The Backstory: J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan

Interviewed by Ashley Ford. July 10, 2020. Loudonville, New York

Chronicles of Now: You start with a story about sisters bonding over birds, but it very quickly morphs into a story about political polarization and then you work in our own oblivion right there at the end and it’s about two pages. I’m still recovering. How did you figure out how to tell such a big story in such a concise form?

J. Courtney Sullivan: As a fiction writer, I’m always interested in how the bigger political and world events play out in the lives of everyday people. So these two sisters were kind of a perfect way of looking at the fact that we are a country divided and often that division can be seen within one family. It’s not a brand-new phenomenon by any means. But it has certainly intensified since Trump was elected, to say the least.

CON: In a time when even addressing political polarization can be seen as divisive, what made you go there?

JCS: I go there because I feel like you can’t not go there right now. It’s something that I’ve seen in my own family, in the families of a lot of people I love dearly.

When Trump was first elected, there were people in my life who were talking about never speaking to their own parents again, ending their marriages over this. I’d never seen anything like that. I think a lot of us have lived for a long time in families, and maybe also friend groups, where people have different opinions, and at certain points along the way that’s actually been a good thing. You have something to push up against, push back against.

I remember when I went to Smith College and everyone was a lefty feminist like myself. I kind of missed debating with my Neanderthal uncles a little bit. But at the same time, now it feels so much more dire than ever because there are so many things, including the climate, that need to be addressed right now. There are these issues that we cannot wait on, and yet we still have people in this country who don’t even believe that climate change is a problem. It’s terrifying.

The question of “Why must you politicize everything?” is something that really just ends up silencing what should be the conversation. But then, of course, I’m on the receiving end of the Why are you politicizing everything? question quite a bit.

CON: Is this urgency the primary reason you continued to write about this dynamic specifically in families?

JCS: I love writing about groups of people be they friends or coworkers or whatever, but when you really just want to get to the heart of the matter, I think family can be the best way to go. Families are not the group of people we choose, but the group of people that we get. It’s fascinating that people can be raised in the same way by the same people and come to a totally different view of what the world is. And certainly, the news about 3 billion missing birds that inspired this story is a perfect example. We’re seeing it again with Covid, where people in one family might say “Yes, of course that’s an issue. Of course, a pandemic is an issue. Of course, it’s sad that there’s 3 billion fewer birds.” But some of them might see that as an urgent point of a need for action, and others think, “Well that’s just how it is. Why are you politicizing it?”  

The question of “Why must you politicize everything?” is something that really just ends up silencing what should be the conversation. But then, of course, I’m on the receiving end of the Why are you politicizing everything? question quite a bit.

CON: One of the things that I love about this story is that the sisters never really did get along except for this bond over birds. And their political differences actually seem to have a lot more to do with the media Dora consumes. How much blame do you put on media for our extreme political polarization?

JCS: I’ve done a lot of soul searching about it because I want to be fair and balanced, as Fox News would say, and I actually listen to a lot of conservative talk radio and I watch Fox News, even though it’s probably going to take years off my life. I want to see what both sides are saying and what people are hearing. And certainly there have been times in the last few years when I myself have had to stop watching MSNBC because it kind of overwhelms in a similar way. But I really believe this—and not just because I am a left-leaning individual—but I truly think that Fox News has created so much damage to this culture and continues to do so.

I have conservative people in my own life whom I love, who are very smart, well-educated people, and they are still kind of reciting talking points that they hear on Fox News and it’s terrifying to me. I remember my husband’s beloved, wonderful grandfather always watching The O’Reilly Factor when he was alive, and here was this very kind man and very smart, working-class person who had really a lot of the right values in life but he thought Bill O’Reilly was kind of his friend or something and therefore believed what he said and would often be calling us from Iowa to say, “Well Bill O’Reilly says this is what’s happening in the cities and in New York.” I don’t think many people in this country are getting the full picture of what this country is and what’s happening.

CON: I’ll be honest, I’m a bird person. I specifically have a bird list of the top five birds I’m afraid of, which I’ll share with you later. But are you a fellow bird person? Like, what drew you to this story as the starting point for a work of fiction with the inclusion of these birds?

JCS: Well, it’s kind of weird. When this news story came out about 3 billion fewer birds, I was reading the comments. I was really amazed because there were so many commenters telling stories about the birds of their youth, and one detail in particular, which I think ended up in the story: “Remember when the sky would just be darkened by a flock of birds going overhead?” And I thought, No, I don’t remember that. This person is obviously much older than I am and I never saw that.

I think this idea that we can’t miss what we don’t know exists, we can’t miss what we’ve never seen, is very scary when it comes to issues of animals and the planet. The narrator was very much inspired by my husband’s grandmother who is one of my favorite people. She is 94 years old, she’s lived in Iowa all her life, and she’s so sharp and smart and has such an amazing memory. It’s astonishing to know someone who’s been alive for nearly a century and can tell you what’s different and what you didn’t even know was different.

One person commented, “Remember when the sky would just be darkened by a flock of birds going overhead?” And I thought, No, I don’t remember that. This person is obviously much older than I am and I never saw that.

When I wrote it, I was living in Brooklyn and I guess birds weren’t a huge part of my life. We’ve since moved to the Albany, New York, area, which is very green. We have so many birds in our yard so I think about birds a lot more now than I ever did before, including when I was writing this. They are quite amazing, and once you start seeing them and start seeing the variety, it makes you wonder what more there might’ve been to see.

CON: The sisters seem to have suffered a permanent rupture in this story. We don’t know if they’re ever going to talk to each other again. But don’t we need to be talking to the Doras of the world? Or are we too divided to come back together?

JCS: I guess I probably have kind of a pessimistic take on this. You know I do often see this sentiment expressed on Twitter, If you have these conservative people in your life, you must convince them. And it’s really difficult because I have those people in my life and I know, honestly, flip it around, it’s the same. If you said to my conservative uncle, “Don’t talk to Courtney anymore unless she agrees to vote for Trump,” I’m never going to. He’s never going to convince me.

So it’s really hard because I want to believe that we can talk our way to agreement, but honestly I don’t believe it. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t important conversations to be had. In my own family, there are people who are conservative but they’re young, much younger than I am, and they are reasonable. I see hope in having conversations with them because even though they identify as conservative, there’s so much common ground, and they’re not okay with what’s happening in this country.

So yes, there are conversations to be had, there’s common ground to be found, and there are a lot of people who we shouldn’t let go of or say, Forget it, we’re never going to get there. But there are also a lot of people who are fully baked and I don’t think we’re gonna get them unfortunately. Much as they will never get us. I mean, unfortunately, I think there is really a lot of division in this country and it’s gotten worse and might get worse still. I know that’s really a downer but that’s kind of how it feels to me.

CON: We like the truth. At The Chronicles, we enjoy it.

JCS: Good.

J. Courtney Sullivans new novel, Friends and Strangers, was published in June. This interview has been edited for clarity.

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