J. Courtney Sullivan wandered the streets of Paris, rode along with EMT crews in Cambridge, Mass. and sampled martinis at the Merion Golf Club—all in the name of research for her new novel. The Engagements, which Kirkus starred, is a book that spans decades and brings together the stories of men and women from Philadelphia to Paris, all in search of love, connection and maybe a diamond ring. Creating the constellation of characters who inhabit The Engagements was, needless to say, a complex process.
Sullivan’s first two novels, Commencement and Maine, were both drawn heavily from her own experiences. She felt “very confident” writing them, she says. She attended Smith College, where Commencement is set, for example. She also knows what it’s like “for an Irish Catholic family from Massachusetts who goes to Maine every summer,” the setting of her second novel. “I’ve walked these streets. I know these buildings. I’m comfortable.” But when she started writing The Engagements, she realized she would have to create her characters from whole cloth: “Both the interior and the external worlds of these characters are very much unknown to me.
“I started off wanting to write a book about marriage,” says Sullivan, who was married earlier this summer. “I just was very curious about why we choose the person we do, and what happens next, and how much of it can be predicted right at the altar and how much of it is due to what happens to us as our lives progress.” But as she began dreaming up the four relationships to be explored in The Engagements, says Sullivan, “I just felt like someone was missing.”
Sullivan knew the book would feature diamonds. Marriage as an institution has changed significantly over the last century, but “diamonds have remained a constant since the 1930’s,” Sullivan points out. In the course of her research, she began to read Tom Zoellner’s The Heartless Stone. In a section about N. W. Ayers, the firm that created diamond advertisements for De Beers Consolidated Mines from the 1930s to 1995, Sullivan came across one sentence that changed her novel. Zoellner discloses in the book that the slogan “a diamond is forever” was written by Frances Gerety. He also reveals that Gerety never married. “I read that, and I underlined it,” Sullivan says, “and I wrote in the margins, ‘She is the missing link!’”
Sullivan’s research into even the smallest detail of her characters’ lives was extensive. To create Delphine, a fictional Parisian who moves to Manhattan for love, Sullivan interviewed expats in New York, including one woman who carts suitcases of French beauty products back from Paris whenever she visits home. Sullivan went to Paris, hired a tour guide and walked Delphine’s neighborhood for 12 hours a day, deciding where Delphine would live, what house she had grown up in and where she would shop for groceries. “I wanted to make sure that nothing was cliché,” says Sullivan.
To research James, a Massachusetts EMT, Sullivan rode along in ambulances around Cambridge, noting the way the medics spoke to their patients “to get a flavor of how the conversations go,” then later e-mailing them “many, many times.” She listened to the music of musician Anne Akiko Meyers while writing the chapters about P.J., a violin virtuoso; then she contacted Meyers, who agreed not only to talk about her life, but to “read all the pages and fix my mistakes.” Meyers and Sullivan are not good friends.
To find the perfect diamond ring to feature in the novel, Sullivan, her editor and her agent searched online for an entire day. “I finally did find the one,” says Sullivan, “and I saved that picture to my desktop.”
Creating a fictional character based on a real person, however, was a challenge. “As soon as I read about Frances, I went digging,” says Sullivan. But information wasn’t readily available about Gerety, who died in 1999: “She didn’t marry, she never had children…there wasn’t a lot to find.” Sullivan interviewed some of Gerety’s former co-workers, gathering their recollections. “But would any one of us want to be written as a composite of 10 people we worked with?” Sullivan laughs.
“I really became kind of obsessed with her,” acknowledges Sullivan, who visited Gerety’s former home and even spent time at the Merion Golf Club, where Gerety was one of the first single female members and enjoyed drinking martinis and playing bridge. In fact, one of the most glorious scenes in the novel—an elderly Gerety realizes she has no beautiful clothes to take on a London trip and her Merion Club friends (mostly the wives of N. W. Ayers execs) arrive with armfuls of couture and jewels to lend—is based in truth.
Sullivan took care as she wrote Gerety’s chapters. “I asked other novelists who had written about real people, ‘What did you feel your responsibility to this person was?’” And as Sullivan typed, Gerety bloomed to life: “She was a very proud woman, very private…and she wanted recognition for her work.” Sullivan feels that her portrait of Gerety “honors her, and isn’t exploitative in any way.”
Reese Witherspoon agrees; she has optioned The Engagements. And while all the characters in The Engagements are carefully realized, Sullivan confides, “The more I wrote about Frances, the more I kind of fell in love with her.”
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of a short story collection and four novels, most recently Close Your Eyes, which was named one of Kirkus’ Best Books of 2011 and Elle’s Book of the Year.