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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Maggie Shipstead & J. Courtney Sullivan in Conversation

Maggie Shipstead & J. Courtney Sullivan

Shipstead poses with her novel

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a fascinating conversation between J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine and Maggie Shipstead, author of Seating Arrangements at Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side in Manhattan.

Sullivan began, reading from her novel about four women from one family who meet up at the family summer home in Maine. She read the scene where young, unmarried and pregnant Maggie arrives with her friend instead of her boyfriend, much to the consternation of her grandmother.

Shipstead read from chapter two of her book, where her protagonist, middle-aged Winn, remembers how his daughter Daphne, who is pregnant and getting married this weekend, wanted him to tell her she was  "his princess" when she was a young child. He was truly unable to understand his daughter.

I read the first two chapters of Seating Arrangements while waiting, and I was struck by how well-crafted her sentences were. I asked her if she did extensive rewrites to get that, but they just come to her that way.

There are some fantastic WASP-y names in her novel (Biddy, Greyson, Sterling) set on an island off Cape Cod, and Shipstead said she got them from a trophy room in a Rhode Island resort. They were on lawn bowling trophies from the 1950s.

There was discussion about a topic that has come up recently- unlikable characters. Maine has Alice, the matriarch of the family who has no qualms about saying whatever she is thinking, no matter whom it hurts. Sullivan was slightly taken aback by the many comments from reviewers and readers who didn't like Alice. I did wonder though if older women identified with Alice or if they disliked her as well.

She has great affection for Ann Marie, the dutiful daughter-in-law in the novel. I have to agree, I liked Ann Marie best, her journey in the novel was moving, and I think many people would identify with her.

Winn in Seating Arrangements is also a somewhat unlikeable character. Sullivan mentioned that Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles wrote that he loved Winn, which brought a chuckle from the crowd. Shipstead said that Winn "obeys a set or rules that he came up with and follows them."

I don't dislike it when there are unlikable characters in a novel; to me, it is better to be unlikable than boring. If I'm reading a book and the characters are just plain uninteresting, I lose interest in the book. But give me a complicated, flawed character who is interesting, and I'm buying into the novel.   I mean, Walter White from TV's Breaking Bad and Don Draper from Mad Men are not nice guys, but you can't take your eyes off them when they are on screen.

Sullivan also gave a shout-out to author Maile Meloy, who wrote two brilliant books I read a few years ago, Liars & Saints and A Family Daughter, and I almost jumped out of my seat when she mentioned her, thereby making my geekiness official. I loved those books and I was so excited to hear Sullivan give Meloy props.

Maine is now in paperback, and my review of Seating Arrangements will be in the Citizen and online at auburnpub.com on August 12th. I'll post the link when it is live.


  1. Sounds like an interesting night - I just read Seating Arrangements and really liked it. The writing is excellent and the characters complex. I agree that Winn is fairly unlikeable but I also found myself taking pity on him.

    I have heard Courtney speak twice - once last year when Maine fist published and a few weeks ago with author Ann Napolitano - both times she was great.

    1. I liked Seating Arrangements too, but I'm not sure how I feel about Winn. I have to think about it a little bit.
      I too have heard Courtney twice and find her to be a very interesting person. They touched on a lot of great topics that evening.