Jeff Glor talks to Courtney Sullivan about, "The Engagements."
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Courtney Sullivan: After attending many weddings over the course of several years, I was thinking a lot about why we choose the mates we do, and what happens next. I wanted to write about marriage in all its complexity and at various stages of the relationship -- a content and long-married couple, a frazzled young couple with kids, a husband and wife who have seen the passion between them vanish.
Some of the characters had been in my head for a while. I had this idea of a couple who have been married for decades, and came together in the first place because of a mutual loss. They turned into Evelyn and Gerald. And I kept thinking about paramedics -- what was it like for them to go into the homes of strangers, whose only common trait was the fact that they weren't expecting to need an ambulance that day? And so James came into being. Delphine started as an image: A beautiful French woman trashing the apartment of a man who had wronged her. Kate was essential to the story, as someone who resists the very idea of marriage.
These four main characters came together easily, but as I was writing them, I felt like someone was missing. I always thought I might include diamonds in the plot, because while the stories are all about the everyday, nitty gritty parts of marriage, diamonds represent a sort of perfection and hopefulness. And they've been a symbol of marriage for so long. I was reading a fascinating nonfiction book called "The Heartless Stone" and there was one sentence about a woman named Frances Gerety in it. It said she had written the line "A Diamond is Forever" for De Beers in 1947 and that she herself never married. I knew right away that I had to write about her.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
CS: I knew that research would be a key component because the story spans almost a century and is largely concerned with worlds unknown to me -- modern paramedics, the rare instrument business in France, advertising in the '40s and '50s, and so on. I started off by reading stacks of newspaper articles from the last hundred years to decide which major and minor cultural events would have significance for each of my characters. Then I went to the experts. What amazed me was the sheer generosity of strangers (many of whom have now become friends) who were willing to share their expertise. Anne Akiko Meyers, the wildly talented violin soloist, helped me write a convincing virtuoso. The paramedics in Cambridge, Mass., brought me on ambulance ride-alongs and answered hundreds of questions. And Frances Gerety's former co-workers and neighbors shared their recollections of her. I started off thinking the research was something to get through before the writing could begin. But in fact I loved the research aspect so much that I kept going with it right up until the end, adding bits and pieces along the way. I think I might still be researching this book if there were no such thing as a deadline.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
CS: My fantasy backup career has always been kindergarten teacher. There are definitely bad writing days or weeks when I still think about it. For a year in my early twenties, I worked as a nanny for a family with three boys under the age of 2, so I know how exhausting it can be to spend your days with young children. But I love the sheer exuberance and rich imagination that kindergarteners have. And I share their passion for snack time, art projects and naps. The only downside I can see is that teachers have to wake up so early. Novelists get to sleep in.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
CS: Last night I started "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald" by Therese Anne Fowler. It's wonderful so far. I've also been slowly re-reading George Eliot's "Middlemarch" for several weeks now.
JG: What's next for you?
CS: Eleven days after "The Engagements" is released, I'll be getting married in Maine. (This timing may not have been my finest idea ever.) A week after the wedding I will head off on a book tour of the U.S. and the U.K. After that, possibly a honeymoon! By then, I know I'll be itching to get back to my desk and start work on a new novel.
For more on the "The Engagements," visit the Random House website.