J. Courtney Sullivan, author of the wonderful novels Commencement, Maine, and The Engagements, has another Irish-American story up her sleeve. Saints for All Occasions follows two sisters who leave their Irish village to start new lives in the United States. But things don’t end up as planned when social, fun-loving Theresa ends up pregnant, and timid, careful Nora has to figure out how to solve the problem. Half a century later, Theresa is a cloistered nun and Nora has a large family of her own — and an unexpected death will force them to confront the decision they made decades before.
Below, Sullivan tells EW what sparked her latest novel, how she gets into the minds of older women, and how the current political climate will affect her future work. EW is also thrilled to reveal Saints for All Occasions‘scover in advance of its May 9 publication.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for this book come from?
J. COURTNEY SULLIVAN: In my experience, a novel is the culmination of various thoughts and impressions collected over time, until something comes along to give them a shape, to turn them into a story.
This one came from lots of places. It started with a trip I took to Miltown Malbay, Ireland, the village where my great-grandmother lived until she immigrated to Boston alone at 17. Then there was a conversation with a childhood friend about hallmarks of the Irish American experience. (She posited that every Irish Catholic family has a relative who is never mentioned, who half the family doesn’t even know exists until one day he shows up at someone’s wake.) It came most of all from my fascination with nuns. As a lapsed Catholic, they have always interested me, but never more so than in recent years, when they’ve come to represent a strain of fierce opposition and compassionate realism within the Church.
Four years ago, my aunt introduced me to a family friend I’d never heard of—Mother Lucia, a cloistered nun who joined an abbey in Connecticut before I was born. I’ve met many nuns in my life, the type who work in schools or hospitals. But I’d never met a contemplative before. From the first time we spoke, I adored Mother Lucia. I found out that she was a lover of Shakespeare with a Ph.D. in English from Yale, who had first come to the abbey as a hippie in the late ’60s, seeking peace, community, social justice.
I also learned that in the last few years, for the first time, cloistered nuns have been allowed to leave the convent for a short period if there’s a family need. With that, a story was born, made up of all the bits and pieces I’d been collecting for a decade. It’s a story about a cloistered nun coming home to her family for the first time in fifty years. She is coming home for a wake. Half the family doesn’t know she exists. My fictional nun, whose name is Mother Cecilia, and her sister Nora travel from Miltown Malbay, Ireland to Boston as teenagers in 1958.
What kind of research did you do to write it?
For me, one of the great joys of writing (both fiction and journalism) is getting the chance to peer into lives that are different from my own. This book offered a lot of opportunities to do that. I went back to Miltown Malbay and interviewed men and women who would be the age of my characters. In Boston, I talked to friends’ parents and grandparents about their journeys from Ireland to America in the ’50s and ’60s.
The most immersive part of my research was my time spent at the abbey. I visited on two occasions for long conversations with Mother Lucia. (The nuns do not talk on the telephone, and only email sparingly. They communicate mostly through letters.) Then I was invited to stay for several nights and work with them on their farm, an extraordinary experience.
The abbey is an incredible place. The nuns there all had full lives before joining and they believe that the gifts obtained in those former lives enrich the present. One of them was a Hollywood actress who starred in movies with Elvis and gave up a massive film contract to become a nun. They have former politicians, bankers, artists of all kinds in their ranks. Some came to the abbey in the first place in reaction to a moment in time—the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, the acquittal of the police officers who killed Amadou Diallo. Moments that defied understanding.
Is there anything you do to get into the headspace of older women when you’re writing those characters?
Deep down, I have always been 72 years old. In college, my friends used to make fun of me because I would sometimes skip a Friday night party to stay in my dorm room watching Turner Classic Movies. I’ve always been drawn to older women. One of my dearest friends is in her seventies and she’s more lively, progressive and curious than plenty of the 30-year-olds I know. From being around her, I understand that much of one’s personality isn’t about age at all. Mother Cecilia, one of the two older women in the book, is a cloistered nun, yet she’s very open to the possibility of change. She’s open to learning new things. Her sister Nora, less so. Nora provided a wonderful chance to see through the eyes of the other, one of my favorite parts of writing fiction. Everything that I regard as positive about our particular historical moment—increased openness and self-expression, for example—is to her a terrifying threat. I really enjoyed exploring how she came to be that way.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered while writing Saints for All Occasions?
The first several drafts were set further ahead in the future, at the time of Nora’s death. Her sister, the nun, was coming back to bury her after a long estrangement. But it wasn’t working. After two years, I realized why—there was no payoff if Nora was dead and no longer there to answer for her choices. The most interesting part of those drafts, I thought, was the death of her son years earlier, which was seen only in flashbacks. I ended up throwing out a thousand pages and starting over, putting her son’s death at the center of the present story.
Early on in the writing process, there is sometimes this temptation to write around the central drama instead of just aiming for the bull’s-eye. The bullseye is harder to hit, of course, but it’s so much more satisfying when you do.
What themes were you most interested in exploring?
Writers tend to return again and again to certain obsessions. One of mine has always been how different people in a group can experience the same events in totally different ways. Another is the idea that the moment a woman is born will determine so much of who she is allowed to become. Saints For All Occasions is in part about how a woman’s access to birth control will shape the course of her future—it shines a light on the homes for unwed mothers that were common in this country in the years between World War II and the legalization of the Pill.
Religion is also a theme—how, in ways good and bad, Catholicism shapes the lives of the people in one family, especially when it comes to sexuality. It’s a novel about motherhood and social class and the dangers of repression. It’s about what happens when someone is afraid to tell the truth, and so instead creates a lie that has lifelong repercussions.
As a novelist (and a feminist), how are you dealing with the political climate right now? Will it influence your future work?
Among other things, at a time when facts are apparently up for debate, it feels essential to write about the world as we see it, and the legacy of our shared past. I once had a young woman come up to me at a reading and say that she appreciated the fact that all my books include gay characters whose storylines aren’t simply about being gay. I hadn’t ever thought of it in those terms, but it made me happy to hear. That is a reflection of our world.
I want to read and write novels that embrace the realities of race, gender, social class, and disability. Books about families complicated by difference. Writing stories can feel frivolous at a moment like this. But stories are a path to understanding the experiences of others. (Is it any surprise that Trump—a man who stokes fear by making difference the enemy—does not read?)
Like a lot of people, I am stunned, saddened, and determined to fight. Every writer I know is wrestling with how and what to write now. This is a time to be outspoken. I believe it’s a moment we will look back on and I want to see myself standing firmly on the right side of things, speaking up. Being a writer affords me the privilege of having control over my time. Right now, that means hours each day devoted to activism—calling senators, staying informed, donating, getting the word out, remaining vigilant. I am five months pregnant, which makes our current political reality all the more horrifying. My baby will have been to so many protests by the time he’s born that he is destined to become either a total radical or Alex P. Keaton.