J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel, Commencement, takes place at Smith College, an all-women’s institution known for being home to the pearls and sweater-set types as well as radical lesbians. Following four unlikely friends through their years at school and beyond, the book balances the humor of ladies college life and the drama of post-grad confusion. It’s a delectable page turner, but, more importantly, touches on many issues that twenty-something women face today. We asked Sullivan about Commencement and what women can learn from being young and being together.The Frisky: Having attended Smith, an all-women’s college, and written about the place, what would you say are the benefits of existing in a strictly female environment?
J. Courtney Sullivan: Well, there’s of course a whole body of research showing that women can thrive in a single-sex environment—they raise their hands more and are more vocal in the classroom. However, I think most of us at Smith were pretty strong-willed to begin with. We’d shout out our thoughts anyway! But, there’s something really incredible about having a chunk of your life devoted to women. It does something amazing to you—both academically and socially.
The Frisky: So what were the drawbacks, then?
Sullivan: It could sometimes feel like the equivalent of being at an all-girls camp. We interacted with men so rarely that it wasn’t natural. You know, you’d be five days a week in pajamas and the other two days a week busting out tube tops [to go to parties on the weekends with guys from other colleges].
The Frisky: OK, but on the whole, attending an all-women’s college has some pretty awesome perks. Where can we look to find these environments if we missed the opportunity to go to a Smith or Mt. Holyoke?
Sullivan: You can get that women’s college sense without college … to find places with just women. I’d recommend looking into volunteer work. I met a lot of like-minded women through volunteering in a domestic violence shelter. I’d also look into meet-ups—writing classes are usually 80 percent women.
The Frisky: Did you find it awkward at all to transition from Smith to “the real world”? You know, the one with men in it?
Sullivan: Most of my close friends have been women, but in high school I had male friends. It was definitely something to come to NYC, and see men for the first time in a while as friends again, and something else besides dating material. I think, though, I had a particular situation where I graduated from a place that was one women’s extreme, and went directly into the opposite extreme, working for a women’s magazine. I remember the day before my first day at work, and literally crying on the phone to my mom, “I cannot wear high heels!”
The Frisky: I don’t blame you. Having gone to Smith as well, I followed the same professional path as you after graduation. I did the heels thing for a while, but generally gave up.
Sullivan: Oh I totally found the answer though … I have these Nike Air Cole Haan heels that are amazing.
The Frisky: I am so buying those the second we finish this interview.
The Frisky: OK, on to more serious stuff. There’s no denying that post-graduation life is scary. For the four main characters in Commencement, especially Celia, the one who has a bit of a drinking and one-night stand problem, this issue of self-definition becomes so important, and plaguing at times. Why do you think that twenty-something women tend to struggle so much and get lost during this period in our lives—especially considering how feminism has never been stronger and women have more opportunity than ever?
Sullivan: It’s true: women have this tremendous gift now of having so many choices. But it’s the not knowing how to get there that’s tough. If you want to be a teacher or a dentist, then you might have a very prescribed path. But for most of us, we don’t know what our paths are, and it’s particularly true for this demographic. I’ve been thinking about “choices” lately. I attended panel of feminists that included Gloria Feldt and they were talking about how young women complain about choices. She said, “We never said choice was the panacea. We said choice was the baseline, the basic right.” We never said choice was going to solve all our problems. Having choices doesn’t make life easy.
The Frisky: That said, what is the best thing about being a young woman and coming of age at this time?
Sullivan: Well, it is an amazing liberating moment because you can do just about anything. The twenties are so full of possibility and change and excitement. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety when you’re constantly wondering … Where will I land? Who will I be with? What will be my career? Looking back, you’ll see that it was actually a lot of fun. These things that you’ve never done before—whether it’s moving out of one apartment and into a new one, or having to put out mousetraps or something kind of awful—strengthens you to do the next thing. If you can learn to quiet those inner voices a bit, then women have this whole decade to themselves, and it’s great.
We’re giving away five copies of the book! We’ll pick our five favorite commenters on this post and send them a copy of this fantastic novel!
You can also buy Commencement on Amazon.com.