Milton family stands as model for young novelist

Courtney Sullivan was recently back in Milton to visit family. Courtney Sullivan was recently back in Milton to visit family. (Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2011

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When word got out that the family’s novelist was writing a second book, about a close but quarrelsome Greater Boston Irish family, J. Courtney Sullivan’s relatives faced the prospect head on.

At a get-together dinner following the publication of the Milton native’s well-received debut novel “Commencement,’’ members of Sullivan’s extended family took turns saying how proud they were of her achievement.

Then an uncle stood up to observe, “Of course, we have to get this all out now: Next year none of us will be speaking to you.’’

The young (age 29) novelist does come from a close family, Irish on both sides, with similarities to the Boston-Irish family whose struggles with one another motivate her new novel, “Maine.’’ But Sullivan’s relatives can relax and take the new book along with them on their sun and sand vacations. The Kellehers of “Maine’’ are not the Sullivans of Milton.

The title of the new book - near the top of the Globe’s best-seller list for a month and number 12 July 31 on The New York Times list - refers to a hidden stretch of shoreline where three generations of Kellehers have gone for their summer retreats with varying degrees of togetherness and avoidance. But just like real people, the Kellehers don’t escape their troubles in their summer Shangri-La; they bring their world with them. During the piece of one summer the novel richly chronicles, new troubles and old issues bubble to the surface, decisions are made (some good, some questionable), some wisdom is gained, and some gifts of the spirit are offered to people who can’t quite grasp them.

Reviewers have enjoyed their trip.

“Ah, family,’’ writes Lily King in The New York Times Book Review. “Isn’t it satisfying to leave your own briefly behind to drop in on another - and see how thoroughly they bungle it all up?. . . You want to stay with the Kellehers straight through to the end of August, until the sand cools, the sailboats disappear from their moorings, and every last secret has been pried up.’’

“Everyone has dark secrets,’’ observes Kirkus Reviews. “It’s why God invented confession and booze. . . . Sullivan spins a leisurely yarn that looks into why people do the things they do . . . and why the best-laid plans are always the ones the devil monkeys with the most thoroughly.’’

The author’s family doesn’t own a beach house. But a novelist, as Sullivan points out, uses everything that life offers. The family of a friend does own a beach house, and so the physical aspects of their vacation home ended up informing the architectural details of her book’s fictional summer place.

But none of the book’s dramatis personae bears a one-to-one correspondence to her relatives (or anyone else’s), Sullivan said. Alice, an 80-something grandmother, carries an old grief and a sharp tongue through a lonely, though occasionally lively widowhood. Her feisty daughter Kathleen has chosen independence from her family in a crunchy lifestyle 3,000 miles away. Kathleen’s daughter Maggie, a writer who lives in Brooklyn - like Sullivan herself (“but she’s not me’’) - is brave and smart except when it comes to dealing with her preppy boyfriend. And in-law Ann Marie, wife of Alice’s rich, conventional son, expresses her need for perfection in the creation of the perfect dollhouse.

But while the author’s family did not sit for character portraits for the book’s central figures, pieces of old family stories find their way into “Maine.’’

“When you write fiction you’re like a bird making a nest,’’ Sullivan said recently. The writer gathers useful bits from here and there. “You remember every little story ever told you. It’s funny how things come back to you.’’

Her godfather told a story of shaving off a friend’s eyebrow as a practical joke while the man slept off a drinking bout. In “Maine,’’ a character cast as a prankster performs that operation on an inebriated friend in the Navy.

Another twig in the nest derives from her family’s desire to preserve the stories of earlier generations. According to family lore, a great-grandfather the author never met had a habit of commenting on short skirt lengths by remarking, “Your knees should have a party and invite your skirt down.’’ This remarkable piece of linguistic folk art makes its way into “Maine,’’ given to a representative of an earlier generation.

Family memory, reminiscence, and insight play a role in the novelist’s own back story, Sullivan said.

“It’s true of Irish Catholic families,’’ she said. “They’re big on story telling and big on saving stories from one generation to the next.’’

Sullivan’s development into a successful writer does not come as a surprise to her parents. She was writing stories at age 5, her mother, Joyce Gallagher, said. In middle school she created a “teen magazine’’ with a couple of classmates. Assigned to babysitting duty for her a sister nine years her junior, she organized a summer theater in her home for the neighborhood children, producing her own version of “Winnie the Pooh’’ for an audience of youngsters and their parents.

Gallagher pointed to some other influences. As the first grandchild on both sides of the family, Courtney received a lot of “special adult attention.’’ Recalling an incident that captures the spirit of Courtney’s “little pitchers have big ears’’ childhood - the precocious little girl soaking up the talk at family gatherings - she tells the story of a Thanksgiving dinner with her father’s relatives, almost all of them lawyers. While talking of cases and judges, one asked whether a particular point needed to be explained.

“Oh, come on,’’ piped up Courtney, who was about 7 at the time, “we’re all lawyers here.’’

A surprised silence ensued; then everybody started laughing.

Both her parents’ families have Irish ancestry from a milieu in which first-generation immigrants met their marriage partners on Sunday strolls at Castle Island. Both families drove through Milton on the way to South Shore destinations - the Gallaghers from Hyde Park, the Sullivans from Brookline - and thought, “Oh, what a beautiful place.’’

Courtney Sullivan grew up in one of those beautiful places, an East Milton neighborhood near Cunningham Park. She recalls having “a wonderful time’’ there and traveling “in a pack’’ of seven Garden Street girls born within a year of one another. They’re still good friends, she said. “We just pick up where we left off.’’

After attending elementary and middle schools in Milton, she went to Boston University Academy, where students can earn college credits while still in high school, then studied literature at Smith College, the setting for “Commencement,’’ a story about the friendship of four college classmates.

After college, Sullivan moved to New York City and worked for magazine publisher Conde Nast. Writing for magazines “taught me so much about doing this for real,’’ Sullivan says. “The more writing you can do, the better.’’

Through a contact at The Atlantic Monthly, where she interned when the magazine was still in Boston, she found a literary agent who placed “Commencement’’ with prestigious publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Book tours followed.

Sullivan was coming back from a tour date for “Maine’’ in Washington, D.C., late last month when her train developed problems and was delayed. Another breakdown on a train from New York, where she lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood with her boyfriend, complicated her trip back to Milton.

But while her life is “insane’’ these days, Sullivan said, the visit home was worth the trip - and full of local color.

“On Saturday night, we celebrated my mother’s birthday with a barbecue (and cake from Montilio’s bakery!) at a cousin’s house on the beach in Quincy,’’ she reported by e-mail. “And then on Sunday, we celebrated my young cousin’s birthday with the other side of the family, at yet another cookout, this time in Wellesley. There were about 25 relatives there.’’

Her next book, the novelist said, will focus on marriages. You can’t help wondering whether those family cookouts may have yielded some stories or an arresting detail for the timely digestion of the writer’s imagination.

Robert Knox can be reached at