as of today, Friends and Strangers. Maine was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. The Engagements was one of People magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year and soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon and distributed by Fox 2000. It will be translated into seventeen languages. Her latest novel, Saints for All Occasions, was named one of the ten best books of the year by the Washington Post, a New York Times Critic’s Pick for 2017, and a New England Book Award nominee. Courtney’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, O: The Oprah Magazine, and many others. She is a co-editor with Courtney Martin of the essay anthology Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. In 2017, she wrote the forewords to new editions of two of her favorite classic novels, Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. A Massachusetts native, Courtney now lives in New York with her husband and two children. By the way, Friends and Strangers has been on every most-anticipated list and best-book-of-the-summer list there basically is for 2020 including mine which I wrote for Good Morning America. Enjoy the episode.

Welcome, Courtney. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” today.

J. Courtney Sullivan: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Your book is coming out at the end of June, but we are recording this mid-quarantine. It’s via Skype. I just wanted to get that out there to set the stage.

Courtney: That’s right.

Zibby: Hopefully by June, we will all be out and about in bookstores buying your book, I’m hoping.

Courtney: I hope so. I hope we’ll be out and about by then, yes.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners what Friends and Strangers is about?

Courtney: Friends and Strangers, primarily, it’s about the relationship between a new mom who’s just had her first baby and just left New York City and moved Upstate. She’s sort of ambivalent about the move. She doesn’t have any friends where she’s living, feels kind of isolated. She ends up hiring a college senior to babysit her child. The two of them develop a friendship. It’s kind of a complicated friendship, of course, because one of them is the other’s employer. Their lives become very enmeshed in a lot of different ways. In a larger sense, the book is very much about motherhood and women at different stage of transition in life. There are years of our lives where we don’t have huge, life-altering transitional moments. Then there are years of our lives when we have our first baby or we’re graduating college and starting out in the world. Each of these women is really at a crossroads. Probably, the friendship they develop and the intensity of it would never have occurred at any other point in their lives, but it does. It also kind of takes a look at what does it mean to have a safety net? What does it mean in this particular climate in which we live with the gig economy, with massive classes divides in this country, what does it mean to be supported in a lot of different ways?

Zibby: Interesting. I like it.

Courtney: I think that’s the first time I’ve described the book to anyone.

Zibby: Well done.

Courtney: Thanks.

Zibby: I don’t know why I put authors on the spot like this. It’s so mean of me. I launch into it right away. Okay, need your elevator pitch. I actually feel like it’s so interesting to hear how everybody responds. Sometimes I feel like I have a different take on the book or that I would describe it a little differently. Anyway, thank you for getting through that.

Courtney: Now I want to know how you would describe it, Zibby.

Zibby: Oh, no. I shouldn’t have set myself up like that. No, you did a perfect job. I would never contradict you. I have to say, reading it, I was like, Courtney is in my brain. These are things that I thought when I had a baby at home. You tapped into that feeling so well from the very beginning of wanting to hate your husband because he’s not helping, but you don’t really hate your husband, to what if you do something wrong and the baby stops breathing? All the fears and all the common feelings, boom, you were right there, and the type-A mom-ness and clinging to your social group and all of it, how the people who have babies six weeks older than you are the prophets in your life. Tell me about your family situation and how much this book parallels reality, if at all.

Courtney: My son is two. He’s going to be three in June. He’ll be turning three right when the book comes out. My daughter is eighteen months old. They’re sixteen months apart. I started writing this when my son was — when I was pregnant with him, but really, a lot of it when he was brand new in the world. At that point, the first six months of his life, it was impossible to sit down and write actual chapters. I was emailing myself. I had my phone in hand, for better or worse, all the time. I would think, oh, I’ve got to remember this or I’ve got to put this into the book, because I knew the book I was going to write. I emailed myself under the subject line babysitter. Then when he’s six months old and I’m actually sitting down to start writing the book, I just went into my email, searched for the word babysitter, and a hundred emails I’ve sent to myself in the last six months pop up, all these little observations which I otherwise, I’m sure, would’ve forgotten most of them three hours after they happened. I do feel like that part of it, the new mom part of it, is so true to my own experience and also the experiences of my friends.

I was very intrigued being welcomed into this world of moms on Facebook and these groups that they have. They’re really intense in a lot of ways. I’m in a few different ones. I’m in one for alumni of my college. I’m in one for moms in my neighborhood. They all have kind of a different flavor about them. Some are incredibly confessional where women are just saying everything about how they just can’t stand their husbands for one more second or they can’t stand their children for one more second. Some of them are more like, what’s the best gymnastics class for a two-year-old? I just found it all really fascinating, that, in some ways, this is where women are gathering now. It actually doesn’t even have to be motherhood that is the glue. There are these groups for people who all supported Hillary Clinton or all love books or whatever it is. Oftentimes, the conversations end up being so much deeper and so personal. As you said, this notion that anyone with a child six weeks older than yours, they’re a prophet. Like I said in the book, they know everything. Now I find it kind of gratifying because all these women were so kind to just tell me what they knew, and now I can tell other people what I know. They think I’m brilliant, but no, I’ve just done it now. A difference between me and Elisabeth, the character in the book, she really, really only wants to have one child. Obviously, I have two kids under — they were both under two for a long time. That wasn’t my feeling. Also, I was curious about it because I do have a lot of friends who are completely madly in love with their baby, but they just want to have one. I thought that was an interesting thing to explore.

Zibby: Especially since her husband felt differently.

Courtney: Yeah, that’s a huge thing. Marriage is also something that gets really explored and dug into in this book. If you’re looking at marriage from a distance when you’re younger, when you’re the age of Sam the college-age babysitter, it’s kind of like, well, you just love someone and that’s it. Actually, there are all these intricacies that we have to work out with this other person including the most important details of our lives such as how many children are we going to have? When you have different strong feelings about that, it’s very tricky.

Zibby: I also think people sometimes don’t know what they want until they start having kids. I have a lot of friends who were sure they’d want to have tons of kids. Then they had a kid and they were like, no, no, no, that’s good.

Courtney: That’s absolutely right. I think Elisabeth, it was definitely true of me as well, that my son — when he was born, I was thirty-six. I had gone through a period in my twenties where I was baby crazy. I would’ve loved to have three babies in my studio apartment in Brooklyn, but that wasn’t going to happen. Then I got in the point in life where people are actually having babies, and I was really ambivalent about it. I wasn’t sure because it is the ultimate commitment you can make. You do this thing, and you cannot change your mind. I was pleasantly thrilled to find that the second my son was born I was madly in love with him, but it can kind of go any which way. That was something else that I really wanted to look at. I think there is a lot more ambivalence about it than we maybe talk about.

Zibby: Very true. I love how you point out — just going back for a second to the mom group thing because I also find that super interesting. I spent hours on these group boards before I had my twins, which is now almost thirteen years ago, about the different strollers and which one was the best one. I spent hours. As you point out in the book — well, not you. Elisabeth in the book would spend hours on trips that she wasn’t even planning on taking with kids, but that’s what you do. That’s how you prepare.

Courtney: One of my dear friends who I actually met when I was pregnant with my son, her daughter is within a week of his age. We were in Central Park with our kids when they were just about one. She just looked at me and she said, “Remember when thought that strollers mattered, like it was really going to matter which stroller we had and it was going to be make or break?” What I didn’t tell her at that point was because I was — I got pregnant with my daughter when my son was seven months. At that point when she said that, it was so funny because I was actually as obsessed with the perfect double stroller at that juncture as we had previously been. She was already at the stage where she was able to laugh at how insane we’d been. I was like, actually, I’m still every bit as crazy as that. Now I can look back and say, wow, yeah, that was crazy.

Zibby: I have twins, but I also have two other kids. They are seventeen months apart, so I feel you with the kids in those two ages and not knowing how to cart them around properly and whatever. The thing about the neighborhood group in particular, which you point out which is so true, that everybody lives within twenty blocks of each other and shares all of this stuff. Yet you’re probably walking past them every day and not even knowing it on the street because especially in Brooklyn where her circle was, they’re all there right on top of each other. Yet you can be free to say all these secrets in this group.

Courtney: It’s very weird. It sort of feels anonymous. It sort of feels intimate. It’s just weird. Actually, it’s not anonymous. Actually, it’s not intimate. But somehow, it feels like both of those things.

Zibby: The fact that you spent this book addressing the relationship between a babysitter and a mom and even how you were saying how some of the Tibetan or Caribbean women in Brooklyn were taking the place of the grandmother you wish you could provide from your own family, but yet you really can’t. The relationship is so important. It often eclipses every other relationship in your life because you’re so in need of that support. Yet it’s not often written about as much, especially not in a beautiful literary way the way that you tackled this book. Tell me about deciding to write it about that relationship as its center.

Courtney: It’s kind of funny. I think novelists, or at least in my case and in the case of a lot of other fiction writers I know — Dani Shapiro described it beautifully. She said something you’re going to write about — I think it was Dani. I hope it was Dani. I’m pretty sure it was Dani.

Zibby: We’ll pretend.

Courtney: She said that there’ll be a certain shimmer around something that lets you know, oh, I’m going to write about this, this is something I’m going to write about, but it might not always be the moment. A lot of times, you’re kind of putting something in your pocket for later and saying, I know I’m going to write about this, but I’m not ready yet or it’s not the right time or whatever. It was probably five or six years ago — the relationship in the book is very, very loosely based on the relationship I had as a senior in college with this woman whose baby I nannied for. I went to Smith in Northampton. I was there to give a reading several years ago. I think this woman really put me on my path to coming to New York City, becoming a writer. I had all kinds of terrible plans for myself for after graduation. She was like, “Maybe you should think about this.” We fell out of touch, as you do with people like that. Now it was many years later. I was back at Smith to give a reading. When I came out — it was cinematic. I came out of this hall where I was giving the reading. I walked out. It was drizzling rain. I was walking to my car standing at the crosswalk waiting to cross. This big SUV pulled up. There were three kids in the back. Driving the SUV was this woman who I used to be so close with. I was just like, oh, my gosh. I was kind of waving. She had no idea who I was and kept going. I kept thinking about that moment.

I was back in New York that same night. I was having dinner with my friend Jami Attenberg who’s also a novelist. I told her the story. She said, “Oh, that should be your next novel,” but I didn’t know. What would I write about that? At that point, I only had the experience of having been the babysitter. I kind of thought there was something to what Jami was saying, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it would be. I went on and wrote a totally different book, my book Saints for all Occasions. By the time it came around to, what will I write next? I was pregnant. Suddenly I thought, oh, now I’ve kind of been or soon will be both of these women. I’ve been in the role of the mom, or I soon will be. I started writing it from Sam’s point of view, the babysitter, leaving the mom part blank, thinking, I don’t know what she would be thinking or feeling, but I will probably know soon. I’ll just wait and see. In that way, this kind of was the perfect time to write this book. My other novels have been very research heavy. I love doing research, but this book was written in the two years during which I had my two children. It’s more raw in a way because of that. It just kind of came out.

Zibby: I feel like you can tell reading it. You’re like, the author is going through this. This is what is actually on her mind right now. You could feel it.

Courtney: And there’s nothing else on my mind right now because that’s all I can handle, yes.

Zibby: That’s what makes it so good because you’re immediately in conversation with you, not that you know this, but as a reader.

Courtney: Thank you. Good.

Zibby: With little kids and writing this, how did you do this? When did you do it? Did you get up early? I know you sent the emails to yourself.

Courtney: I was home with my son until he was six months old. At that time, we found an amazing nanny who has been with us ever since. I guess it was right when he turned one, was when — this is about to take a weird detour.

Zibby: Go for it. I love weird detours.

Courtney: Right when he turned one, which was June of 2018, was when the Trump administration started separating families at the border. I had a one-year-old and I was five months pregnant. I just couldn’t bear it. None of us could bear it because it was horrendous. There are so many things that we can’t bear but we do in the news all the time. Then I feel like something will jump out at you and you’re just like, no, I can’t. I can’t stand it. I felt like I had to do something. I got involved with a group called Immigrant Families Together which was started by a mom in Queens. We’re all volunteers. All of us besides one are mothers. We’re all women. We just started bonding moms who were in immigration detentions centers out, raising money to bond them, bonding them out, getting them reunited with their kids, and then supporting them on an ongoing basis with legal, with housing, with medical, all that stuff. That work actually became my full-time job. Even though I had a nanny with my son and then with both my kids so that I could be writing, as it turned out, I spent most of daytime business hours when people are at work talking to lawyers and talking to realtors and doing all kinds of crazy things all the time for Immigrant Families Together. What I ended up doing was writing this book really in the middle of the night. When you have babies, there’s this adrenaline. When I finished this book, I was just like, oh, my god, I am so tired. I somehow hadn’t realized until then. Basically, come home at five. Our nanny would go home. I would be with the kids until bedtime. They would go to bed. I would write until my daughter had her waking-up moment at two in the morning or whatever, feed her, and then go to bed. That seemed normal.

Zibby: I’m impressed.

Courtney: Crazy. As I said, when I finished, I finally just went, oh, I think I’ve been running on adrenaline for a year and a half. I’m really tired and want to nap, but now I will not get one because we are in quarantine with no childcare.

Zibby: Are you writing another book now in quarantine? If you can pull this off, I will bow down.

Courtney: God, no. What I am doing is I am doing that email thing again. I think I’ll always do that. I was actually just talking to a class, a fiction-writing workshop that a friend of mine leads, actually at Smith. I was supposed to be there this week to talk to her class. Of course, they’re not there, so we did it over Zoom. I was telling the students because they are concerned, as I think writers at all levels are, about the fact that they want to be writing, they want to be productive, but they just kind of can’t be. I was telling them there are just these times in life when you can’t be for whatever reason, but you can find these little ways to keep it alive or keep the story alive. For me, that email thing has really done the trick, so I’m doing that again with this book. I think when you’re writing a novel, the whole world, you kind of see it through the lens of that novel. Little things happen and you think, that might be good for that character or I should put that in here. I do have a rough idea of what I’m going to write next, but I haven’t actually sat down and written anything.

Zibby: I love that email idea. I also am like, this, I won’t forget. This is so funny. This is so perfect. Then of course, it’s gone.

Courtney: I know, right? It’s crazy. It’s so bad. I try to do it, too, with what my kids say. I try to write down what they say in a notebook. Inevitably, if it’s written down in a notebook, I’ll go weeks and weeks without writing anything, and then like you said, I don’t remember what the heck it was.

Zibby: Can you give any general teasers as to what this book might be next?

Courtney: Usually, I would. I feel like I shouldn’t because it’s very weird, and I don’t know if I’ll actually stick with it.

Zibby: Okay, no problem. What other advice did you give to the students? What advice would you give to other aspiring authors?

Courtney: What advice would I give? It depends on where they are and what they need to know about. Generally speaking, reading is a huge part of writing. It’s always been a huge part of my writing life. I think different people feel different ways about this, but my feeling is it’s almost like an athlete needs to eat really well because our reading is our fuel. You want to be reading things that inspire you. In my case, I like to feel really jealous of the person who wrote it, like, ugh, I hate this person. This book is so good. I could never write this. That’s instructive. That is when you’re learning about the craft of writing just by reading. Like I said before, just the sense that not every day is going to be, at least not for me, is the day to sit down and write fifteen perfect, gorgeous pages of prose. Some days are for just hunting and gathering and living in the world. If you’re a writer, you have a certain degree of sensitivity about you as a human being. Most likely, you cannot be in the midst of a global pandemic under quarantine and say, I just feel really inspired to write my novel today. Some people might, and that’s great. They probably do not have children, but that’s another aspect of the whole thing. It’s just like being kind to yourself. It happens when it happens.

I am not a writer who writes every day. I know there are some who do. I think the main thing about rules for writing is there are not any rules for writing. It’s really important and instructive to listen to as many writers as you can and hear what you think will be helpful for you and take that away from the process. If it takes the pressure off to know that some writers don’t write every day, I don’t write every day. If it helps you to be disciplined to be in the world of your story to write every day as some writers do, then by all means do that. If you take many fiction workshops over a period of years, you’ll see — now I’m teaching some workshops. I hear students say, “But someone said you have to do it like this.” The fact is you don’t have to do it any way. It’s not heart surgery. There’s no plan. You find your own way. The other thing I told these students the other day, which I also stole from Dani Shapiro but I give her credit, is — through Dani, I learned about this book called I Remember by Joe Brainard. Do you know this book?

Zibby: I don’t.

Courtney: It’s so amazing. It’s a book that came out I think in the fifties, maybe in the seventies. I think it came out in the seventies about the fifties. Anyway, Joe Brainard is this gorgeous poet/artist. He’s writing just his memories, collecting his memories from life starting from childhood on up. Some of them are very personal. Some of them are just about the world as he observes it. Every paragraph in the book begins with the words “I remember…” Many of the paragraphs are just one sentence long. I find this is an amazing place to go when you’re feeling stuck as a writer, is to do this exercise. You literally sit down for ten minutes, twenty minutes, whatever you have. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t think about it too much. Just sit down and write each paragraph, “I remember…,” whatever it is, drop down a line, “I remember… I remember…,” especially if you’re doing something pulled from your own life. I was trying to write something about my childhood, about the neighborhood I grew up in. Generally speaking, I think I have so many memories of that time. Then I sat down in front of my Word document to write the story. I thought, oh, I don’t remember anything. Somehow, doing this exercise unlocks so much of what is in there. I’ve just found that to be really helpful.

Zibby: Where did you grow up?

Courtney: I grew up in the suburbs of Boston in a town called Milton.

Zibby: Awesome. Just quickly because I feel like I missed this part of your life story, how did you become a best-selling author to begin with that now you’re embarking on yet another book?

Courtney: How did I? When I was in college, when I was at Smith, I did an internship at The Atlantic Monthly magazine which was then in Boston. I had the great good fortune of getting to assist Michael Curtis who was the fiction editor there. He asked me, “Do you write fiction?” I said I did. I was very nervous. I was terrified of this man even though he’s very kind. He said, “I would be happy to look at some of your stories sometime.” I actually came in one morning before he’d be there. I put my stories on his desk chair and ran away, which is so absurd and unprofessional, but that’s what I did. My main job for him was basically typing his letters because he did not use a computer. He would handwrite them, and I would type them up on my computer. They were letters mostly to writers who had sent in short stories. One day when I came into work, I heard him in the office. He had the door closed. I heard him banging around. I was trying to figure out, what is he doing in there? I came back later that day from lunch. I had on my chair, this letter. He had typed it on a typewriter. That’s what he had been banging around in there doing. Because he was going to write to me about my story, he couldn’t ask me to type up the letter to myself, of course. I still have, to this day, the typewritten letter he gave me. It was so amazing. He said, “Keep sending me your work,” and so I did.

When I went back to college, I would send him a story every so often. Some of those stories he ended up giving to Lucy Prince who was an editor at The Atlantic who had hired me, actually. She contacted me and said, “I know this young agent who is just starting out.” She was also an intern at The Atlantic, Brettne Bloom. “Can I share your stories with her?” I said, “Sure. That would be amazing.” Brettne has been my agent ever since then. It was years before we had a book come out, but I met her in college. I was very lucky to have that connection. We kind of have grown up together in the business. I worked at a women’s magazine, Allure magazine, for two years when I first came to New York. Then I worked at The New York Times for four years. It was while I was there that my first novel, Commencement, was published. I wrote about half of my second book, Maine. After I sold Maine, that was when I started writing fiction more or less full time.

Zibby: Amazing. I actually met Brettne about a year ago and love her, so I see why you two have a great relationship.

Courtney: She is the best. She’s wonderful.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thanks for sharing your story with me and coming on my podcast. I really loved your book. I’m really excited for it to come out.

Courtney: Thank you. Thank you.