J. Courtney Sullivan Returns to Boston with Saints for All Occasions

The Milton native, author of Commencement and Maine, finds ample inspiration in New England stories.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan. / Courtesy Photo

Author J. Courtney Sullivan may live in New York, but in her fiction, she’s traveled frequently to New England, from her first novel, Commencement, which followed four Smith students as they figured out their lives post-college, right up to her latest, Saints for All Occasions. The book, which came out on May 9, tells the story of an Irish immigrant family living in the Boston area. Sisters Nora and Theresa come to America as young adults in search of better options than their small town in Ireland offers.

What they find over the decades of their lives is the same mix of opportunity, love, and tragedy that most Americans experience. The book also explores issues of faith, family bonds, and a sense of home through the shifting perspectives of the sisters and their various family members.

The Milton native doesn’t have a magical answer to what keeps drawing her back for story material, but admits to a certain lingering fondness for her home state. “I still think of myself as a Bostonian. I didn’t even get rid of my Massachusetts driver’s license until two years ago,” Sullivan says. But it’s not just some sense of nostalgia that draws her. “There’s something so rich and so evocative about the places and the people there that to me it’s just a natural place to go in my writing.”

The story of Irish immigrants in America may be one we’ve heard before, but to Sullivan, it’s just the story of her life. “For me, growing up in Milton, almost everyone I knew was Irish Catholic. I grew up in this very Irish Catholic neighborhood, where we gather on summer nights and people would be singing Irish songs,” she explains.

That base proved to be a good source of inspiration for the book. “What was great with this book was I actually interviewed quite a few people, mostly grandparents of friends of mine who I’ve known all my life,” Sullivan says. Many of those interviews were with women, who, like Nora and Theresa, came to America in the ’50s while still very young. And despite the fact that Sullivan had known these people her whole life, these stories were often ones she’d never heard before: “I think a lot of people, especially in that generation, didn’t really talk about it, or they had really bittersweet feelings about it.”

Catholicism naturally ends up playing a big role in the choices Nora and Theresa make throughout the book, which also came out of Sullivan’s conversation with friends and family. “I think the complexity of everyone’s different relationships with the church in the book absolutely reflects the experiences of people I know,” she says. “Within the family in the book and within the lives of real Catholic families I know, there is a whole range of experiences with their faith, ranging from ‘My faith completed saved me’ to ‘I have no trust in this church at all.’”

And like any good Irish tale, there’s plenty of humor to balance out the heavier subject matter throughout the book, whether in the lived-in sibling dynamics between Nora’s adult children, or in the familiarity Bostonians will find in some of the places portrayed. Eldest son Patrick’s dive bar will seem like it was transported straight out of Southie (no, he’s not “a Southie”), as will the antics of the locals hanging out there.

“Those places are so familiar to me,” says Sullivan, right down to the reaction someone in the book gets to trying to order that fanciest of beers, a Blue Moon.

“I was in a bar in Dorchester with some of my girlfriends from growing up, and they had a Blue Moon on the menu, so I ordered it, and the bartender was just so full of scorn that I was ordering a Blue Moon. You would’ve thought I was ordering a glass of champagne, and her exact words to me were, ‘I’m not putting a fucking orange in it.’”

That particular bit of eloquence makes it into the book, but Sullivan wants to clear the air regarding exactly what happened in real life: “For the record, I did not ask for the orange.”

Sullivan will be speaking at Harvard Book Store Saturday, May 13 at 2 p.m. For more details, visit harvard.com.