J Courtney Sullivan Talks To Bookbag About Eavesdropping

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J Courtney Sullivan Talks To Bookbag About Eavesdropping

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Summary: Sue loved The Engagements by J Courtney Sullivan and she was fascinated when the author popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us about Eavesdropping.
Date: 13 January 2014

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External links: Author's website



When I was six or seven years old, I developed a habit. Every Sunday night, my extended family would gather for dinner at my grandfather’s house. I was the only child back then. At a certain point, after the meal was over and everyone had had a drink or two, I would slip under the table unnoticed and listen. I started writing short stories around the same time, all of them in some way connected to what I heard.

We tend to think that for children, adult conversations are just background noise, but for me this couldn’t have been further from the truth. I studied everyone’s words: my friends’ parents, women at the salon where my mother got her hair cut. Yes, I knew eavesdropping was technically wrong, but it brought me more pleasure than most any other activity. I listened and later I wrote, the two always intertwined. I loved hearing what people said to one another when they thought no one was paying attention. This, after all, is the fiction writer’s constant preoccupation: What do the things we say—and the things we choose to leave unsaid—reveal about us?

In high school, I found it torturous to sit through Latin class, or Math. But when the Latin and Math teachers stood by the faculty lounge chatting about their weekends, I was captivated. To this day, eavesdropping is my favorite occupation. I live in New York, where a subway ride provides endless entertainment for someone like me. (There is a downside when you’re this attuned to what everyone’s saying—you can’t shut it out. It’s impossible for me to read or write in a coffee shop or on the train.)

A typical Saturday night: My husband and I are out to dinner at a nice restaurant. He’s midway through a story and I’m nodding along. He sighs and whispers, “You’re listening to the people at the next table, aren’t you?” After five years together, he is used to it, and even okay with it, provided I give him the full report later.

Now that I have published three novels, I can officially refer to my bad habit as research. My books are full of dialogue, strengthened, I’d argue, by a lifetime of listening in. My second novel, MAINE, centers on a tragic love story. It is based on true events, which I heard about when one counselor told them to another at a summer camp I attended when I was eight. This too seems to be a trait common to novelists—we collect the best moments, conversations, stories and sometimes hold onto them for years or even decades before using them in our work.

To the writers out there, if you’re starved for ideas, just listen. To everyone else, speak softly—you never know when one of us is near.

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